How to keep a homebody kid occupied

February 28, 2012

Q. I have four children, ages 7 to 20, and I’m struggling with the youngest.

Our other kids have always been very active, but this child is so easygoing that he flies under the radar in our busy household. He likes school well enough. He is a happy homebody. And when he plays Club Penguin and watches PBS Kids, which he often does, I find that a couple of hours have gone by before I realize what he’s doing.

None of the boys his age are on his wavelength, however. When one of them comes to our house for a play date, my son keeps asking me what they should do, but he has great fun playing with a wild girl who comes over several times a week. Even though she is a bit naughty and a tad rude, they play really well together.

And yet my son won’t take part in any organized activity. He doesn’t like sports even if they’re suggested by us or by a sibling, and when we sent him to camp last summer, he simply walked along with his 16-year-old brother, who was a counselor, rather than hang out with his peers.

We would love for him to learn how to ride a bike, but he won’t give it a second try, and he has only gone into the water twice at his winter swimming class. I don’t know if my son is too anxious to learn something new or too stubborn to try, but when he says that he won’t do something, no one can change his mind.


(Hadley Hooper/for The Washington Post)

Although he rejects all sports, he does seem somewhat musical, so we gave him short weekly piano lessons with a wonderful teacher. He soon lost interest, however, and now he won’t practice at all.

There’s no point in signing my son up for expensive classes or for a camp this summer, but how can I keep him occupied? What can I do to get him to try something new? And what do we do with him in the meantime? Should I just hire a really boring babysitter to stay home with him?

A. You may want your son to be like you, but you can’t change him into someone he’s not.

Temperaments are probably fixed before we are born, but they can vary widely in a family. The number of temperaments out there can vary, too. It all depends on who does the counting. Carl Jung, the psychologist, said that there are 16 different temperaments, the Sufis put the number at nine, the early Greeks said there were four and psychoanalyst Karen Horney went for three.

Horney, who rose to prominence in the 1930s, also said that people can become neurotic if their temperaments are changed. That may or may not be true, but this much is certain: Your child needs to know that you love him and accept him just as he is. Fortunately, you have good reason to give him as much love as he needs. Although many 7-year-olds feel quite sorry for themselves, your son is a happy boy. He may not like sports, but he does like school and PBS Kids and Club Penguin. He may not make friends with boys his own age, but he has a great time with that wild little girl who comes to your house every week.

To keep him occupied this summer, start encouraging him to do what he does best and not what you want him to do better.

You also should learn to read his cues more accurately. His behavior tells you that he doesn’t like to be regimented or to take classes, that he isn’t very competitive, and that he likes the silliness that his wild friend puts into his life but needs some peace and quiet even more. This is how he recharges his emotional batteries.

Your son can get what he needs if you offer easygoing, free-spirited activities, such as puppet theaters and movies now and sailing when he’s older. Avoid teams and classes for a while. Seven is pretty young for them anyway.

You might also invite him to cook or garden with you, if you enjoy these activities too, and ask him to take pictures when the family is playing golf or soccer. Even if he doesn’t take good photographs, he’ll get some exercise, which every child needs every day.

Whatever you do, make sure that you take your son to the library at least once a week. As soon as he becomes a good reader, he’ll dive into chapter books while the rest of you are diving into the pool, all because his drummer is tapping out soft and mellow tunes while the rest of you are listening to hard rock.

Questions? Send them to advice@margueritekelly.com.

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