Month: August 2016

MIDLIFE MUSINGS: “Boredom always precedes a period of great creativity” – Robert M Pirsig


OK, so that’s done. Another school year successfully completed – check. Time to file away the school books, stow away the uniforms, load up the car and head off to a campsite in the sun. This will be our third year of camping in France for our family holiday. (Actually ‘glamping’. This year our ‘tent’ has a bathroom.) We’d better make the most of it – Europe might not let us in next year.

A key item on the packing list is CHARGERS! Yes, it’s in capital letters, with an exclamation mark. Apparently we’ll need chargers for five mobiles, an iPad, three DSs, a PSP, a PS Vita, and probably several miscellaneous gadgets that I don’t even know about. We even have a special CHARGERS! bag for the car including the extra wire that plugs into the (what used to be a) cigarette lighter. All the little charger wires like to have their own summer dance party and get all tangled up minutes after we’ve set off. Usually, someone needs a charger to be untangled exactly at the moment when I’ve got a portable kitchen worktop on my knees and am halfway through making ‘baguettes three ways’ for lunch on the go.

But, something doesn’t quite feel right about this. I can’t quite put my finger on it. Ah yes – I know. WE’RE ON A FAMILY HOLIDAY! So, we shouldn’t really be playing on gadgets at all! There is beautiful scenery to look at and conversations to have. And maybe a singalong. (Of course, I’ll need my phone … for emergencies, checking bookings etc…)

The problem is we get a little twitchy about the idea that people might be bored on long car journeys and during the endlessly flowing days of summer. These days, our children’s time is so highly structured that they aren’t used to shuffling around wondering what to do. Having six weeks of freedom on their hands is unfamiliar and slightly daunting, and it’s all too easy to turn to electronic gadgets, television, and the seemingly endless YouTube videos of Stampy doing Minecraft. But shuffle and moan they must, because only then will they come up with their own crazy ideas of what they want to do – not just that day, but maybe even for life. Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips wrote in his book On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life (fab title – must get it) that “the capacity to be bored can be a developmental achievement for the child”. Dr Teresa Belton, visiting fellow at the University of East Anglia with a focus on the connection between boredom and imagination, says that boredom is crucial for developing “internal stimulus” which then allows true creativity.

I am nostalgic for the hot summers of the late 1970s, when I pegged cardboard tabs to the back wheel of my bike so that it would sound like a motorbike when I cycled up and down the lane. That’s when I wasn’t riding an imaginary horse and talking like a cowboy and pretending to chew gum (I wasn’t allowed real gum), or sitting with my feet in a bucket of cold water in the garden reading Famous Five books, or taking the dog for a really long walk and getting just a little bit lost. There were no gadgets, and I was never bored.

So being bored leads to creativity. Give a child time to think and they’ll naturally come up with something, and that something could well shape their future. Meera Syal apparently spent hours of her childhood staring out of the window across fields and woods and eventually started writing, and Ed Sheeran’s parents banned television so he used to while away his time in his room strumming his guitar. As Keith Richards said “give me a guitar, give me a piano, give me a broom and string, I wouldn’t get bored anywhere”.

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MIDLIFE MUSINGS: “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” – Albert Einstein

If we look a little smug and relieved over here, please indulge us. Our first family GCSE mission has been accomplished, and there is a certain amount of deserved euphoria in the house. High five everyone! Group hug! Go us! It involved much proper hard work, chatting about history (actually properly fascinating! Who knew?!), bonding with Dad over trigonometry, and playing the piano. I didn’t force her to play the piano, you understand. I’m not quite that ‘Tiger Mom’. No, she chose the exam period to learn the theme music of The Imitation Game. (If only there was a GCSE in teach yourself piano via YouTube tutorials…) So, one down, two to go. Probably, we’ll be more relaxed for child two. Possibly, by child three, we won’t even realise it’s that time again and accidentally go on holiday.

I was interested to read recently that personality, intelligence and achievement may not be hereditary, as commonly thought, but due to parenting and environmental factors – in other words, nurture not nature. This is a little disconcerting when I recall how often I popped the kids in front of the telly when they were little, when I probably should have been doing alphabet puzzles. It also means that we can no longer blame Mad Aunt Ethel for our child’s propensity to daydream and doodle in maths lessons.

The reason for this current line of thinking is because after sixteen years of research on Human Genome Project, geneticists have yet to find any specific DNA variants that influence our psychology. While genes clearly influence physical traits such as wonky noses and dimples, there is no evidence that they determine how clever, funny or happy we are. Psychologist Oliver James, in his book Not In Your Genes, says that “the crucial ingredient that passes down the generations is not genes but patterns of nurture”.

TV guilt aside, there are upsides. For a start, you can genuinely say to your children, “you can achieve whatever you want to achieve!”, without secretly thinking “except astrophysics, because we have a genetic weakness in that area”. If your child is struggling with something and you say “Oh yes I was rubbish at that too”, they may think it’s their destiny to fail at it. This research lets genetics off the hook. If it’s assumed that every child has the potential to do well then it’s more likely that they will.

James’s book goes on to investigate how our behaviour has been influenced by our own childhood experiences, and that of our parents, and so on. To understand the main factors driving our personality, he suggests picturing our parents’ and grandparents’ lives when they were young. This gives us an insight into the deeply entrenched personality traits that have been passed down the generations, and suddenly all will become clear why we have a fondness for/aversion to overwork/cleanliness/milking cows/hugging.

Although we don’t necessarily exhibit the exact idiosyncrasies to which we were exposed as children, we are likely to be influenced by them in some way, even if by rejecting them. Gina Ford, author of Contented Little Baby, who advocates strict routines to get babies to sleep on their own, slept in her mother’s bed until the age of 11. On the other hand, Penelope Leach, who encourages lots of cuddling in The Essential First Year was modelling her positive experiences from her mother but rejecting those of her not so cuddly father. As Oscar Wilde said, “Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.”

While none of this is rocket science and in fact inconclusive, it is somewhat liberating. If our children are unhindered by genetics then so are we. We too can achieve whatever we want if we just put our minds to it. And if that makes us happy and fulfilled, then, as Japanese writer Shinichi Suzuki sums up, “Children learn to smile from their parents”.

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