How to Bore the Children

Here is how to make a child bored: first and foremost, keep him indoors so that the infinitude of nature, its endless variation and chaotic messiness is replaced by a finite, orderly, predictable realm. Second, through television and video games, habituate him to intense stimuli so that everything else seems boring by comparison. Third, eliminate as much as possible any unstructured time with other children, so that he loses his capacity for creative play and needs entertainment instead. Fourth, shorten his attention span with fast-paced programming, dumbed-down books, and frequent interruptions of his play. Fifth, hover over him whenever possible to stunt his self-trust and make him dependent on outside stimulation. Sixth, hurry him from activity to activity to create anxiety about time and eliminate the easy sense of timelessness native to the young.

No one, of course, sets out on purpose to strip away their children’s most primal self-sufficiency — the self-sufficiency of play — but that is the net effect of a culture fixated on safety, bound to schedules, and addicted to entertainment. In a former time, children, despite a dearth of complicated toys, were rarely bored. Ask your grandparents whether they were bored as children, with their bikes, bats and balls, simple dolls that didn’t speak or move by themselves, in the days before television. Boredom, in fact, is a very recent word, apparently not having appeared in print until the mid-19th century. It is not a natural state, and did not exist in state of nature, or in a state anywhere near nature. It is a symptom of our alienation.

Boredom, however, is quite good for the economy. It motivates all kinds of consumption, an endless hunger to keep ourselves entertained. It points therefore to a need that was once met without money, but that is now met with money; the phenomenon of boredom and its alleviation exemplifies a much more general economic principle.

In order for the (money) economy to grow, some function once exercised without money must be converted into a good or a service. One can view economic growth as a progressive stripmining of nature and community, turning the former into commodities and the latter into paid services, depleting, respectively, the natural and social commons. Pollute the water and sell bottled water; disempower folk healing and make people pay for medical care; destroy cultural traditions that bestow identity and sell brand name sneakers… the examples are endless. Boredom is a symptom of a similar stripmining of what was once a kind of wealth native to us all: the ability to feel good doing nothing, the ability to create our own fun, a general sense of sovereignty over our own time. This is a form of what I call spiritual capital.

As I write this, my six-year-old sits a few feet away, wholly absorbed in threading a colored string through an old tape roll. Without a screen in front of him, his brain must make its own images — an ability that counts among the forms of spiritual capital. Before that he was begging to be allowed to watch a video. His whining and cajoling seemed almost like an addict wanting a fix. I haven’t tried to isolate him from society. Even though we don’t have TV, we do have videos, and he still gets plenty of that kind of thing elsewhere. Besides, there are rarely any kids playing outside. Their parents won’t let them, at least not in this neighborhood. They are afraid: afraid of nature, afraid of other people, afraid of what might happen, suspicious of play, loath to have their children unsupervised.

Let us create a world of real wealth, where our ability to play and imagine are intact, and where the outdoors is full of children.



About Charles Eisenstein

I am the author of The Ascent of Humanity and Sacred Economics. I am also a public speaker and member of the faculty of Goddard College.
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17 Responses to How to Bore the Children

  1. aniahavah says:

    How absolutely Refreshing! Keep this perspective coming, please. It helps remove the cultural scales from my eyes and see the beauty and vitality more easily in my own imagination, which is may be the seat of our emergent new economy.

  2. elizabeth says:

    Very timely…thank you for the reminder and inspiration.

  3. Toby says:

    My wife and I have two girls, 13 and 9 years old. Though they come from the same parents, they are very different, the elder being quite cerebral and fond of logical pathways through problems, fond too of the logic I am good at equipping her with, while the younger is visceral and immediate. What worked so well first time around for me as a learning father, has actually caused some harm when I continued in the same vein with Isabella, who never enjoyed my talks and winding explanations (like this one!). One consequence of this is that Anaïs does not need television and is seldom bored, because she easily related to my winding explanations about boredom, TV, computer games, and so on. She has taught herself how to entertain herself. Isabella is often bored, in a house where the TV is very rarely switched on (although YouTube is never far away). One daughter can concentrate for hours, does her homework without any pestering from her parents, and has managed her own life for the last four years or so; the other is fidgety, impatient, ‘immature,’ antsy, suffers at school, and so on. Both children from the same household with the same parents. Amazing really.

    So I guess my point is that we can’t control anything as it seems we can, when we make plans and have late night discussion about what to do. We were ‘lucky’ with Anaïs in that something about her fit in with our mode of raising her. It was far from stress free though! The first few years before reasoning set in were a nightmare. Isabella is a headstrong mix of feisty, sensitive, timid, loving, obedient and willfully obstinate, and has been sucked deeply into the world of bright colours and flashing images we tried to shield her from. I ought to point out that, like all ‘normal’ healthy children, both are highly intelligent. Their paths to discovering their creativity though are very different.

    Nevertheless, the image of the future you hint at here I long for too. Our paths to that place will be varied indeed, with ‘success’ mingling with ‘failure’ all along the way. The very fact that you can write this post and elicit responses from strangers is a sign of that, plus of course all those conversations we have with friends and neighbours who all more or less agree that the frenetic entertainment culture, the fear of strangers and the unknown, all of which grows along with the commercial realm, has pushed us way out of balance. A rich paradox which is producing very interesting times and suggests an excitingly other future.

    • Thanks, Toby. It sounds like your older daughter is a type who doesn’t suffer as much harm from being indoors a lot, while the younger would probably thrive best if we all lived in a primitive village or something.

      My kids are all very different too. It has indeed been a deep learning journey to allow them space to be what they are.

  4. says:

    Charles, do you have any concern that you encouraged your 6-year-old to discount his own desires, when you denied him the video?

  5. jj says:

    thank you for writing this -;- i can relate – but over here we are not that paranoid about letting our kids run wild outside in the yard – my eldest is now 38 and youngest 30 they were allowed to go every where if they let me know – play in the creek…river…now days those are fenced off for fear some one might drown ….but in my day their day -the world was there playground and where they went the families trusted little baby sitter trixie the foxy shadowed them all .

    i have 4 grand children now and its not the same – except when they come to mine – since i don’t have money to spend i take them to the beach or we go up the river and look for heart stones, they run and play in nature all the time ….or they read a book or play with their toys out in the yard using their imaginations .

    i have seen the evolution of fear take hold and change the way we raise our kids….its a natural evolution in the sense that even though its fear based its following natural lines of growth

    it is sad and alarming….the culture is insane

    • I had hoped it were different in New Zealand, but I am not surprised. The other day I was walking in a public park near a creek. There was a large pool that was a former swimming hole and skating pond. Generations of kids swam and ice skated there. Now, a sign prohibits both. We have gained perhaps a little safety (physical and legal), but we have lost fun, freedom, and play. The poverty of our condition is immeasurable.

    • Tischia says:

      We have to be warriors for the health of our children in these times.

  6. Pingback: How to Bore the Children by Charles Eisenstein « Gaia Mama with Julie Norris

  7. Tischia says:

    Why should you feel quilty about being the parent? Parents are sopposed to be parents, a loving authority, not friends who support a child’s whims if they are potentially harmful or unhealthy. We are all waking up to the possible and known long term effects of t.v., games, videos etc.Children do not have the capacities that adults have developed. Would you let your child smoke pot at age ten if they “desired” it? They are growing and discovering who they are and what is helpful and what may have undesirable consequences. It is our job as parents to guide them and often say “no” to things that we have discovered to be harmful. We don’t live in the world of our grandparents anymore. Our lives take more scrutiny today than yesterday and especially in regards to protecting our children. The media is very shrewd in regards to it ‘s marketing to children…we should be awake and aware.
    I am a mother and early childhood educator. Our son watches no videos, no tv, plays no video games, and is a very happy, creative and well rounded 5 year old. And if he gets bored…I send him outside! There is a big messy world out there to explore. Dig in the dirt at the very least. Best of all… climb a tree.

    • The question in my mind, that I have wrestled with over many years of parenting, is how much to protect them from things I know (or believe) are bad, and how much to let them learn from their own mistakes. In the fifties parents tried to protect their kids from rock and roll, and they were probably just as sure it was bad as I am sure television is bad. They also tried to protect their children from racial mixing. I certainly don’t cater to my children’s every whim. However, sometimes it seems like it becomes an endless struggle, of me demanding that he goes outside, and him whining and refusing. I don’t think it is supposed to be that way. And part of the reason that outdoors isn’t as fun as when I was a kid is that there aren’t any other kids outside. When I was a kid, the playgrounds and parks and vacant lots and creeks were teeming with children, and we were rarely supervised. Today if Philip goes outside, it is usually alone. To make matters worse, I can get charged with a crime for letting him outside our property (which is tiny) unsupervised. That hasn’t happened, but I have had neighbors come to my door to inform me, with lots of disapproval and judgement, that my child is outside unsupervised. The level of fear out there is amazing.

      You might suggest that I move to a different neighborhood. That is difficult for reasons I won’t go into here. Moreover, the condition I describing is spreading everywhere.


    • says:

      How are you sure that “Parents are supposed to” anything? Where does that come from? I see no objective source of information about correct parenting. There is only culture, which is ours to shape.

      Perhaps TV causes long-term harm. That seems quite plausible. But what is the purpose of separating my child from TV? Do I believe I know better than he does? A look at my life reveals otherwise – I make choices that bring harm to myself all the time. A look at the planet reveals that I am not alone – we’ve made a mess of things. I do have capacities for complex thought and understanding that my child does not, as well as decades of additional experience, and I do draw on that for the benefit of my child, but that does not mean that I always know best!

      I think I can do my child a much greater service by guiding him to learn about his true desires, to clearly hear his body’s messages, to recognize the harmful effects of television, to see the difference between the saccharine adventures served to him and the real adventures awaiting his creation. Mostly that means staying out of the way, so he can fully experience the effects of his choices.

      When my child seems to be “wasting” his day, I find it’s very hard to force him to change to something more “constructive” but it’s easy to get him to do something he enjoys more. In this way, the outdoors have a huge advantage: real life is a much richer experience than video games! My 9-year-old meets me at end of our long driveway to drive me home, because that is more fun than the computer. The trick is to show him to greater joy, not push him away from what he’s moaning for. Still, I think it’s important to let him choose.

      To be clear, I do place certain restrictions on my children’s behavior. If they choose to stay up late and then wake me up in the middle of the night, that causes my needs for rest to go unmet. I insist they go to bed at a “reasonable hour”, until they can make a change in their routines that lets me get my sleep. I also have some rigid boundaries around serious injury and property damage that are beyond their ability to anticipate, understand, and repair, but those are pretty far out there.

      I’ve noticed the more restrictions I place on real-life activities (no jumping on the bed with a knife!) the more they are drawn to the screen, where they feel free to behave how they wish.

      More deeply, why do we believe that a harm-free life is a goal? Will you love your child less if he turns out “wrong” or “broken”? Somehow we seem to wish for our children to all be perfect. Why?

  8. Tischia says:

    Thank you for your thought provoking reply. I think we would agree more than disagree as parents with some slight differences. I think you chose to find the word sopposed to be a negative and poor choice of words. Perhaps it wastoo limiting?
    I think children much more freedom than limitations. I personally and proffessionally know that media is limiting on a childs imagination. It is also highly addictive. I have a responsibility, as a parent to make certain decisions and choices for my children that I know are best for them. They are incapable of knowing the best time for bed when they would rather play until ten pm when they are tired. Being the parent I know their bodies need sufficient rest and healthy food to withstand the stress of our modern environment. So I make those loving choices, not my children before they are ready. I will choose to have my son wear a jacket when he is shivering and tells me he’s not cold. BUT! YES! I will do it in such a way that we understand everyone is winning here. I child may temporarily resist going to bed early or wearing a jacket but when they are warm and well rested their soul and inner being is nourished and filled. That lasts a lifetime.
    I agree with you strongly that we are better off getting out of their way most of the time, Allow them to be children and make little demands throughout a day. Rather crate a gentle framework/ reutine that a child can fall into without wondering what is next so that they can truly relax and be children. Make a huge mess in the living room with pillows from the couch if they can’t go outside. Build a pirate ship that turns into a spaceship that turns into a flying motorcycle(all without mommies help!!) Eat pancakes for dinner once in while. I am neither rigid nor demanding. I am the parent.

  9. Tischia says:

    Also I have to disagree that a young child will truly be able to understand the negative effects of television on their own. I would maybe leave that choice to twelve year old sometimes, but certainly not my five year old. It is a noble goal tohave children understand things on their own, but when they are ready and in good time.When thet have developed more capacities for critical thinking.

  10. What a fabulous post and a subject dear to my heart. I am passionate about getting kids outdoors and exploring the “real” world. It greatly concerns me both as a parent and a naturalist that many children spend as much as 90% of their time indoors. Several months ago I decided to start up the “Let’s Go Outside” Revolution. On a mission to change the way children spend their Since running the Revolution, I am full of hope for the future, it’s so encouraging to see so many who really do care about reconnecting our children with the natural world, and as parents we play a vital role.
    When children become bored, this is when creativity blossoms, if they are allowed the opportunity. As for TV and technology, they are great tools in the right hands. Life is a balance (I loved watching David Attenborough’s wildlfie show when I was young, it inspired me to do what I do today). I personally don’t think toddlers need technology in their lives, it will become part of their lives soon enough.

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