By Gregory Keer
My children are masters at finding my parenting weaknesses. One of them is the simple phrase, “I’m bored.”
When I hear those words, I wonder how they could be bored with me as their father? Next to a certain beer commercial character, I am the most interesting man in the world, right? I play sports, stay current on pop culture, and make clever puns. I’m also one half of a duo that provides electronics, musical instruments, playdates, Legos, and enough reading material to fill up what used to be known as a brick-and-mortar bookstore.
How could my sons lack stimulating activity?
At no other juncture of the year is the phrase, “I’m bored,” uttered as often as the winter holiday break. This is the period when many families close ranks to spend more quality time together. With their friends less available, my kids are stuck with Mom and Dad.
One of our seasonal traditions involves being with extended family for a few days in a rented condo. Continuing a custom she started with my late father, my step-mom gathers us to eat, play, and chat up a storm.
Last year, before driving to the annual get-together I announced to my sons, “No one is allowed to say they’re bored.”
I got plenty of eye-rolls, but a general agreement.
Everything went smoothly for the first night. The kids put away the electronics when asked, laughed with their cousins, and watched a movie with everyone.
By late morning the next day, Ari (then 11) broke the agreement. He plopped on the couch and uttered the fateful words, “I’m bored.”
“You just played soccer with your cousins,” I replied. “You could rest for a bit.”
“Not tired,” he countered.
“How about some backgammon with me?”
“No offense, Dad, but I need something more exciting.”
I bristled, but gathered myself to respond calmly, “Does every moment have to be exciting?”
“I think we’re all going on a boat ride a little later.”
Ari thought for a moment, then said, “Can I play on my phone in the meantime?”
At this point, it occurred to me that the problem here was deeper than boredom. It was impatience. And, doggone it, this was a teaching moment if ever there was one.
“You want to watch a video?”
Ari brightened, thinking we were about to view something with a lot of action or one of his favorite YouTube clips featuring squirrels lip-syncing “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Then I pulled up a TED Talk called “Don’t Eat the Marshmallow,” featuring Joachim de Posada, a decidedly non-superhero-looking motivational speaker.
“Dad, it’s winter break. I really don’t want to learn anything.”
“Trust me, this is interesting.”
So I played the lecture, which involves de Posada stating that he has found the key to success. He references a Stanford University study that involved a number of four year olds who were left in a room with a marshmallow. They were told that if they did not eat the marshmallow for 15 minutes, they could have two marshmallows at that point. The results revealed that two of three children could not wait — some ate the candy right away while others held out almost till the end.
de Posada further explained that, 15 years later, the Stanford researchers followed up with their subjects to see how they were doing. They discovered the kids who had shown patience, the self-discipline to wait for the bigger reward, actually were doing far better in academics, work, and life than the ones who went the immediate or near-immediate gratification route all those years ago.
At the end of the video, which also exhibited footage from a repeat of the study with other children contemplating, sniffing, and eating marshmallows, I asked Ari if he would have eaten the sugary puff.
“Yes,” he said without hesitation.
“Can you see why it might be a good idea to wait?”
Ari ponder this, then reasoned, “You want me to be patient for the boatride.”
“You’re a genius,” I said playfully.
“So, can I have some candy while I wait?”
Wise guy that he was, I let him have some chocolate before he went off to sit on the patio to watch ducks waddle past. He was plenty annoying the rest of the time before we went on that boat, but we had a new code to remind him of the value of forbearance: Don’t eat the marshmallow.
During this holiday season, my sons will again have their patience tried by sitting around with family doing very little of their usually hyper-stimulating activities. However, the gift of boredom — rather, the opportunity to practice patience — is a different kind of present I will try to give them no matter how they push me. My hope is that the gift of making them delay gratification will help them not only later in life but see the wonders of slowing down, being with live human beings, and allowing their minds to wander. Maybe I’m a spoil-sport, but I believe these possibilities are a heckuva lot tastier than marshmallows.
© 2016 Gregory Keer. All rights reserved.