In our busy, hyperactive lives giving our kids the space to do nothing can be the most precious gift we give them.
Last May I made a list.
It’s something I do every spring.
You see, summers in New England are short – meaning, we count the warm days by weeks, not months. And yet there is so much to do: go walk along a rocky beach, pick ripe fruit at a small independent farm, hike up one of the White Mountains, take a ferry to a local island, go swimming in a nearby pond, the list goes on and on.
So. Much. To. Do.
The only way we can be sure to do it all is to make a list, I reason.
I began my summer lists when my husband and I were newly married. Every weekend we’d check the list and cross an item off. When September rolled around the list was covered in strike-throughs – filling me with a sense of a season well-lived.
Having kids only heightened my need for a list – after all, kids are only young for so long – there are only so many summers we can introduce them to our favorite nature preserves, visit local museums or spend the day wandering around a city.
So little time and yet so many opportunities…
Last summer our weeks were packed – we were constantly traveling to visit family, visit a zoo, go to a museum, relax at a local lake.
Exhausted and burnt out, I nonetheless felt a sense of accomplishment: “Another great summer full of memories.” I thought. This summer would be no different as I filled the list with line after line of must-have experiences.
As summer began we started crossing items off: Walk the Boston freedom trail = check! Visit the children’s museum = check!
Then, for a number of weeks we were busy with camps and a trip to see my sister. Nothing was crossed off the list.
But suddenly a free day appeared.
“What should we do tomorrow?” I asked my girls.
“We could go to a museum, drive to the beach, visit Walden pond.”
Blank stares. Both of them looked down and shrugged. Neither had an opinion it seemed…I kept probing.
“Or we could go pick strawberries,” I said with an eager smile thinking this one would be a winner.
We need to do something – I worried – or else how will we get to everything on our list!?
Finally, my oldest looked up and in a sorrowful voice said: “Mom, could we just do nothing tomorrow?”
Huh. This wasn’t the response I was expecting. Weren’t my kids eager to explore? Visit local attractions and take in all that summer had to offer?
“Um…yeah, sure, of course” I responded. And that’s when it began to hit me.
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Giving our kids the gift of doing nothing
During the school year our family is busy. As in hurry-up-and-finish-your-dinner-so-we-can-move-onto-our-next-activity busy.
I didn’t plan our life to be this way – it just happened.
One activity after another kept creeping in. One minute my oldest was signed up for her first dance class and the next our family had five activities scheduled for nearly every afternoon, including a few on weekends.
As much as I tried to resist all this busyness, it was hard to say no – between the lessons I felt were important (swimming) and the sports they love (basketball and gymnastics), one activity after another kept adding on until our free time slowly dwindled away.
It was beginning to feel like we were constantly doing something.
Obviously, my daughter felt the same.
In our sped-up world of activity, she longed to sit still.
Doing nothing and so much more
As a kid, I loved to do nothing too.
There were many afternoons when the weather was warm that I’d wander through the woods beside our family home. Often I’d end up at what I called “my rock” – a formation on the top of a hill that looked out over my family’s home and property.
I’d sit there – by myself – sometimes for hours, doing…nothing.
I’d look a the trees surrounding me and feel a sense of comfort.
I’d reflect on my day and try to come to peace with whatever challenge I had faced.
I’d dream about my future and what I might become.
Sometimes I’d pretend to be someone else and imagine what it would be like to live a different life.
That solitude, that alone time, that time to dream – it was heaven.
As I’d walk back to our house I felt recharged – still a bit anxious about the world I was growing into – but better. More balanced. More at peace.
So when my daughter said she’d rather do nothing – I understood. I’d been there once too.
And when I stopped to think about it, doing nothing sounded…amazing.
The next morning we woke up and shortly after breakfast I peered outside.
Sitting on a swing was my daughter swaying back and forth, shuffling her feet in the dust on the ground. Doing nothing.
She sat there for at least an hour – swinging side to side – lost in her own thoughts.
It looked like she was being unproductive, wasting time, but I knew there was so much more going on.
After that day in mid-July, I forgot about the list.
Sure we went into the city to visit Dad at his new job and made several trips to our pool. But over the next few weeks, we bathed in the luxury of taking one day at a time. Doing nothing or something. It was up to us. No pressure, no list.
This is what we can give our kids – to slow down, reflect, connect with their thoughts, and best of all dream.
Research shows that making space in our lives to do nothing helps kids and adults in so many ways. See these related articles to find out why:
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Kerry Flatley is the owner and author of Self-Sufficient Kids. She is the mother of two girls and a certified positive discipline parent educator. In addition to this training, Kerry has read countless books and articles about how to raise strong, independent kids and put these ideas into practice with her own children. Kerry also holds a BA in economics, an MBA, and a certificate in financial planning.