'Bored' children may be the happiest of all
Broadcaster and dad Ray D'Arcy tells Joe Donnelly kids are sometimes best left to their own devices
A RESEARCHER at a British university has reignited one of the more interesting parenting debates of our time. Does it make you a selfish parent if you do not spend every possible minute playing with or entertaining your child? Do you feel guilty if you have an email to send or clothes to iron and the kids are by themselves in the toy room or sitting in front of the telly?
An education expert at the University of East Anglia is claiming we should not worry about children being bored, because it stimulates their imagination. Next time they complain about having nothing to do, just explain that it is good for their 'internal stimulus'.
Back in my day, I do not think we had an internal stimulus – but neither did we have mobile phones, tablets or hand-held gaming devices. The experts are warning that we are keeping our children too busy, especially in front of screens.
Is it a symptom of modern parenting that we are indulging our children in all these options because we are worried they will feel left out among their peers? Or is it because we are too busy and simply do not have time to make a fort or play with the doll's house?
Or, on the other hand, is it that a sense of guilt compels us to make sure our kids always have something to do?
Broadcaster Ray D'Arcy has two children with his partner, Jenny. Kate is six and Tom is almost one.
Ray points out that parenting is very different from what it was a couple of generations ago. "We analyse what we do, and how it is going to affect our children, a lot more than our parents did," he says. "With that probably comes a bit of guilt."
Ray describes how growing up in Kildare was never boring.
"I'm from a family of nine and lived in an estate when I was growing up," he says. "There was a big patch of green and we just went out and we played and played – there were no 'play dates' back then. During the summer months, you were shoved out in the morning and told not to come back until your dinner was ready.
"I suppose that's why it was easier years ago – there were bigger families and more company for kids. The local 'network' was bigger, because people did not move away as much, or as quickly."
Ray also points to developments in technology and how they have changed the game for parents.
"The ways in which children can be entertained nowadays are myriad and they do not require much or any input from the parents. I would definitely be of the opinion that this is a bad thing."
Is this issue of keeping kids entertained something that preoccupies Ray in relation to his own children?
"I do think we have to be careful not to overanalyse things," he says. "Kate got one of those kids' tablets for Christmas, but she's only used it a handful of times. She doesn't have a Nintendo DS, she's increasingly watching less television, and what she's doing now is playing with her brother – which is a new experience for her – or drawing.
"She draws a lot. Her reading has come on in leaps and bounds."
He makes the point that research suggesting children can stimulate their imaginations and satisfy their need for play should only be taken as an overview.
"I know some experts would say parents are too quick to stick on a DVD or hand over the phone or whatever, but I think it would be dangerous to make generalisations," he says.
"I look at my siblings and see how different we all are now. We were also different as children, and I think parents have to be aware of that with their own kids: each one is a different person.
"Some children will need a lot more stimulation than others, but others will be happy to be by themselves and spend time in their own company. Kate is definitely in the latter category."
But can Ray and Jenny leave Kate to her own devices, safe in the knowledge that she will busy herself with no need for accompaniment?
"That wouldn't work with Kate. What would work is a play date, or if a girl from across the road or school comes over to play, and then you won't see them for hours," says Ray.
"Kate was an only child for almost six years. Jenny and I were very aware of the fact that she craved other children's company. Kate's very gregarious, and that's the kind of child she is. She'd crave our company, too, and some people might say, 'You've created that situation yourselves', but every child is different and some enjoy or need company more than others.
"She's become a little bit better over the past year in spending time by herself, going into her room to play with her dolls or just colouring."
For working parents, it can often be a challenge to summon the energy – even the will – every evening to fully engage with their children. People are tired, often overworked or under some sort of pressure, and their feelings are compounded by a sense of the need to spend quality time with their children.
An unspoken truth is that many would love to just put on a film or switch on the Nintendo, so that they can put their feet up and read a magazine or just stare out the window.
D'Arcy admits that spending time with your kids and playing their games can be boring, but he considers himself lucky to at least have the option of doing it."
"Kate rarely sees me on the phone at home," he says. "If she wants me to go and draw with her, I'll do that, or if she wants me to go out on the trampoline, I'll do that.
"Unless I'm cooking a dinner or something, we'll do things together. But I'm lucky in that I go to work early and I'm home around four o'clock, and now with the bright evenings it's even better."
He makes an interesting point that could be at the root of this current parenting debate, and many others, too: we have become victims of our own evolutional intelligence.
'I take it there are some people who think kids should be allowed to be bored and so on," says Ray, "but I believe now that we are a mismatch. As a species we have changed our environment so much that we are actually out of place in it. So a lot of modern ailments, both mental and physical, are because we have developed our brains and advanced so much.
"For example, a lot of the meat we consume is heavily processed. We've developed this type of food production in the name of convenience, but they're discovering now it's not healthy for us. Also, a lot of new technology conspires to make us sedentary, so we no longer have to move as much.
"If you hand them a bit of technology every time they're bored, I'd have to say that's not good. Jenny and I have talked about this, and it's about the debate in question here, and we've agreed that Kate does need to develop strategies for being on her own. But that's a good life skill, isn't it? And we've seen a change in her, and she can do that sort of thing now."
I am a father of two boys aged seven and four, and lately I have been encouraging them to discover their own 'internal stimulus' when they start whining at me that they are bored. I must admit I did at first feel a bit guilty. Maybe I was conditioned by the prevailing parenting wisdom, or the loudest message being shouted by the parenting gurus.
I have discovered that the best games they have now, once I switch off the telly and rule out any electronic gaming, are the ones involving chairs, blankets and boxes.
Even though I will use the 'spare' time to do some writing, cooking or cleaning, I am not averse to hopping on board the 'pirate ship'.
And you know what? It's actually rather good fun.