Breakfast is done and dishes are everywhere. I head to where I have been working from home, followed by my very short and demanding colleague. We both have assignments. Only one of us will get theirs done (hint: it's not me). Trying to concentrate and do my work is exhausting when my 'coworker' commands my undivided attention all day long.
American parents are programmed to believe that through instruction and entertainment, each moment of the day should be one of enrichment and growth for their kids. This is a lot of pressure under normal circumstances and even more so during the pandemic. But for thousands of years, cultures around the world have proven that there are benefits to kids finding activities to do on their own.
Kids expect us to interact with them all day because they've been taught this, but they really don't need a detailed schedule each day to learn. Children are little sponges and don't stop learning just because we aren't spoon-feeding them content. Their brains are developing whether we are personally stimulating them or not.
In other cultures, parents don't believe it's their job to constantly teach, entertain and play with their kids. Instead, parents welcome kids into their adult world and believe that they will learn and grow—at their own pace—by watching, helping and doing what captures their attention.
At Utah State University, anthropologist Dr. David Lancy believes that "Parents have taken on all these extra obligations because someone has convinced [them] that they are essential for optimizing a child." But kids need surprisingly little interference from adults, observes Dr. Lancy, adding, "They are born knowing how to create their own toys, design their own games and to settle their own arguments."
In a Maya village in the Yucatán, Northeastern Illinois University psychologist Dr. Suzanne Gaskins found that parents "...don't tell children what to pay attention to, how they should act, and what they should do with an object."
As a result, Dr. Gaskins believes that children become very skilled at what she calls the art of "solitary absorption," where kids learn to keep themselves busy, without parents' intervention, direction or observation. In our lives, this means that if a child shows interest in an activity, like gardening, the parent should hand them a shovel and have them work independently alongside them, and let them learn from their mistakes.
"Being involved every minute of your kids' day also doesn't leave much room for self-discovey," Dr. Lancy states. "[W]ith too much instruction, children miss out on the opportunity to learn how to learn, through self-exploration and observation." He believes this is a valuable skill that will help them adapt to challenges in school and give them an edge in life.
It's okay to be bored.
When we manage every moment, teaching or entertaining our kids, they don't have the opportunity to be bored. Studies indicate when you are bored and compelled to be creative, your imagination is nurtured. When bored, kids who have time to think about being bored and discover by themselves how not to be, develop skills to reframe the experience. This stretches their imaginations, builds confidence and leads to more positive emotional, motivational and cognitive outcomes.
So, don't stress about planning every minute of your kid's day.
The trick is in the transition. It is bound to be fraught with tears and squabbles—after all, we've been trained to believe we are their camp director. But given enough space and time, their natural instinct will take over.
Here are a few tips on how to do it:
- Go about your day doing your own things.
- Invite your kids to join you, no matter if it is to help empty the dishwasher, or join you in your 'office' to help you get your work done.
- Let them figure out how to do things with you.
With enough patience from us and less involvement, their minds will expand, and they will find their own fun.
Bottom line: The kids are okay. And guess what, they are actually learning—about themselves and how they fit into their world and interact with others. This quarantine can be a hidden opportunity for lessons in self-reliance, not just for us, but for our kids as well—if only we let them learn. We just need to get out of their way. Letting them figure things out is an education unto itself.