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Three Cheers for Boredom

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"I'm bored."

That's a phrase that no parent cares to hear from her child. In more extreme cases, that's a phrase that provokes my ire.

Avoiding boredom is big business. No more sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic with only the radio to take the edge off the tedium. If you're not moving, you can take out your smart phone and answer your e-mail -- assuming that you're a passenger. Or you can make a call on your cell phone on your Bluetooth if you are the driver to wile away the time.

I recently upgraded to an iPhone, reducing my boredom to "microboredom" -- a term that one cell phone maker has coined to describe those dwindling moments when we have absolutely nothing to do. I'm not the best role model when it comes to microboredom. But I like to think that I'm not so much bored as I am obsessive, another syndrome served by mobile technology. I sit in the carpool line reading e-mail and downloading the news while listening to music from my iPod wafting from the car stereo.

Anna got her microboredom under control years ago when we bought her a video iPod for her Bat Mitzvah. She giddily downloaded everything from movies to episodes of her favorite television shows. The video iPod became a sleeping aid. I should probably be more concerned about this than I am. But as a life-long insomniac, I'm grateful that Anna found something relatively harmless and drug-free to help her fall asleep.

When I was a kid whining about how bored I was, my father would look at me over the thick book he was reading and tell me to read. I'd stomp out of the room with my AM transistor radio and find a quiet place to listen to Top 40 pop. But when that got boring, I got desperate and took his suggestion. Sigh. Yawn. And then something happened. Twenty pages in and I was in a relationship with characters. Plots engaged me. Language fascinated me to the point that I tried to emulate the prose of my favorite writers.

A few years ago, a skulking Adam said there was nothing to do in a house where there are four computers, two DVD players and not one, but two devices on which to play video games. He picked up a Gameboy, but that did nothing for his malaise. My suggestions sounded desperate. What about playing Guitar Hero? Let's play Text Twist -- an online game that adds an unprecedented level of anxiety to a simple word scramble.

Nothing took. I wondered what would happen if he was disconnected from the computer, the television and other forms of technology. At first he acted like a caged animal until I told him to go outside and ride his scooter up and down the driveway.

"For how long?" he mumbled.

"A hundred times," I said.

"You're kidding, Mom. That's as boring as counting sheep."

"Don't fall asleep on your Razor," I said.

It turns out that a bit of fresh air is exactly what my boy needed. He lost count of how many times he went up and down the driveway. He ran into the house rosy-cheeked and hungry. Ah, fresh air -- the time-honored elixir for boredom.

Boredom is a relatively new word in the English language. Charles Dickens is credited as the first writer to use it. The word appears in a very long convoluted novel called Bleak House. I had to read it my sophomore year of college and I must confess I did not finish it. It was boring.

But think about what would have happened if Marcel Proust had not taken a maddeningly, boring amount of time to dunk his madeleine cookie in a cup of tea? We might have a completely different paradigm for the interplay between memory and imagination. And what about philosophy? There would be no existentialism without a substantial dose of boredom.

Researchers who study boredom have found that watching paint dry sparks creativity, imagination and introspection. Young children naturally tolerate boredom and eventually overcome it by simply playing. Have you ever seen a bored toddler? Everything is wondrous to him. His world is full of possibilities all day, every day. Young children see options even in the most mundane of surroundings, the most basic of toys. My children often preferred the box to the toy that came in it.

As children get older, boredom can be menacing. In school it can indicate a lack of understanding or the inverse -- a lack of meaningful challenges in the classroom.

Allowing our kids to confront and overcome boredom is an important life lesson. Maybe we should start by having our kids regularly disconnect from television, computer games, or cell phones. I recently read that the amount of time for an old habit to dissipate and a new one to take root is three weeks. My father must have intuited that. He never gave up on me until I enjoyed reading books as thick as the ones he read.