The XX Factor

Boredom Isn’t Good for Children

KJ , you have a much more relaxed attitude than I toward Nigel Farndale’s article about depriving his children of their Wii on the grounds that boredom is good for children and that modern children are “overstimulated”. My curmudgeon alarms were firing on all cylinders just from reading the description, and the article did nothing to turn off my alarms, particularly when Farndale actually quoted the Nazis when trying to argue for the liberating power of work. Of course, he misses the irony there-in fact, work did not make Holocaust victims free-but that was merely the last thread to unwind from an argument that owes less to rational thought than to resenting the younger generation their youth and their freedom.

The problem with debating whether or not boredom is good for kids is that this is an argument already better addressed by scientists and not by curmudgeons who have probably rewritten their own childhood histories to eliminate memories of how much they annoyed their parents by clinging to them and whining, “I’m booooooored.” Luckily, I had a professor who researches and teaches about the brain on hand, and he agreed that the term “overstimulation” should be banned from these sorts of discussions. Constant stimulation may annoy curmudgeons, but it helps work those growing brains into the sort of brains that parents supposedly want for their kids.

As much as it defeats the desires of curmudgeons to believe that kids these days are somehow losing their way, the truth is that IQ scores have been rising steadily over the generations, a phenomenon known as the Flynn effect . Science writer Steven Johnson wrote an entire book, Everything Bad Is Good For You , in which he effectively argues that the very “overstimulation” that people like Farndale resent is probably why people keep getting smarter. Having spent the past two days deeply immersed in the newest version of Super Mario Brothers, I can safely agree with Johnson that video games actually worked my brain pretty hard, with no noticeable decline in my literacy skills. After all, a good video game is a rapid-fire series of problem-solving situations. Shouldn’t we want kids to spend their leisure time working on that? (Scientist friend on hand wants it to be known that video games are used as therapy for ADHD kids, to retrain their brains to concentrate. Also that it works a lot better than boring kids to death in public schools.)

Not that I think any of this reality will cause the curmudgeons of the world to lay off complaining about kids and their video games. Once you give yourself permission to resent kids for having access to pleasures that baffle you, you’re probably not going to be in the mood to applaud them for also being better at problem-solving and having greater comfort with rapidly changing technology. Being childless myself, it’s probably easy for me to suggest that we shouldn’t resent children for having advantages we didn’t have, but then again, it also seems like common sense that folks like Farndale should have realized that having children incurs the responsibility of setting aside curmudgeonly urges to do right by your children.