Today I took a walk with a single-mom friend who has recently taken on a full time job. Her 10-year-old son gets home from school at 3:30 p.m.; she arrives home with his younger brother about an hour later.
I asked her if he was okay with being alone for that hour. She answered that he was ‘too’ okay with it.
“What does that mean, ‘too’ okay?” I asked.
“It means he loves being at the house by himself.”
“But that’s good, no?”
“Well, he doesn’t do anything. Doesn’t do his chores, he doesn’t do homework. Nothing gets done for that whole hour.”
I pause in amazement at her response. Now, this is a woman who is smart, beautiful, loving, and good. I know she doesn’t mean what she’s saying.
“You are kidding me, aren’t you?” I ask.
By her puzzled expression I see she is not.
And so I launch (and hope she forgives me):
Oh, parents! Your children need downtime. They need to be alone, without the pressure of teachers, friends, parents, grandparents, always telling them what to do, and scheduling every hour of their day – whether it’s for chores or for play. “Doing nothing,” as Christopher Robin told Winnie the Pooh so profoundly, is the absolutely most important part of a child’s growing years. This is the time of simplicity, the empty plot of ground where seeds can be planted, the quiet between the notes of music, the magic of a sheet of paper before the colored crayon meets it… a child can’t grow without quiet, unscheduled, dreamy, nothing-time. Well, of course they’ll grow, but not without cost.
My friend at once intuits the truth of the importance of downtime, but now she finds it hard to backtrack. I sense there have already been several battles with her son refusing to meet her expectations of what he should do when he’s alone at home.
So, this is what I suggest to her: “Make it a rule that he has to do nothing. You like rules, and you want him to know you’re in charge and in control. And he likes boundaries too. So tell him the rule is he cannot do homework or any chores for that hour after he comes home and before you arrive. He also can’t watch television or play video games. Most importantly, don’t ask him what he did during that hour. Give him the respect of leaving his dreams private: honor that empty-time, whatever use he makes of it. Even lying on a couch, staring at a ceiling, might mean more to him than you have any way of knowing.”
It’s not just children who need nothing-time. We all do. This is one of my favorite proverbs (originally from Spain): “How beautiful it is to do nothing, and then rest afterwards.” Take it seriously.
by our Twitter friend, Winslow Eliot