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.