The constant glut of images, sounds and sensations that fill a child’s every waking hour has led – in a single generation – to a whole new mindset among young people. And it brings new challenges for parents.
Remember being bored?
You know: That half-hour waiting in the doctor’s office. The three-hour road trip with your parents. A Sunday afternoon when all your friends were away on vacation.
If you’re over 30, you’ll immediately recognize all of the above. If you’re 20 or under, you’ll probably be rubbing your eyes in confusion and thinking What is this guy talking about?
According to recent research, there has been a wholesale revolution – within the space of a single generation – in the way children think. Being occasionally bored or having nothing to do, once very much an occupational hazard of childhood, is now permanently off the menu.
Stuck in a doctors’ waiting room? Take out your smartphone. Road trip? Watch the TV embedded in the back of Mommy’s seat.
Loafing around at home on a Sunday afternoon? Stream a movie, update your Instagram, check Facebook, go on Snapchat, Facetime your friends (note: no-one’s really ‘away’ anymore), download any one of a million apps.
The list is endless. Having ‘nothing to do’ never makes the list, doesn’t even get a peek in. Boredom is no longer an option.
Time to imagine
For older generations, the fact that most young people today have never really known that familiar sensation of having ‘nothing to do’ is a bit weird and confusing at the same time. On a surface level , it sounds deeply impressive. You mean they’re never bored? Wow, that’s a great thing. But actually, no, it’s not.
For a child, being bored is quality time spent with their own minds. Freed from other distractions, they will think about details from their own life, question things, make up stories and scenarios. It’s an opportunity to dip into their own well of internal resources.
Think of the times you’ve seen a lone child playing make-believe. You know the kind of thing: a little girl playing with two clothes pins and an empty detergent bottle, lost in her own world as she describes the Prince and Princess getting into their royal carriage to visit the castle.
Such experiences are priceless. At those times, you can almost hear the gears of a child’s imagination churning. But realistically, such instances probably occur less frequently today. Even toddlers are tech-savvy, and ‘something to do’ is always at hand.
If there’s a definite sense among parents and teachers that kids are more distractible now than they were a decade ago, most point the finger at the same culprit: digital devices.
According to Daniel Willingham, author of the book Raising Kids Who Read, the problem is simple: Children have learned to expect instant and endless entertainment that is always available, and which demands next to no effort from them.
As he puts it: “[Our children’s] span of attention hasn’t shrunk. What has changed is their attitudes and beliefs, which are: ‘Bored is not a normal state of affairs. I really should never be bored’.”
Which is why reading books stands out as one of the best things a child can do.
Books remain one of the only forms of entertainment for children where all the work isn’t done for them. They are almost the last thing standing between a blitz of digital fodder and a child’s refusal to do nothing.
Movies? TV? Computer games? Smartphone apps? Everything is already there, blaring and in glorious color, on a screen before them. All kids have to do is sit back and let the sensations wash over them.
But nobody can read a book without actively switching on their own imagination. And given how weird and wonderful a child’s curiosity can be, few things are more rewarding (or fun!) for them than getting lost in a good story.
And let’s not forget the big point here. Learning to read – and read well – is vital for any kid’s development. Basic literacy skills are the foundation upon which the rest of a child’s education is built.
And frankly, nobody’s going to pick up those kind of skills from a zany Facebook page or cute YouTube video.
To give children the best chance of a good start in life, your course of action is fairly straightforward – just make sure they have a good mix of books that they really like, then spend time reading with them. They’ll thank you for it many years later.
It’s true: most kids today have forgotten how to be bored. But they haven’t forgotten how to be interested. And if you can turn them on to books at an early age, they need never be bored again.
Book Trust is dedicated to ensuring kids from low-income areas are able to choose and buy their own books. Every child deserves an opportunity to fall in love with reading – and we make that happen.