Monday, April 5, 2010

Happiness From Nothing

Somewhere along the way, we became a society that identifies itself by what we do. It usually is the first question someone will ask you in a social setting: "So, what do you do?". There are: calendars, crackberries, reminders, post-its, to do lists, charts and graphs; all trying to tell us what we have to get done today. It is enough to drive us all crazy, yet we persevere and continue to work, work, work; trying to fit in as much as possible in a day. Hence, it is with great effort that I try not to do anything. I try to enjoy the sunrise, because it is beautiful; not because I work early and happen upon it. I try to take time making dinner, because I love to cook; not because I have to get it done. Granted, it is impossible to do everything with a laissez faire attitude, but I think it is worth a shot. Interestingly, it is the one thing that I actually, really try to "do". It creates a template for imagination and creativity, that would otherwise go undeveloped. Like Nancy Reagan taught us in the 80's, I "just say no"; except it is not drugs that I refer to, but the constant push to do more and more.

Watching my children recently, I noticed how their desire to be busy all the time is not a good thing. They are constantly looking for that instant gratification of happiness. It is so difficult for them to just sit still. They have conceived that it is my responsibility to find them something to do. They are correct in their assumption, if they base it on what they observe in every other household. This pestering is not something something new, but our response to it as parents has changed drastically. Our generation has decided; we do not want our kids to have one idle moment. We fill their days with activities, as a mark of our good parenting. Kids never have to be creative, and invent something to do, or even just sit still.

Their generation is completely identified by what they do. It is ridiculous that, when parents meet other parents, they ask, "what does your kid do?" When I was growing up, kids were just kids. We did not "do" anything, we simply had fun. Kids today are projects. They are no longer something that just happened. We make conscious decisions on when and where to have them: we want it all to be perfect. So in this desire for the perfect family, we have lost our ability to say no. We want every moment organized, and charted out in a manner which is most productive.

I have not exactly been parenting forever, but I have learned quite a bit in the past 10 1/2 years. Being that I do not allow television watching, I may be a bit more inundated with the "nothing to do" question, but I sincerely doubt it. So, here is my strategy for boredom: when my kids say they are bored, I give them a list a chores to complete: i. e. wash the base boards, empty the hamper, take out the trash, run the sweeper. The next time they are bored, they reconsider asking me for an answer. They are creative, and find something on their own to do, or not. Since the inception and application of this strategy, I have seen profound successes, happier children, and a much cleaner house.

I know for a fact how difficult it is to unwind, and be happy with the stillness. I have tried to find the happiness in being busy. But, I have not found any proof that this option is more successful, or more fun, or more full filling. This happiness is just cluttered with detail, to the point of being distracted from reality. Even though, it is not easy, I recognize that I have my best thoughts, read the best books, and do my best work, in those moments of having nothing to do. I have decided that my children need to nurture their boredom, in order to find that inner happiness they are seeking. Buddha says, “Meditate. Live purely. Be quiet. Do your work with mastery. Like the moon, come out from behind the clouds! Shine”. With all my ability, with all my energies, I am going to continue to let some of my day simply occur, and to stop trying to control everything.

Do you feel like your whole day is scheduled? Do you have time for the unexpected? Are your children overscheduled? Is it hard for you to say no?


  1. You've really hit the nail on the head with this one, Joely. Our society focuses too much on doing, on "busy-ness" and lists of activities. ESPECIALLY for kids, this isn't healthy.

    I LOVE your answer to "Mom, there's nothing to do!" Brilliant. In my humble opinion as a non-parent, I believe it is important to have unstructured time to foster children's creativity and self-sufficiency. And to teach them how to be present, to enjoy the world around them.

    PS - I can't believe other parents ask what your kids do! What has our world come to??

  2. I don't know... I was definitely a "do" kid by choice. I was a six day a week dancer and gymnast and liked it. My brothers, by contrast, did sort of live a life of leisure and picked up much more laid back hobbies like mountain biking or skiing and golfing. While I really strive for the "organic flow" of life these days.... I do think that we are destined to do, enjoy, be, avoid, etc. certain things. I think in opening up your kids' day, as you do, by... really suggesting nothing but allowing everything but sedentary activities (a good thing - I admire your fortitude :-), it is directing them to choose a path - albeit unconsciously. My oldest is a doer - asks to get involved in certain sports and really sticks with them. My second is still so young, but... he appears to be a "show me and I'll do it" - type while his year younger brother is, currently, one of those kids so talented in so many things - creative pretend play, art, athletics, etc., but... has a tendency to REFUSE everything (a whole other challenge) - youngest is still a work in progress. I kind of notice, too, that self-directed kids will do just that... self-direct, but... they wander longer - take a while to focus. Those who need to be shown a path or activity tend to really hone in on it and stick it out. Not sure what that means.... just different personalities, I guess. As for me, the restless adult here.... I've stopped doing what everyone expects of me, and... I do what I do - know what I mean? What I like....

  3. Eva,
    Seriously, I hear it all the time from parents, even when my girls were babies. It is just weird. I just want to slow down and do like Sherri says, do what I like, not what is asked.

  4. Sherri,
    You are right about the fine line. There is the proverb, "idle hands are the devil's workshop"; it is with that in mind that I let them be creative but with a watchful eye. I don't mean that I ignore them but I try to let them find what is they like. I supply endless outlets, books, and libraries. They have it all at their finger tips, with in walking distance. I don't want to control, but guide.

  5. Exactly - guide them.... not push or direct. I see a lot of people doing just that.... pushing.... especially if they (the parents) begin sort of living vicariously through the kids..... Just not right, ya know?

  6. You know, Joely - THAT is where the "what do your kids do?" is coming from I bet.... the parents wanting to DO more themselves.... what they like - whatever. You've got me thinking about this.... (can you tell I'm on working on a writing project? :-)... I'm done with my two cents now... Good post... still thinking....;-)....

  7. Joely, it drives me nuts when my kids tell me they're bored and then look at me expectantly, like I'm the cruise director or something! I remember playing like an absolute nut when I was a kid, outside day and night and only coming in when it was pitch black outside reluctantly! So let them do the same. Even if we're in Arizona and it's 115 degrees! But, really, I'm never bored, why are they?

    (I love the idea of giving them a list of chores! My kind of mom!)

  8. Linda,
    I had the same childhood. My mother never had to tell me what to do, I was always outside, riding bikes, building forts, playing chase, and making mud pies. 115 degrees is tough though. Good god that is hot.

  9. I often refer to myself as a slacker parent b/c my six and a half year old is involved in nothing. I thought the baby classes were a little ridiculous, and by the time my daughter got to an age where I thought she could do something (five), she did not want to. Since I am under-employed, I have not pushed her, other than getting her to sing in the children's choir at school/church, which was a one-shot deal.

    I spend a lot of time with my kid, too much really (only child). And even though I am glad I don't spend my days running around, I do, sometimes, feel like a lesser parent b/c I keep reading (via FB and blogs) about how involved every one else's kids are.

  10. Facie,
    You make a good point about your six yo not wanting to do anything at the age of five. I often think that kids have so much packed into their grade school lives and nothing when they teenagers.. When they are teenagers they really need to be kept busy , but so often they are burnt out.

  11. Burnt out is exactly right! My Mother was years ahead of her time, and I started piano lessons at age three. Practice (which I loved) and recitals (which I truly hated). I was interviewed and on TV, the whole bit... but by the time I was old enough to REALLY be good... i was burnt out. People ask me why I don't play now. I guess in some ways that part of my life was over at age 20.

  12. Anonymous,
    I would love to hear you play sometime. It is a shame to be burnt out on something you have such a talent to do. I know someone exactly like you and have always wanted to hear them play.

  13. I taught high school for many years and, at this school at least, I saw evidence of adolescent burn-out. So many of the kids had been over-programmed for so long that they had no energy left to try new and exciting things by the time they were in 9th grade!

    As Sherri said above, I suppose a good goal is to find the organic flow - to guide our kids to pursue the things they want independently (goodbye, boredom!) and not to push them to do the things they don't.

    Thought-provoking post, as always, Joely!

  14. Kristen,

    I am hoping that is not the case for my children when they become adolescents, so it has been a topic on my mind. I agree with the organic flow without pushing too much too early. My kids want to do everything but is up to me to find the reasonable schedule that will not exhaust them.
    I have been away for a week so I have some reading on your blog to catch up on.

  15. Love this! I was a no TV mom for a long time and I have a lot of painted rocks to prove it. My kids did things because they had time to think about what they might want to do. I love the life that emerges when I let go of my agenda. I've learned a lot from my kids that way.

  16. rebecca,
    I find they are so much more pleasant to be around when they are not influenced by TV. When they stay at my mums they watch tv and I find they have to decompress from it. They are just annoying to be around when they are tv influenced.

  17. A few things.
    I think there is a big difference between today's young parents and the way my parents generation raised us.
    When I was growing up, we entered into out parents lives. We enhanced it. They weren't consumed by our every move. We entered into their world. We choose activities that WE liked once we started school.
    The new parents of today, make their kids their world. They adapt to them, not the other way around.
    That's the reason alot of the kids I'm around today (my own included)think the world revolves around them.
    My mother used to say "with all the genius kids out there, you have to wonder where in the hell did all the dumb adults come from!" Everyone thinks their kid is a genius.

    As for all the organization of the kids free time, I think for all the good organizations like Little League did for the kids of America, if did just as much bad. If you think about it, the kids just can't walk to the park anymore and pick up a game of baseball. It's always reserved for "organized" sports leagues.
    My 23 and 25 yo kids were probably the last generation lucky enough to just go out to play.
    Advantages of pick up games without adult supervision--natural leadership skilled are defined and they learned to problem solve on their own without a bunch of adults supervising, or arguing over a bad pitch.

  18. Eileen,
    I love what your mother said. I feel that every time I go to the kids school. Not in a judgemental way but a stepford parent sort of way. I grew up just like you said, I enhanced my Mum's life, I did not dictate it. Thanks for visiting! I really enjoy enjoy reading your blog. Maybe one night I will actually be able to join the Anger group for cocktails.