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There are benefits to boredom

Every Tuesday morning at 8:30, the 268 students in prekindergarten through eighth grade at the Cambridge Friends School sit silently in a circle on the floor for half an hour. Really silently, as in you can't even whisper. Oh, the 5-year-olds are allowed to draw if they need to -- even second-graders can do that -- and if a student is really fidgety, a teacher might put a supportive arm around him. But that mostly happens at the beginning of the year.

This is a Quaker school. Sharing silence is part of the tradition of the faith, a way to center one's self within the community and seek personal truth. These days, though, school head Mary Newmann sees even more value in it.

"If you want to raise children who can think critically, who can solve problems of all kinds -- and we do, that's our mission -- they need the chance to think uninterrupted," she says.

That's rare these days.

Beginning in infancy, children are bombarded with noise, stimulation, and instant gratification, from crib mobiles with flashing lights and music to DVD entertainment systems for the car. Quiet time? It's virtually programmed into children never to have it.

Certainly, there are advantages to children from modern technology. Increasingly, though, educators like Newmann are wondering if it comes at a cost.

"The gadgetry may distract a baby from crying, but does he ever discover his toes?" wonders Wheelock College early-childhood educator Diane Levin.

She means that on two levels. Literally, the fussy baby who is left alone long enough to find his toes (not more than a few minutes, after all) is making the first step in a long journey. "He's figuring out that he can entertain and distract himself," Levin says. "He's also learning something profound: that he has the capacity to solve his own problem."

In terms of human development, that's an "Aha!" moment. The infant whose parent pushes the button to turn on the mobile may also be comforted and distracted, but he learns nothing about his capacity to solve his own problem, says Levin.

This may seem like too much credit to give to 10 toes, but for Levin, Newmann, and others, toes are a metaphor for what they see as an erosion in opportunities for children to develop critical-thinking skills.

"It's been happening ever since children started watching more TV, about 20 years ago," says Levin. "As the process for interacting with the world becomes more passive, children are robbed of the process of being an active agent in their own lives."

There are no statistics or studies on this yet; it's something that will play out as time passes. Researchers and educators do know, however, that children learn best by initiating, manipulating, and observing cause and effect.

Levin has coined a term: problem-solving deficit disorder. Minneapolis psychologist and author David Walsh, founder and president of the National Institute on Media and the Family (, has one, too: mental operating software.

"It's as if this software is wired into them in the crib that sets an expectation for entertainment and instant gratification," he says. "As a result, when things get tough, children are more likely to throw up their hands and throw in the towel than figure out what to do."

Beth Dimock sees this play out in her prekindergarten class at Cambridge Friends School. Children are easily frustrated and bored.

"They don't know how to carry through with a project -- any project -- on their own," she says. "Why do two playmates at your house end up in front of a video? Because they're `bored.' They can't even solve the problem of what to play."

Researchers say time in front of screens is a big source of the problem.

"We think we are giving our kids an edge when we use software to introduce them to art, language, nature, you name it," says Pittsburgh psychologist Sharna Olfman. If she had her way, children under 7 would spend no more than an hour a day in front of any screen, educational software included.

"All it does is teach them to be dependent on the screen for instant gratification," she says. "They are not developing the capacity to use their own creative intelligence."

Indeed, Levin says problem-solving is a cumulative skill that gives a child a sense of inner power.

"The more you do it, the better you are at it and the more you feel good about yourself as a learner, a social being, and a thinker," she says. "A problem-solver is someone who says, `I can affect the world. I can figure out how to build this tower so it won't fall. I can tell the teacher there's a problem on the playground.' "

Even seemingly benign conveniences may undermine a child's ability to solve problems. Consider Velcro, or the digital clock.

Laceless shoes and zipless jackets enable some children to dress themselves at an increasingly younger age. Having that concrete sense of independence is important for a preschooler. So, however, is knowing how to tie a knot.

"Knotting is a basic life skill, and more kids come to me not knowing how to do it than ever before," says Dimock.

Ditto for shoe-tying. Learning to tie a shoe takes small-motor skill and builds cognitive connections, she says. Children learn the properties of the material, the malleability of the string, how you can move it and loop it. They have to have a goal in mind and be able to visualize getting from string in your fingers to a finished bow.

"This is really complex," Dimock says. "To gloss over it or skip it altogether is not good."

Digital clocks let young children tell time as soon as they know their numbers, but this convenience, too, may come at a developmental cost.

"An analog clock is cognitively richer," says Levin. "It teaches you the logic of time in a way that the digital can't, that seconds fit into minutes, which fit into hours, which fit into days."

Olfman wonders if we are seeing more children labeled with Attention Deficit Disorder and other behaviorial and cognitive disabilities as a by-product of inadequate problem-solving skills.

"There's no question in my mind that we have more restless, agitated, and unhappy children because they are dependent on instant gratification," she says. "Life is boring when you haven't acquired the capacity to solve problems as basic as knowing how to fill your own time. Why wouldn't that lead to acting-out behaviors that get you labeled at school and eventually even medicated?" Olfman is editor of the "Childhood in America" series (Praeger Press).

Except for urging parents to limit screen time (the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no TV for children under 2), no researcher is saying we have to eliminate gadgets that save time and make our lives easier. Rather, they stress using them in moderation and with an awareness of potential developmental short-cutting.

In-car DVDs are the exception. Walsh hates them. "They usurp conversation, word games, looking out the window, and, yes, quiet time and boredom," he says. "Some boredom is healthy."

So is some quiet time. Just last week, a first-grader at the Cambridge Friends School told Mary Newmann that when she has a problem with a friend, if she waits until the middle of the silent meeting, a solution to the conflict usually will come to her.

"And if you don't have silent meeting?" Newmann asked.

"Probably I would be mad until the next day," the girl said.

Contact Barbara Meltz at

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