This will sound strange to anyone who is currently raising children but when I reflect back on my childhood, in spite of being surrounded by adults, very few of those people consistently intersected in my daily reality in a way that felt as instructive or as memorable in the same positive way as the kids I interacted with back then.
Now that might be directly related to my own personal experience or it might actually be related to all children’s degree of freedom back in the 1960s.
Because of my birth order, later than the rest of my siblings, by more than a decade, what I recall most about my childhood has to do with my own time: how I spent that time, the time I spent with other kids and especially the time I spent with my best friend then. We were like a world unto ourselves, the most important humans in each others lives. That realization surprises me as I write it down and I question myself. Is my memory accurate? I think a little harder about important people: my parents, my twin brother, my older sisters, and yes, I think my memory is painting the hierarchy of their priority accurately.
I remember having a lot of time to myself, especially in the summer, to do whatever I wanted. We made our own decisions when to come and go, when to play tennis across the street or go to the playground at the other end of the park, or to peer into our empty classroom windows across the park. We would go to Woodward’s a few blocks away, to the library a few blocks over, to the vacant lot where big kids would tease us about the mythical spotting of Big Foot. Our circumference of exploring in a city the size of New Westminster was relatively small but still allowed for ample freedom.
Other than eating meals with my family, the occasional special outing, and camping in Osoyoos for a few weeks in August, I was a free agent. I could and was expected to amuse myself. To read. To play the piano away from the rest of the family in our basement “rumpus room.” It felt in some way like there was an understanding that adults were not to be bothered because they were too busy with their own lives and had no time to waste, or at least that’s how it seemed to me as a child.
As a result, I seemed, like all kids then, to spend a lot of time in my own company or the company of other kids. We’d explore their basements. We’d climb backyard willow trees. We’d play tag with all the neighborhood kids spreading out like the enemy across yards. We often played board games or sat and did nothing on the couch, to daydream, to negotiate what to do next, to think of ways to amuse ourselves in those endless stretches of summer days.
When we took off from the house in the morning there was no consideration of adult interventions due to cellphones or any of the compelling feelings of urgency we now have around checking e-mail. Technology’s advancement had been paused in our lives and was stuck then at the good old rotary dial phone or the Walkie Talkies we got for Christmas that only really worked between very short distances.
I’ve been reading this book, Solitude, In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World, by Michael Harris. The author refers to UBC researcher, Kalina Christoff, Ph.D., who studies spontaneous thought and mind wandering.
“Given enough solitude and enough time, the mind shifts into default mode and begins to pan through connections that at first seem wholly random,” she says, adding that the “randomness is crucial.” “The power lies in the fact that in this state the brain censors nothing. And it then makes connections that it would never otherwise make. Mind wandering is managing much more than personal memories and a sense of self. The wandering mind is also solving problems in the real world.”
Think of how little time, if any, most of now spend just sitting and staring out the window or being without our cell phones in hand or very nearby. We have no time in our day for mind wandering as a health conscious, creativity-boosting decision.
And certainly, it seems that most children have almost no down time. Every minute is filled with video games, scheduled activities, organized playdates, parents checking in on their whereabouts or directly by their sides.
When I compare my childhood experience to that new reality, it brings me such feelings of absolute claustrophobia on behalf of today’s children. Luckily, they don’t know what they’re missing.
On my recent trip to Quebec, I sat on the plane, a seat apart from a little girl from Salt Spring Island who was traveling on her own. Her relatives would be waiting for her in Toronto.
She was such a self-assured child. Calm. Confident. Able to meet a stranger and engage. Able to use her time and remain okay. In chatting with her, I learned she is a young student at a special school on Salt Spring called Wolfkids an outdoor education school. At her young age, she said she’d even participated in an overnight in the woods, as part of the school’s experiential learning.
I wondered if that is what made the difference in her maturity levels and independence or if it was just related to her own family? I was sure she had spent time daydreaming for extended periods of time even though she was mostly glued to her IPad during the flight.
Christoff speaks to daydreaming as an inherently creative process because the daydreamer is then open to bizarre new thoughts and options. The book refers to some of the greatest inventors: Einstein, Isaac Newton and how retreat and solitude can and have led to intellectual advancement.
It made me wonder how such lack of downtime might be impacting the creative thinking of today’s children. Or has the advancement of technologies merely shaped it in more sophisticated ways? More importantly, how has the lack of solitude, away from the influence of adults, impacted their ability to shape a truly unique self, to create boundaries that prevent some pathological merging of parent and child to such a degree that the child might take even longer to define a unique sense of self.
When was the last time you allowed yourself to just sit and observe, to notice the scents in the air, to pay attention to your random thoughts, cumulus cloud ideas, that inevitably drift by, the occasional one stopping you in your mental tracks with that feeling of an epiphany found?
And then I wondered, would it be philosophically wrong to add such unproductive time use to a weekly To-Do list?