Tuesday, July 24, 2007


That's right. The almost-eight-year-old is bored. I informed her that this is the normal condition of being almost eight, and that it will likely pass once she actually turns eight. But I am confused. This is one of two imaginative, resourceful children who are adept at entertaining themselves, spending hours painting with watercolors, reading (very challenging) books, writing, pretending, playing chess and Clue and card games, and begging to be allowed to help with the cooking. Today this very same bored child spent a long, peaceful morning looking at a book of string figures and figuring out how to do them.

I am also chagrined. Because this bored child is asking to go to public school, thinking that it will alleviate her boredom. But in his essay Against School, John Taylor Gatto writes:
School trains children to be employees and consumers; teach your own to be leaders and adventurers. School trains children to obey reflexively; teach your own to think critically and independently. Well-schooled kids have a low threshold for boredom; help your own to develop an inner life so that they'll never be bored. Urge them to take on the serious material, the grown-up material, in history, literature, philosophy, music, art, economics, theology - all the stuff schoolteachers know well enough to avoid. Challenge your kids with plenty of solitude so that they can learn to enjoy their own company, to conduct inner dialogues. Well-schooled people are conditioned to dread being alone, and they seek constant companionship through the TV, the computer, the cell phone, and through shallow friendships quickly acquired and quickly abandoned. Your children should have a more meaningful life, and they can.

What is happening here? I thought we were already doing this. Shall I utter the lament of Everyparent: "Oh-where-did-I-go-wrong?"
Or is it Gatto that is wrong, about school being the source of boredom?
But Gatto goes on :
Who, then, is to blame?

We all are. My grandfather taught me that. One afternoon when I was seven I complained to him of boredom, and he batted me hard on the head. He told me that I was never to use that term in his presence again, that if I was bored it was my fault and no one else's. The obligation to amuse and instruct myself was entirely my own, and people who didn't know that were childish people, to be avoided if possible. Certainty not to be trusted. That episode cured me of boredom forever, and here and there over the years I was able to pass on the lesson to some remarkable student.
This is, in essence, what I tell my daughter. Boredom is the product of the undisciplined mind and body, not of environment.

But I also investigate further. What activity or benefit is she expecting school to provide? Why, specifically, does she think school will solve her boredom problem?

Her younger brother is ahead of her in math, she tells me, and she feels bad about this. This is true. Actually, they are at about the same level. She is doing perfectly well with math, but he is a year and a half younger, and has a knack for math. "The way to get better at math," I point out, "is to work on it more. Do you want to work more on math?"

"Yes," she says. "I want to work on it every day!" She goes on to tell me that public school kids work six hours each day instead of two or three, so they must be learning more. I point out that that is not necessarily true, since she knows as much as, if not more than, schooled children her age. Learning only happens if interest an attention are there, which is why we get more done in less time at home. "Do you really want to have someone else do your thinking for you and tell you what to do with your time?" I ask. "That is what your six hour public school day would be like."

"Yes," she replied, "sort of. Sometimes I don't know what to do." The answer is dawning on me. Her request for public school is a request for more structure, more direction, more responsibility, and more challenge. I think of what would have been expected of a seven or eight year old child 100 or even 200 years ago -- perhaps not so much academically, but several hours of home and farm chores and learning practical skills like sewing and knitting. A girl of eight in those days was halfway to adulthood; it was time for intensive training in the complex tasks of running a home. I think back over the past few days: happy, smoothly-flowing days. I had assigned her more tasks than usual: baking something without my assistance, entertaining her little sister, mopping the floor, writing her 4-H story. She is asking for more of this sort of day: guided days, so she can move into more complex projects, greater responsibility, and a larger sphere of independence. I run this idea by her. Yes, she says, that's what she wants. More projects. And more jobs.

As homeschoolers we often argue, along with authors like the late Raymond Moore and Charlotte Mason, that we want to allow our children to have a childhood, to not push their learning, to not hurry them to grow up too soon. We want to give them the gift of time, to look at the clouds, to dig in the sand, to think for themselves and discover their own interests. So, then, isn't it paradoxical that John Gatto also resonants with us when he says:
Don't let your own have their childhoods extended, not even for a day. If David Farragut could take command of a captured British warship as a pre-teen, if Thomas Edison could publish a broadsheet at the age of twelve, if Ben Franklin could apprentice himself to a printer at the same age (then put himself through a course of study that would choke a Yale senior today), there's no telling what your own kids could do.
Are we talking out of both sides of our mouths here? I don't think so. Our culture does force children to grow up too quickly...and at the same time it inhibits maturation, pushing the age of adulthood back farther and farther. Perhaps it is that we foist upon children the problems and privileges of adulthood without establishing a foundation of responsibility, identity, belonging, and order. Or perhaps it's that we give them breadth without depth, as Dana has been pondering. I'd like to hear from others -- what do you think?

At any rate, with my "bored" child, I am reminded that "giving the gift of time" and "letting them follow their interests" doesn't mean doing nothing or giving no direction. Instead of leaving her so many free hours to play -- she has matured beyond that -- I need to revisit the Moore formula, and make sure she has a sufficient dose of study, service, and work.


Renae said...

This is intriguing to me because I have tried to banish the word "bored" from our home. If someone is bored I give them a job. They usually find something else to do but your suggestion of adding more responsibility is a good one. The job isn't punishment for using a bad word. It is leading our children towards self government.

Dana said...

That's funny that Renae said that. When my daughter used to say she was bored, I'd give her a job. Not really as punishment, but as a model of being constructive. It isn't my job to entertain her or ensure she is not bored, but I can help her find meaningful work to do. Of course, she didn't say it for long.

But I don't think we just banished the word. She doesn't spend much time upside down on the couch looking bored like she used to, either. She seeks out thing to do when I don't have her occupied.

Right now it is dissecting the plants in the backyard or crocheting...

jennifer in OR said...

Great post and good job reconciling some seemingly opposing ideas.

My uncle used to tell me that "boredom is a character flaw." I definitely discourage use of the phrase "I'm bored" in my home. But beyond restricting the words, parents have to do some redirecting for the little ones.

Thanks - followed this link from the CoH...

Jenny said...

My 7 year old recently asked to go to public school as well. I believe that she is also bored. Part of the issue is that it is summer and all of our regularly scheduled activities are not in session. You really have provided me with some food for thought. Thank you!