Why I want my sons to get bored

My five-year-old son adores videogames.  He’s a whiz at every challenge on PBSKids.com, and he loves the racing game on my husband’s phone, where he drives a virtual car around the track with a gusto that makes me dread his teenage years.   We normally place strict limits on his screen time, but there are a few occasions when we just let go and let him game.

Take, for instance, when we are traveling.  A cross-country flight is undoubtedly easier when Matthew has technology on his lap.  And though he normally isn’t allowed to use the phone in the car, our summer road trip to Santa Barbara will no doubt give him another chance to polish his armchair racing skills.

I’m starting to rethink this policy, though.  Yes, I’d rather hear the chirpy soundtrack of Angry Birds than the relentless whine of “Are we almost there?”  But when we let him disappear into the isolated bubble of a videogame, what’s the message we are sending to him, and to Luke in the next car seat?  When Luke is older, will he too be lost in his own virtual world?  With this constant on-the-road entertainment, are my boys missing out on a valuable life skill – namely, how to deal with boredom?

Back in my day, a time before handheld video devices revolutionized the family vacation, I was an expert in being bored.  As a child, I spent many long hours in the backseat with my older sister, traveling down the 101 to Grandma’s house.  And in the days before portable videogames, the trip followed a rather predictable pattern.  It’s one that is surely recognizable to you, too, if you grew up without Gameboys or smartphones.  It goes something like this:

It’s two hours into the trip.  You and your sister have already played with your stuffed bears and colored multiple pages in your coloring books.  You’re bored, and tensions are brewing.  Then, out of nowhere, she pokes you.  Or maybe you poked her; as with most wars, it’s hard to remember exactly how it began.  An imaginary line is soon drawn down the center of the backseat.  That should be enough to stave off further conflict, but it’s only a matter of time before one of you, prompted by some perverse little devil, sticks a finger into enemy territory.

A fight ensues.  Mom turns around, frowning.  Dad utters the only words that have any power in a conflict of this magnitude: “Do you want me to pull over?”  Of course you don’t. A mutinous silence settles over the backseat.  You both look out the windows, angry and sullen, for several miles.

Ultimately, though, it was boredom that got you into your squabble, and it’s boredom that will get you out of it.  After all, you’re trapped in the backseat for three more hours.  The only way you can defeat the monotony is to call a truce and join forces.

So you play the alphabet challenge, where you compete to see who will be first to find all of the letters, in order.  Silence descends as you eagerly scan the road signs flying by.   You learn that EXIT signs and pizza parlors are crucial in this endeavor, and that success comes from keeping your eyes open.  It’s equally true, though, that success comes from pure luck.   After all, it was sheer chance that put the license plate 4AQF129 on your sister’s side of the car just after she had found P.  But though you may complain good-naturedly about her win, you honor it, and play fair.

When the alphabet game has lost its charm, you get even more creative.  Together you take your stuffed bears and choreograph a song-and-dance number.  “We are brothers, yes we are, big brother, little brother, cha-cha-cha,” the bears sing, and though the tune won’t win any awards, it makes Mom applaud from the front seat, and it reaffirms that yes, your sister actually is kind of cool. And three decades later, when you are writing about roadtrips on your laptop, you think about the lyrics, and you find yourself smiling.

Because they aren’t just silly words; they’re a time machine winging you back to that afternoon when your creativity took off. It was an afternoon where you were pulled into the wasteland of boredom and learned that you could, with ingenuity and will, push through and emerge on the other side.  You’ve written a song, found an alphabet, and learned diplomacy, all without taking your seatbelt off.  And you’ve uncovered a crucial life lesson, one that every kid should have a chance to learn: in the staring contest between boredom and your wildest imagination, boredom always blinks first.

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