Busy kids need to learn how to loaf

May 23, 1994|By Kenton Robinson | Kenton Robinson,The Hartford Courant

Ever since Aesop, idleness has had a bad rap. The grasshopper who fiddles while the ant toils starves in the end.

Open any thesaurus and you will find that virtually every synonym for the idler is pejorative: He is a loafer, a lounger, a sloth and a sluggard, a goof-off, a do-nothing, a ne'er-do-well.

But how grim would be society if we all lived as ants do. How still would be the summer meadow if the grasshoppers dropped their bows.

And how sad is the child whose parents never let him learn the skill of being idle.

Parents who stuff their children's summers with T-ball, day camps and dance lessons are doing them no favors. Certainly, if you work, you have to arrange for your child to have some things to do this summer. But even these children need some idle time.

Indeed, psychologists will tell you, parents may be depriving their children of the chance to develop what Robert Louis Stevenson called "the faculty for idleness."

All fall, winter, spring, children go to school to learn the lessons of numbers and letters and of sitting up straight in a hard chair. Summer is the season for another kind of lesson, one that can only be self-taught.

From idleness a child can learn how to stretch and relax, how to amuse himself and how to enjoy the small, sweet joys of life; the grasshopper's chirping song, for example.

He can learn to reflect, to look inside himself, and to discover who -- apart from the crowd -- he is.

You want to be a good parent, to give your child every opportunity to discover and develop every one of his or her latent talents, whether they be in art or literature, music or sport.

"Some parents think that the more of these things you get them signed up for, the better parents you are, and that's not necessarily true," says Louise Bates Ames of the Gesell Institute Human Development in New Haven, Conn.

"You know that old line: 'Where did you go?' 'Out.' 'What did you do?' 'Nothing.' There should be more children who could just say 'I went out, and I didn't do anything.' They don't have to be occupied every single minute of the day. They have to have some time for reflection, just walking around and thinking about things."

But Ms. Ames, who has studied childhood development for more than 60 years, says many parents today, driven by their own personal demons, drive their children, too.

"I think parents do as much as they do for two reasons. One is they feel guilty, especially if they're working parents. A second reason is that a lot of people don't believe in nature. They don't really believe that children can develop without a great deal of help from them."

And then "there are always the people, always have been, always will be, who think they can speed things up if they get in there and get their little paws on the kid."

These are usually the same people who exhibit what might be called the genius syndrome, as in "My kid's a genius because he could . . . when he was only . . . years old."

About them Ms. Ames simply says: "Sometimes, the less secure you are about your own intellectual activities and your own success in life, the more you push your children."

On the other hand, "parents who believe in giving their children a great deal of freedom tend to have creative children," writes Teresa Amabile in her book, "Growing Up Creative."

When Ms. Amabile, a professor of psychology at Brandeis University, was researching her book, she interviewed a number of creative people. One of them was novelist John Irving.

"He told me he was grateful that he was not scheduled into endless lessons and camps and that sort of thing," she says. "And that he was allowed to sit for long periods of time in his room. To the outside world, it looked like he was just sitting there staring out the window, but what he did during those times was to make up stories.

"And that was, in fact, his favorite thing to do when he was a kid. He would tell these stories to his friends when they were walking to school."

Ms. Amabile, who has devoted much of her career to studying creativity in children and adults, says Mr. Irving's experience illustrates the importance of giving children free time.

"It is important for children to have time that isn't scheduled up," she says. "Children, and adults, will be most creative when they're doing something that they enjoy, that they care about, that they find involving, and interesting and satisfying and personally challenging. And they will be less creative if they feel they are doing something under duress, under constraint, simply because they have to do it.

"I have a serious concern that when children are scheduled into a number of sequential activities, and they have very little time on their own, they may begin to feel controlled by their schedule and begin to feel that those activities are no longer fun, are no longer interesting to them."

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