Editor's note: This article was first published on Let Grow, the nonprofit promoting childhood independence and resilience, which provides free materials for schools and parents. It is reprinted here by permission.
Should I worry about all the time my kids spend doing nothing? Sure, if you think that who you are in life is a direct result of your not having wasted time, not even a single minute.
Most of us just aren’t that efficient (she wrote, leaving her computer to get a cup of coffee and then spending 10 minutes scrolling through her emails). (Now 20 minutes.)
All of us spent some of our childhood practicing a skill of truly limited market value, often, for some reason, involving knuckles. Would we be five steps ahead if we’d buckled down and read more Balzac?
Probably not. Because wasted time only looks wasted through the distorting lens of fear.
What’s this about fear?
Berkeley history professor Paula Fass, author of “The End of American Childhood,” explains it this way:
“It actually wasn’t until the 20th century that people started thinking in terms of ‘developmental milestones.’ This is the idea that by age 3 a kid can start to share, and 5-year-olds should understand lying, and at 10 kids start to question parental authority (a stage that lasts another 60 years).”
These milestones — flogged in books, magazines and mommy groups — were responsible for a whole new worry: Is my kid on track? And then, because worrying parents is our culture’s favorite pastime, more and more aspects of childhood started getting “milestoned”: By 3, they should be enrolled in T-ball! Reading at 5! Coding by 10! And if your kid wasn’t hitting those marks?
All bets were off.
That’s the fear.
Meandering off those rigid tracks started looking like falling off a cliff. When actually, it’s just meandering. And meandering is not just normal, it’s good.
Kids don’t see it as wasted time.
In the extremely reassuring book “Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World,” author David Epstein says that when parents try to get kids to do something early, such as learn their letters, any advantage usually disappears in a year or two. And in the meantime, the super-focused, parent-pushed kids have been missing the chance to discover other interests or even talents. (See knuckle tricks, above.)
During the pandemic, kids had so much free time, and it would have been almost impossible for them to fill it with only “enriching” activities. Wasting some of this time is healthy. Very few of us can do our jobs without embarrassingly long breaks to call our sister, surf the web, eat a muffin, or — if you're still working from home — go ahead and bake the muffins.
So, yes, your child is wasting time. Your friendly author is wasting time. (And I never want to eat another muffin again.)
Set aside some time for your kids to go outside (“From 1 to 4, you’ve got to be out of the house!”) or do some chores (“Tuesday and Friday are your dishes days, David!”). But then, you have to trust that kids can be unproductive and still have a bright future.
Letting your kids waste some time shows them you believe in them, even if they aren’t hitting every milestone and “achieving” every second.
That’s not wasted time.