It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Boredom, a mini-rant

A new child will be joining us each Monday, a three year old boy by name of Hunter. Today I had arranged to meet with Hunter and his mommy at a local park. This is a good strategy on lots of levels. The park is a neutral environment, so the children are less likely to get territorial about toys and space; I get to suss out the play style of the new child; I get a window into how the child and parent interact; and the parent and I have more opportunity to talk while the children cavort in the dirt than we would in my living room with the children directly underfoot. It’s a good strategy all round.

Various children will interact in different ways, depending on their ages and characters. Three-year-olds generally start off ignoring each other, and will gradually, almost inevitably begin to play together. I had to prevent Hunter’s very Earnest Mommy (sigh) from forcing the Very Proper Social Introduction, but once convinced that there was a method to my madness, all proceeded according to expectation. Mine, anyway!

By the end of two and a half hours, Darcy and Hunter were charging around in a thrilling game of chase-me, all the while calling out directions and suggestions to each other, true hallmarks of the ongoing morphing that makes a truly great imaginery game.

Mommy took the opportunity of their preoccupation to tell me All About Hunter. Hunter is pure delight, though not without his challenges. Hunter shouts a lot. Hunter does not eat vegetables. Hunter does not lie down for naps. (What, he stands?) Hunter still has a bottle. Sometimes Hunter will hit Mommy or shout at her. Hunter screams at strangers in the street. None of these bothered me much at all. I can’t imagine I’ll have any trouble with these behaviours. Not more than once, anyway.

It was the last one she threw at me that told me I had a true project coming my way. Hunter, you see, doesn’t tolerate boredom well. All those nasty behaviours? Merely the result of boredom. As long as he is kept occupied, he is no trouble at all. None at all. It is clear that Mommy expects Hunter’s days with Mary will be a steady stream of activities and stimulation, just like they’ve been all his life so far. There are very clearly no expectations that Hunter could in any way be responsible for his own entertainment. Nope. His role is passive recipient, the adult’s is constant entertainer. I could feel the headache coming on…

Hunter’s days with Mary will be spent learning to chill out and amuse himself. My highest priority for this boy: helping him learn that he is his own best resource for entertainment. If not, as a teen Hunter will almost certainly join all those other worthy young people hanging out in the parking lot of your local coffee shop at midnight, indulging in petty vandalism for thrills because he’s bored, and lord knows, if a child is bored, he couldn’t possibly be expected to come up with something constructive to do with his time, all by his own self…


September 19, 2005 - Posted by | controversy, manners, parenting


  1. Hey, Mary, where’s the next tantrum installment? 🙂

    And thanks for the comments about boredom. When I was a teenager, I found that the people who tended towards the behaviors you mentioned (and worse) tended to be some of the most bored and boring people in the school.

    Comment by Nicole | September 19, 2005 | Reply

  2. Wowzers. Correcting bad behaviours should be a la carte services. And you should definitely get pay raises based on your performance.

    Do you think this boredom arises out of the abundance of technology and material things? Machines do things for us, think for us, and entertain us. Are we digging our own grave or what?

    Or maybe Hunter just watches too much TV?

    So how do I teach my one year old to entertain herself and stop screaming when I leave the room?

    Comment by ieatcrayonz | September 19, 2005 | Reply

  3. This belief that children need to be “entertained” all the time is one of the most worrying of the new parenting trends, in my opinion.

    I think it’s come about for a variety of reasons:
    1) children have alot more “stuff” now – they don’t need to pretend a twig is a sword, they have a dozen swords in their dressing up box.
    2) parents worry about safety much more – no longer can children play in the street with the next door neighbour, they must stay safely in the house.
    3) Parents feel they must give their child the best opportunity to excel at things, so only let them do things under the supervision of a professional – football in the park just can’t be as good as going to a football club.

    There are a number of others too, about working parents, the rise of “negotioated play”, and a change in our social structures & family situations, as well as the mobile population. However, I believe that we are raising a generation of people who are unable to think for themselves, and I foresee a major problem with a skill shortage for many careers looming!

    The thing is, it’s so easy to fall into – while they are being channelled, you know they are safe, sdoing something suitable & not getting into trouble.

    Comment by Mrs.Aginoth | September 19, 2005 | Reply

  4. You should print this up and sell it to Hallmark – you’re going to make a mint…you’re bloody brilliant m’dear!
    “There are very clearly no expectations that Hunter could in any way be responsible for his own entertainment.”

    My Aidan would have a thing or two to teach dear Hunter…about the joy of discovering the world around you – at your own pace and setting your own course! (Not!)

    I can only imagine how you’d whip my brood into shape…(say, are you busy for the next 6 weeks?)

    Comment by Heather | September 19, 2005 | Reply

  5. It’s too bad you’ll only have him one day a week. He’ll six whole days to unlearn the things you’re teaching him.

    This is why they should make us parents take a class or something.

    Comment by Matthew | September 19, 2005 | Reply

  6. Good Lord. That is kid is 3 and uses a bottle!?! He can’t entertain himself?? He shouts and hits until someone does a jig for him? What the . . . ! (I just can’t curse on your blog, Mary. You writing is so NICE . . . it just wouldn’t be right.)

    Here’s what I don’t understand: if we live in an independent culture, then aren’t we doing our children a disservice if we don’t teach them how to BE independent? Does Hunter’s mum expect others to entertain him his entire freakin’ life?


    Comment by MIM | September 19, 2005 | Reply

  7. Princess number one told me she was bored the other day and my reply floored her. I said “good”.

    I then proceeded to explain that she should think of something interesting to do.

    She hasn’t gotten any traction with the “bored” thing around the house. The Queen of All She Surveys subscribes to the exact same doctrine: Boredom is life’s way of telling you to be more inventive!

    Comment by Simon P. Chappell | September 19, 2005 | Reply

  8. Nicole: Oops, sorry. Actually, I didn’t forget, I just didn’t get to it. But I will, I will!!

    You’ve just quoted me. On the exceedingly rare occasions my children complain of boredom (having long since learned that lesson) they will hear “Bored people are boring. Go find something to do.”

    Crayonz: A la carte!! I absolutely LOVE it. What a phenomenal idea!! The only problem is, I can totally eradicate a behaviour when the kid is with me, but the moment they step over the threshhold and into their parent’s loving arms, there it is again.

    The boredom arises, I think, from never being expected to deal with it on your own, to be creative and get over it. Do television and computer games play a role? Yes, in that the child is, once again, in a completely passive role.

    Screaming one-year-old? Tell her, with a smile, that you’ll be back in a minute. Repeat once. Then just go. When you return, give her a big hug. Key: if you let the screaming control your behaviour, or it will continue.

    Or, you could just opt to take her with you, and not fight that particular battle for another three or four months. By eighteen months, she should be able to tolerate short separations from you. Right now, I’d say it’s your call.

    Mrs A: Good analysis. There are probably all manner of factors, and I think you’ve nailed a number of them. At the age I deal with, parental aversion to risk is a huge factor. And this notion that children must always be stimulated and enriched, their every single waking moment.

    Heather: Brilliant? Why, thank you. It comes of having worked with the same age group for the better part of a decade. There is nothing new under the sun any more. Well, not much!

    The next six weeks? Just like Nanny 911?? Where did you say you lived? If it’s Hawaii, I’ll do it for free.

    Matthew: Parenting classes would be great, as long as they’re not taught by politically correct Earnest Mommy/Daddy social worker types. Which they likely would be…

    And yes, six days to unlearn. The reason I prefer full time over part-time!

    mim: Oh, how gratifying to know that my modelling even works on ADULTS. And adults as outspoken as yourself, even. Wow!

    Yes, it’s pretty sad, isn’t it? However, I confess to a large degree of anticipation. I quite enjoy the challenge of this type of behaviour: and the shock of awareness when the child realizes his repertoire of behaviours simply don’t work with me. If his mother isn’t teaching him – as she’s manifestly not – he’ll learn independence with me, and I will have the satisfaction of knowing he’s better prepared for the world because of his time with me. Churning out useful, well-rounded citizens of our future world, that’s me!

    Simon: What a GREAT slogan! “Life’s way of telling you to be more inventive.” I subscribe to it absolutely. You are now an oracle who I will quote with great satisfaction.

    Comment by Mary P. | September 19, 2005 | Reply

  9. When my first son was a baby, I read somewhere (I won’t go bashing any more parenting books this week) that one should never EVER leave the baby alone. Period. And I thought, really? REALLY? After we knocked ourselves out to create safe spaces for him in our home, we can NEVER leave him to his own devices?

    I’m not talking about going to the mall while the baby languishes at home, but I would regularly sit near the baby, while he played with his toys, by himself, and read the paper or or fold laundry or pay bills or whatever. And now both of my children are happy to play together (without me) and alone (without me!), or to read books or build forts or–whatever.

    And we are rarely bored. And we don’t kick or hit or scream at strangers in the street. Although that sounds like fun . . .

    Comment by Susan | September 19, 2005 | Reply

  10. Oh. Dear. Lord.

    Not one of those.

    Comment by Haley | September 20, 2005 | Reply

  11. Susan, as part of my job I teach Child Protection courses, and the one part of the syllabus I take issue with is the scenario “leaving a four year old playing on his own”, which the authorities say should land you in jail. When I point out that I do this all the time, I get looks of horror, quickly replaced by sideways glances as they decide if they should report me or not (I’ve not had social services turn up on my doorstep yet). Again, obviously (I ndon’t leave the house,m but I will often go to another room, or even another floor while my four year old is busy playing, and consider this safe, normal and correct!

    Comment by Mrs.Aginoth | September 20, 2005 | Reply

  12. Well Mary, I have utter faith that you will be whipping this kid into shape in no time (and taking away that BOTTLE!) I am currently knee-deep in teaching my daughter to amuse herself.

    Comment by Misfit Hausfrau | September 20, 2005 | Reply

  13. Mrs. A: I must be a terrible dad then, because I send them off to play in their rooms, or they run around in the garden while I’m working on ourdoor chores. Oh and heaven forbid that I should admit to taking a nap while they’re down in the den watching cartoons.

    *hangs head in shame*


    Comment by Simon P. Chappell | September 20, 2005 | Reply

  14. Susan: Never leave your baby alone? Never, ever? But why? What could be the rationale. (Could you email me the book’s title? I’m curious. It wouldn’t be by Dr. Sears, perchance?)

    I am completely opposed to this widely prevalent notion that Good Parenting consists of subjecting yourself absolutely to your baby’s needs. It’s outrageous: impossible to achieve, and bad for your child, anyway. Never leave them alone, forsooth! Pah.

    Haley: Indeed. I am not sure whether to be relieved or dismayed that I only have him a day a week.

    Mrs A: what do they mean by “playing on his own”? Leaving him for an hour so you can go shopping – well, yes, that’s negligent and criminal. Leaving him playing in the livingroom while you go downstairs to put in a load of laundry, or go to another room to read for a while? Good lord. What kind of kids are we raising?

    Hausfrau: The bottle doesn’t much bother me. I will simply take it when his mother hands it to me, and that will be the last he sees of it. If asked, I’ll say, “No bottles in Mary’s house”, and immediately change the subject. Done with the right attitude and body language (reeking of confidence) they rarely argue.

    I have to admit I’m rather looking forward to this. This little lad will not know what has hit him at first, but once the dust has settled, he’ll be a much happier tyke in the end. And even if I can’t teach his parents more effective patterns, at least their boy will be better prepared for school and the rest of the real world.

    Simon: I am not currently in the same room as the boys. They are in the kitchen adjacent to the dining room in which I type. I can hear them – oh, they just charged through, laughing uproariously, and now I can see them again. They’re having far too much constructive fun. Obviously I’m not attending to them nearly enough!

    Comment by Mary P. | September 20, 2005 | Reply

  15. Mary, you know exactly where I stand on this! And it’s firmly on YOUR side of the line!

    Comment by misfit | September 20, 2005 | Reply

  16. Just when you think you’re in the minority, you find yourself in the middle of like-minded people. Isn’t it great? Though I don’t think you’d find many caregivers who didn’t share this attitude.

    Comment by Mary P. | September 20, 2005 | Reply

  17. I keep two of my friends’ children and am SOOO like you in your thinking on this! I would only hope if I ever had to leave my children with someone else during the days, it would be with someone like you. You go, Girl!

    Comment by Jill | September 20, 2005 | Reply

  18. Perhaps I’m susceptible to modeling. Perhaps I just have good manners. You’ll never know!

    Comment by MIM | September 20, 2005 | Reply

  19. Jill: Welcome!! And thanks for the words of encouragement.

    mim: I’m quite sure you’re eminently civilized. Only the most cultured know when and how to break the rules to best effect!

    Comment by Mary P. | September 21, 2005 | Reply

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