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Seeking boredom on a 3,000 mile roadtrip

(Antonia Malchik)
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Last July my kids and I drove from our house in New York to my hometown in Montana. My one rule: no screens. John, 6, and Alex, 3, sat in their booster seats for more than 3,000 miles, wedged among blankets, stuffed animals, coloring and picture books, lap desks, snacks, crayon boxes, and brand-new oversized sketchbooks. No iPad, no Kindle, no video players.

I don’t really know what possessed me. I’m not a great long-distance driver, and Alex’s favorite pastime was torturing her brother. Why would I subject us to two weeks in the car with no real distraction?

Because I wanted them to get good and bored.

Boredom is a difficult space for a parent like me to navigate. I was born in 1976 and grew up without computers or Internet or cable. My family didn’t even get a telephone until I was 9. Boredom layered my Montana childhood: Being dragged out to cross-country ski, staring up at the sky on long summer afternoons, excruciating car trips such as the regular four hours of nothingness when we drove to visit my grandparents. In recent years, psychologists, psychoanalysts, and other researchers have begun to uncover the crucial role boredom plays in creative and cognitive development, and kids can’t get truly, deeply bored with entertainment always on tap. As an adult I can see how childhood boredom gave me the ability to step back and make considered decisions, at least a little detached from what feels best at the moment, but how can I give that experience to kids who can barely turn around without their eyes catching a screen?

For me, there’s also the issue of my son’s susceptibility to screen addiction. John is active, energetic, loves to ride his bike and assemble Legos and play with friends. But he also has regular meltdowns when I won’t extend his game or video time. He’s hit his Kindle when Angry Birds wasn’t going his way, screamed at it and even thrown it once. On days when we’re out hiking or sledding or riding bikes and we come home too late for the kids to have any screen time, he’s likely to have a tantrum.

My kids would have been much better off with the kind of intensely boring childhood I was privileged to have.

But I’m not an idiot. I know I can’t simply remove all screen-fed entertainment from John’s life and expect the problem to go away. It would just rear its ugly head later, maybe at friends’ houses where I wouldn’t know what he was doing. So I go for the next best thing, which is to make him aware of how the Kindle and TV affect his behavior. I want him to understand what it means to be addicted to something. To do that requires building resilience against the lure of constant entertainment, to be okay with boredom. Enter the road trip.

We never got to that point. Even I was surprised by how well they adapted to the screen-free hours in the car. John took to drawing intricate pictures with hilarious narrative explanations. Alex tried to copy him, and then got bored and threw her stuffed dogs at him. He threw his stuffed Angry Birds back. They giggled and fought and stared out the windows a lot. And it wasn’t just them—I was noticeably more relaxed and calmer without constant access to Facebook; FOMO (“fear of missing out”) faded away and I got to pay attention to everything else I’d been missing out on.

South Dakota was hot, but it also has the Badlands, which they’ll remember instead of Caillou; they know that Illinois is where we passed wind farms and corn farms, not where they were playing Minecraft; that Billings, Montana, stinks of oil refinery and has approximately a million coal trains but it was also where—we only saw it because we were paying attention—we passed a train of open freight cars, each carrying a massive windmill blade.

Instead of memories of a crazy long car trip where they escaped the dullness in videos and games, they’ll have memories of a crazy long car trip where they formed a more complex relationship with each other and with me. They got a sense of the country, its vastness and variety, its future and past, and a sense of themselves at the same time, what their minds are capable of when allowed to roam in the deceptive bleakness of boredom. The perfect road trip.

Antonia Malchik has written about education, parenting, identity, environment, and travel for The AtlanticOrionPaste, and Brain, Child, among many other publications. She is a regular essay contributor to Full Grown People. 

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