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Debunking the Belief That Downtime Is a Waste of Time

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Think back to your own childhood. Do you remember lying on your back outdoors, looking for creatures in the clouds? Playing outside with friends and having the freedom to choose whatever game you wanted to play, or whatever drama you wanted to enact? Being alone in your bedroom, curled up on the bed and reading a beloved book, or quietly acting out a story with your dolls, action figures, or stuffed animals?

I remember all of those things. But today’s children won’t have such memories, because they aren’t being granted the same opportunities. Instead, too many of today’s children are leading overscheduled lives, with no time just to be.

The conventional wisdom, of course, is that times have changed. Children need to be “prepared” for a future that will be more challenging than ours. But what if the conventional wisdom is wrong?

Intuitively, you know that your child – that everyone, in fact – needs downtime. No one, even the most energetic among us, cares to rush through their waking hours, day after day after day. You know how stressful it is to be overscheduled, over-pressured, and overwhelmed. You’ve witnessed the toll it takes on adults – and you likely don’t want to exact the same price from your child.

Still, you wonder if it’s enough for him simply to engage in ordinary play and recreational activities. To spend time doing “nothing.” Take a poll of parents and they’ll agree that play is important for children. But even people with the strongest conviction can waver when faced with pressure from neighbors and friends who are convinced that their children’s college applications will outshine all others if they just keep their kids busy, busy, busy. Naturally, you’re going to worry you’ll be letting your child down if you allow him just to be. What if his résumé looks sparse in comparison to those of his counterparts? What if he never “finds himself” because you didn’t push him to try a multitude of activities? What if letting him simply play turns him into a lazy person?

Here are some other questions I’d like you to ponder:

  • If children begin living like adults in childhood, what will they have to look forward to?
  • What’s to ensure they won’t be burned out from all the pushing and pressure before they’ve even reached puberty?
  • If we’ve caused them to miss the magic of childhood (what should be a very special and unique period of life), what will kids later draw upon to cope with the trials and tribulations of adulthood?
  • What will become of the childlike nature adults call on when they need reminding of the delight found in simple things – when they need to bring out the playfulness that makes life worth living?
  • What joy will our children find as adults if striving to “succeed” becomes life’s sole purpose?

Yes, we want to help prepare our children for their future. But living an overscheduled, overprogrammed life isn’t the way to do it. That kind of childhood is not only laden with stress; also, it means that the child will never be able to entertain herself. Will never be able to live inside her own head. To deal with solitude or quiet time (essential for problem solving and restoration). She may feel she absolutely has to be in the company of others, even panicking at the idea of having to keep herself amused.

Yes, if you want your child to grow up to be resourceful, he will have to start practicing now. But that means he needs unstructured time and lots of it – in big, uninterrupted chunks – because it is quiet time that will stimulate your child’s creativity. Imagination and creativity – ideas – arise from having time to think, to ponder and reflect, or just let the mind go. A child with time to think will make up games, create dramas to act out, build a fort, or dream about her future! A child without such time develops only the ability to do what he’s told, when he’s told to do it. And that child isn’t likely to become an adult with initiative.

Downtime, rather than a parade of organized activities, is also more likely to help your child find her strengths and weaknesses, her passions and talents. As she experiments with a variety of activities at her own pace and in her own way, she discovers her likes and dislikes. And when she has the opportunity to spend time on those activities she likes – to delve deeper into the possibilities – her interests and skills blossom.

Having downtime will allow your child time to engage in authentic play (self-chosen, self-directed, and without extrinsic goals) – alone and with others. Because play employs divergent thinking (a much-needed 21st-century skill), his problem-solving abilities will grow. If he has the time to carry out his plans and bring them to a conclusion, he’ll experience the satisfaction that comes from thinking things through and working them out.

On the surface, downtime may look like wasted time. But, below the surface, there’s a whole lot going on. And it’s below the surface that truly counts!

What’s a Parent to Do? My Advice…

  • Comfort yourself with the words of Einstein, who said, “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” Staying with problems longer, of course, wouldn’t be possible without downtime.
  • Remind yourself that childhood is a special, unique period in a person’s lifespan – and that we are human beings, not human “doings.”
  • If your child doesn’t know how to play by himself, you can join him in an activity, such as pretend play, and slip away once you see he’s fully engaged.
  • If free time isn’t something to which your child is accustomed, you’ll at first hear numerous complaints of boredom. Ignore them! And don’t succumb to the temptation to let electronics entertain her. A child who’s bored has to become resourceful.
  • Initially, a child who hasn’t had enough practice in self-sufficiency is going to need your help generating ideas of things to do. One solution is to offer him choices, keeping it to a minimum of two or three so he doesn’t feel overwhelmed by the decision making. Point out that he has a new book waiting to be read. Offer to get him set up for finger painting. Or ask if he’d like to help you with something you need done – making cookies or raking the leaves, for instance. If none of these choices appeal to him, stay your course!
  • Assure your child that you have every confidence that she can find something to do. She may initially be stumped, but because she’ll want to validate your belief in her, she’ll find something.
  • In a long-ago column in the Boston Globe, parenting expert Barbara Meltz suggested that the two of you sit down sometime to brainstorm a list of activities your child enjoys. If you write them on slips of paper and put them in a jar, the next time he’s bored he’ll have plenty of ideas to choose from. And having helped create the list, he’ll take pride and ownership in it and feel empowered.

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