I didn’t have cable television until I was in the second grade. I remember it clearly. It was February, 1984. I walked down the hill from the school I attended just two blocks away in Stafford Springs, Connecticut. As I arrived at home, my mother greeted me outside and told me about our new acquisition.
I was ecstatic. No more fidgeting with rabbit ears. No more clicking the switch to alternate between VHF for the channels that came in fairly clearly, and UHF for everything else. No more sitting with my ear almost pressed against the plastic speaker panel, turning the tuning knob with aching fingers for thirty minutes while using my body’s own unique electromagnetic field to help improve (if only barely) the latest episode of Transformers, so riddled with static that, were I not so obsessed with robots at that age, I would have just given up.
I headed up the stairs to our apartment and promptly binge-watched Nickelodeon until my mother sent me to bed.
What followed was a predictable, years-long tryst with the one-eyed monster. From Dungeons & Dragons (the cartoon) to Danger Mouse, Voltron, Tranzor-Z, The Mighty Orbots, M.A.S.K., and an entire host of shows based almost entirely on their toy-lines, I was an 80s-cartoon addict. And without the time-shifting capabilities made available with the advent of the DVR fifteen years later, I was at the beck-and-call of my television, showing up on time, every time, or I’d miss my favorite shows.
My mother wised up fast, instilling daily time limits. These were relaxed on Saturday mornings, when my brother and I would get up early and run into the living room in our underwear before the sun was up, fighting over blankets as we settled in to get our fix before my parents were awake. We never had sweetened cereals, so we’d load our cornflakes with sugar from the bowl and watch until we got kicked outside, or the programming changed over to something boring, whichever came first.
For all the television watching we did, we spent a lot of time, and most of our summers, doing other things. I took swimming lessons at the lake. I played outside with my brother and our friends, cutting secret tunnels through forsythia and lilac bushes, climbing trees, riding bikes, and building traps in the yard to snare our imaginary enemies. We’d build forts wherever we could assemble the materials, whether it was by the back garden or in our living room, where we’d make them from blankets, couch cushions, and the sheets of wood paneling samples my dad would bring home from work. We traded Garbage Pail Kids through the fence with our neighbors, and would walk to the store to buy Bonkers candy or Lik-M-Aid. In the winter, we would sled down the slope of our yard and over the jump off the four-foot high rock wall into the street, before curving down the road as far as our courage would take us. I’d make radio shows with cassette tapes on our Zenith stereo system, recording music from my father’s vinyl collection or just talking into the chrome and plastic microphones tethered to the giant machine by threads of shiny black polymer cord. I drew pictures. I wrote stories. I read books.
I am a member of perhaps the last generation to remember what life was like before the Internet and cell phones. My frequent trips to the public library led me to master the card catalog and Dewey Decimal System, and I devoured books like they were going out of style. In my exploratory jaunts around our small town, everything — my school, our parish, the grocery store, the library, my friends’ houses, the appliance store where we’d beg for refrigerator boxes to play in — was within walking distance. If I needed to get in touch with my mother I’d have to find a pay phone and hope I had some change. I went pretty much everywhere by myself, despite my young age, and it worked out just fine.
These days, things are different. My children have access to technology I could only dream of when I was a kid. The computing power in my phone is exponentially greater than the giant desktop PC my parents bought when I was ten. The Internet, an ever-expanding panoply of devices, and asynchronous streaming media have made watching the clock so you didn’t miss your favorite show seem quaint. The video games available now have graphics more realistic than the big-budget movies we watched as kids, let alone what could be loaded on the bricks of deceptively-labeled plastic slotted into our wood-paneled Atari 2600 consoles.
It’s never been easier to lose yourself completely in the glow of a screen and not even come up for air. The patience required by a programming schedule or the antics required to get a good signal or the setting up a VCR to record or the need to learn MS-DOS commands has been replaced with the ease of always-on entertainment piped through beautiful high definition displays and touch screen navigation so simple that my 18-month old can use them effortlessly. Our machines have simultaneously become more powerful and more simple to use, and their shiny interfaces awash in a rainbow of dazzling colors make them as attractive to our kids as the now-extinct stores full of barrels of penny candy were to us.
I am not anti-technology. But something is very wrong with the slavish immersion brought on by our device-addled world. As adults, we hypocritically lament the way everyone always has their face buried in their phone just as a text comes in that we reflexively reach to answer.
But for our children, it’s even worse.
As parents, it’s way too easy to let devices babysit our kids. I work from home. When I’m on a deadline and have work to do, it’s almost a relief when my three-year-old comes to me, sent as an emissary from his older siblings who have calculated that his cuteness will add potency to his request, and asks me with big eyes, “Can we watch something?”
Yes. I think. Please. I have work to do and I can’t take the frenetic symphony of destruction you’re all engaged in if I’m ever going to finish.
“Yes.” I say. “But only for a little while.” It no sooner leaves my lips than I see it for the lie it is. I have a lot to do. I will lose track of the time. They will be in front of the damn screen for hours. And I will live with the guilt, just so I can sit in front of mine, doing what I need to do. Or think I need to do.
This year, as school wound down and summer vacation approached, I warned my kids I was done with letting them live under the radiant tyranny of electronics. I was willing to brave the constant furtive pleas to “watch something,” or “play iPad,” or “play computer”. I was willing to put up with the incessant, whining complaint that every parent loathes: “BUT I’M SO BORED.”
Whether for our children or simply for ourselves, we must remember something that as a digital culture we seem to have lost sight of: boredom is not some affliction to be avoided, but rather a gift to be embraced. A mind unencumbered by external stimulation is the perfect environment for creativity to flourish. Imagination is a thing that happens when the electricity goes out.
When our minds are overloaded by constant stimulation, they lose their natural capacity to do what they do best: make stuff up. They become lazy and elastic, distending to accommodate the glut of easy-to-digest input we gorge them on. We have to get through the initial phantom pain being disconnected a remote or a screen to get in touch with that massive computer we have between our ears. We need to sit in silence, not just to contemplate God and the beauty of His creation, but to participate fully in our own roles, given to us by him, as co-creators.
Where are the great sculptors, painters, and musicians of the 21st Century? Where are our Caravaggios and Bouguereaus, our Michaelangelos and Berninis, our Mozarts and Palestrinas?
Playing Call of Duty or Candy Crush. Binge-watching Netflix. Staring at Facebook. Tweeting. Instagraming. Watching funny videos on YouTube.
We all have our preferred distractions. And in moderation, most of them are perfectly fine. But moderation is not something many of us are very good at. It’s why most of us, myself included, are overweight and out of shape. We sit like Pavlov’s dog, clicking the mouse button and salivating as we await our dopamine hit, always looking for the next high.
We demand to be entertained.
I once read a quote from a famous novelist who, when considering the reasons for his success, wrote:
I suspect I have spent just about exactly as much time actually writing as the average person my age has spent watching television, and that, as much as anything, may be the real secret here.
It’s something that has stuck with me over the years. I still spend way too much time online, which is, I suppose, an occupational hazard for a publisher of things on the Internet. And I do draw inspiration from television, movies, and social media, though I see them as resources providing diminishing returns. When possible, I try to spend the time I am in front of a device creating something, rather than consuming it. Writing. Designing. Building a website. The website you are reading this on right now was put together in the hours that I would have, just a few years ago, whittled away playing computer games.
These days, I hope that at the very least my growing self-awareness of too much time spent staring into screens will lead me to make some positive changes. To sit on my back porch and stare at the trees, even though they do not glow. To lie on the floor and play Legos with my kids. To get back to sculpting and painting and drawing. To go hiking. To go shooting. To get up earlier to pray, before the distractions of the day set in.
My commitment to keep my kids away from devices this summer has waxed and waned. I’m weak, and I’ve failed in holding the line more than I care to admit. It’s the easy road, and who doesn’t want to take that once in a while? In my better moments, I muster up my resolve and remember why I wanted to limit it all in the first place. Today is one of those days.
Right now, I’m pretty sure whoever is upstairs is going to come through the floor any second in a shower of plywood splinters and drywall dust. The baby has a giant spoon, with which he’s pretending to eat a decorative pine cone out of a purple plastic bowl. He’s wearing nothing but a diaper, which makes it easier to clean him in the wake of all the messes he makes. There is distant screaming, which my right brain is automatically scanning for notes of pain, rather than play. The blanket fort I know they are building in the living room is one I will have to clean up. I don’t even want to know how sticky the kitchen floor is right now. Several of the children are now shrieking in delight as they try to catch a small blue and yellow-striped lizard that has somehow found its way into my office. Someone is picking at the keys of the piano. The three year old just got beaned in the head with the remnants of a Nerf gun.
It’s chaotic and distracting, but it’s real. Learning how to play, how to deal with others, how to make up games and build things and deal with messes — it’s all part of growing up. They’ve only asked me five or six times this morning to drug them with electronics. So far, they’ve dealt pretty well with my emphatic “No.” Less visceral disappointment. I think they’re merely probing my defenses. It’s a process. They’ve been learning to deal with it all summer, and they keep getting better at it the more they find themselves with no other choice.
Boredom is a gift that bears many-splendored fruit. Maybe one of these days, I’ll get better at making time for it, too.
Originally Published on August 27, 2014.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have eight children. You can find more of his writing at his Substack, The Skojec File.
Excellent post, Mr. Skojec. ABS is older than you but what you wrote bought back many personal memories but it also caused me to think about Roger Miller, the country singer from the country who, was raised without TV and whose long walks twixt school and home inspired not only his imaginative lyrics but also the use of his voice as an instrument – ephing (sp?) , the country version of scat singing.
As for my own children and their unhappiness with my – go outside and play – rules, after a few minutes of gentle griping, they always found things to do.
Isn’t it funny how quickly they adapt? You’d think it’s life ending. Next thin you know, they’re building something out of the landscaping rocks.
You had cable in second grade? Wow. I must be older than you, because we didn’t get cable TV until this millennium.
When me, my sister and my brother were kids, we had Mr. Potato Head, blocks, checkers, Parcheesi, Uno, Twister, Monopoly, Battleship, Connect Four, dominoes, Legos and pinochle. Pinochle was big in our house. We learned to play from friends of my parents and my Uncle John was a very good player.
When we came home from college, you’d drop your bags, OK, let’s get out the cards… Dad and I were a team, Mom and my brother were another team. (We played four-handed pinochle.)
By contrast, my niece knew how to use the remote control for the TV when she was five (5) years old! (She’ll be 17 in July.)
My 7 year old nephew can use an iPad and DVD player – and I’m still learning how to use a computer!
Funny, I was just listening to him the other day and realizing how great his songs were and how great his voice was.
Leisure, uncommitted and open-ended, for thinking, dreaming, or — like the Water Rat in Wind in the Willows — “simply messing about”, is surely vital and valuable. That said, Boredom is the enemy of leisure and in no sense a gift. Boredom is an existential problem, a consequence of the spiritual impairment which causes the Self to long to be sundered, riven, separated from itself. Boredom is a consequence of original sin. Original sin, as St. Paul outlines in Romans, is a loss of personal coherence, both bodily and spiritual; it’s a disintegration of the self. Walker Percy in our own times describes it as a re-entry problem, in which the self dreads and therefore avoids its own self-encounter. It is the malady suffered by the narrator of Dante’s Inferno, and by the Prodigal Son, whose healing commences only when he receives the grace of “coming to himself”. Boredom did not afflict our sinless Lord, nor his immaculate mother. Indeed, in the case of our Lady, Luke pointedly, repeatedly refers to her quality of recollection, by way of mentioning her memory — the quality of being entirely present to herself.
There is no boredom in heaven; therefore it cannot be a good. QED.
Well…hello, Romulus! You are certianly the veritable “bookworm” aren’t you? I recall someone else who, in his writings, mentioned never having been bored. His name was G.K. Chesterton. He was always full of wonder at the world around him. I suppose Mr Skojec is praising not so much the feeling of boredom as the opportunities we have when boredom strikes.
I enjoyed the article as it brought back early childhood memories of just some of the things Mr Skojec mentions. I remember, after waking up one morning, excitedly running down the hallway in my Superman underwear to show my mom my dry underwear….not a single wet spot; I was so proud of that accomplishment when I was ony three. I remember seeing my older siblings leaving for school (just around the corner) when I was still too young to go with them. I remember our TV had a button you could push to go from black and white to color. I remeber our rotary dialed phones. I remember our very first cable box, VCR, and even our first microwave oven.
Ok…I’m beginning to feel old.
I remember being captivated by the simplist things – too many to mention. I now enjoy seeing this same spirit in my little son who never ceases to amaze me every time he points out some minute or easily overlooked detail of a thing. I’m glad my wife and I are on the same page and agree that our boy won’t become one of those who has his face buried in some gaming device.
We’ve lost so much and we need to get it back.
Funny videos on YouTube!! Woot!
“I am a member of perhaps the last generation to remember what life was like before the Internet and cell phones.” …cough, ahem, whazzat?
Likely true though. I imagine generations older than yours have difficulty remembering where they put their Ipana toothpaste or glass of Ovaltine.
Seriously though. Nicely written. I enjoyed reading this piece very much.
We were the last family on our hill to have B&W TV. I was 10 then and was way more excited about the BOX it came in than I was in what came out of the box. I remember it being summer because I would sit in the box until I was roasting and then come out to relish the relative coolness of the outside air.
Fortunately, by age 10, I was totally hooked on books. TV has never held much fascination for me. I even tried, unsuccessfully, to have us never buy one. But, my husband won out on that one. We use it mainly for DVD’s. The internet, on the other hand, is a daily temptation. There is SO MUCH EXCELLENT stuff available. Still read TONS of books, though.
My youngest (7) is like yours with regard to boxes. He turns them into his robot armor and forgets all about TV.
I try to make up for the TV by reading to them as often as possible. It isn’t much but I am surprised by how much they want me to read to them and always clamor for more.
Brambly Hedge, by Jill Barklem. You and your kids will love these stories. About mice.
Great writing as always, Steve, with much food for serious contemplation. On weekends I go out to my back patio with a cigar and a decent-sized dram of scotch or bourbon and no electronic distractions and I … just sit there. I think. I look up at the stars and try to remember parts of my favorite Psalm, 8, and say them out loud. I’ve prayed spontaneously with a stogie in one hand and a glass of whiskey in the other.
But I am as “electronically addicted” as you and anyone else in these times and I know for a fact it has affected my attention span in at least some small ways. The only thing that saves me, I think, is that I spend most of my time online reading. And even that has had the effect of many times not being able to remember where I read this or that article, website, etc., so I bookmark a lot.
We should all pray for an increase in the virtue of temperance in this area of our lives; we are all losing time.
On weekends I go out to my back patio with a cigar and a decent-sized dram of scotch or bourbon and no electronic distractions and I … just sit there. I think. I look up at the stars…”
That sounds like an incredible tradition. I need to do more of that and less of this.
My late father would simply sit on the porch and look up at the moon and stars. He’d never go for bourbon or cigars, though. He was an ardent ex-smoker and hated smoking with a passion.
I love this idea. I try to just sit back with a glass of wine or a beer and ponder these same thoughts. I so much want to ponder those psalms and texts. My thoughts are often interrupted but it’s surprising how often they return to the same topic.
Congratulations to Mr. Skojec for an unassuming but appealing to the eye website.
I don’t have any distinct memory about going from b/w tv to color tv. I think it was sometime in the early 1970s. I do have a distant memory of seeing JFK’s funeral procession on the small, b/w tv in our basement; the one with the rabbit ears. We didn’t have a tv in the living room or anywhere upstairs.
Mom didn’t watch much tv and didn’t let us watch much back then, although there weren’t very many channels, maybe 8 or 9. Broadcasts began around 5:30 a.m. with Sunrise Sermonette–or something similar to that name. The broadcast day ended around 2 or 3 a.m. and the national anthem was played; then the screen went to ‘snow’.
I was permitted a couple of afternoon cartoons (Gigantor and Speed Racer) if my homework was done. I don’t recall watching tv after dinner, although on Sunday evenings I could watch The Wonderful World of Disney and Bonanza! The big concession came when I was permitted to stay up late to watch Star Trek on Friday evening.
My dad was a holdout; no cable tv until the very late 1980s. Prior to that, the antenna had been on the roof and then in the attic. The landscape was dotted with antennas.
No computers, no cell phones, no microwave ovens, a one-car, rotary phone family, with phone numbers that were recited by giving the first 2 as letters or names: TU8-8260 or TURNER8-8260. That was our first phone number in our brand new house in 1964.
Children played in the streets, in backyards and in school playgrounds, walking or riding bicycles everywhere and no stupid ‘play dates’. We just told mom we were going down the street. Seems like we lost a little bit of heaven.
I hate to date myself, but here it goes. Our phone number was Mayfair 1-3463. And we had a ‘party line’. Nevertheless, I think I’m a very modern person. But my little 6 years old and under grandchildren are about to surpass me if I don’t stay one step ahead. It’s a far cry from my childhood. I don’t think even my own children would understand the past I’m trying to explain….
The first 9 years of my life were spent in Northern Italy, no TV, no radio, the center of our lives was church, family, school and helping on the farm. How I miss those days, it is like another universe.
I have to warn you that twenty years down the road you’ll have an impossible time imagining that you did ANYTHING other than play with those kids, or talk to them, or whatever, because that’s all you’ll yearn to do once more. When they grow up, and you find out just how really superb they are as adults, you’ll pine with all your heart to go back if just to stare at them in wonder when they were just little people. The quiet you thought you wanted was nice for a while, but it can be a lonely silence without those kids running all around creating chaos. You find out they remember with such fondness the little things and routines even you have forgotten, but meant the world to them. They cared deeply and who knew. The kids who roll their eyes at your hopeless corniness, if they’re at that point yet, end up being the ones who you overhear tell their friends with such joy how it was a tradition you “always got pumpkins at the pumpkin farm and then went to Grandmas for cocoa”, when they didn’t seem that enthused when you actually did it.
And then the big payoff, when your house is eerily quiet and your job isn’t as interesting, your biding your time and wondering what all it was for, and then they all come swarming in with grandchildren to fill your house once more with bliss and lollipops stuck to the carpet.
One word of advice. When they start talking about moving elsewhere, do your best to convince them to stay within a day’s drive or closer. Extended families have taken a hit to everybody’s detriment. If we had known this would happen we would have laid in front of the kid’s wheels as they tried to drive out.
Thank you for this. My wife and children left to go out of town today, and the part of me that needs quiet to get work done (I work from a home office) is looking forward to all the catching up I can do.
But it’s as quiet as a graveyard in this house, and my excitement is fading faster than I thought it could.
People tell me all the time that the work I do is important, but I think God is reminding how important the things are that I’m leaving neglected here at home. I see your comment as nothing less than a providential push on something I’m already contemplating.
Hey, Steve, it’s hard to imagine! My siblings and I are all very close in age, and Dad worked the Night shift. Mom would take us to Grandma’s house to play, so Dad could sleep. Invariably, he would phone within an hour, asking for us all to come home again. The house was too quiet for him to sleep!
I’m gratified by that, because it’s a hard realization I would love to save someone else from. I had no idea how it would turn out and would give anything to do it again and this time, treat that time with them as gold, which it is. As amazing as it is, those people are going to be your best little friends when they grow up, which I never would have believed at the time.
Thank you for giving me that.
I think I often see them as people I’ll get along with well when they’re older, but don’t know what to do with now. I’m good with them until they’re about three or four, and then again when they’re about 15 on. It’s the middle part I never seem to know what to do with.
Well they can be a mystery, as we can be to them. Knowing what I know now, I would have actually sought out some counseling to help us over some of the bumps. I was crazy about my son, but there were things I didn’t comprehend about him, even though I thought I did. I think some support for communication would have made a positive difference and saved us some time. Of course, I’d avoid like the plague a secular counselor. Poor kids today, I honestly wouldn’t want to be their age in this world.
My younger son, his wife, and my four sweet little ones moved to Australia (his father’s country) last year. We were so close that it is one of the biggest trials of my life. I have another son and three grandchildren nearby, which keeps me from losing it completely. Do I miss my only little girls? There’s no need to ask. I am so grateful to have my three little boys nearby here. And I was that homeschool Mom—they never knew another school. God will help with this trial, maybe in the future beyond my day. I am very sympathetic to those who suffer the after-effects of the Church revolution we have endured. I will continue to work for and pray that we will survive and become triumphant in this battle.
I hear you. It’s really hard when this happens. The house is too quiet and we are missing out on all those moments, and so are they! There is no substitute for grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, there isn’t. It’s a loss for the kids even more than the adults, assuming the family is a healthy one. The world encourages young people to move away from the parents, the family, and I believe that has been a large contributor to many of the problems families face, and it certainly has an impact on individuals and the culture.
For my sons, “BORED” was the “B” word. It was simply not allowed. There were books to be read, and floors to be swept. They could choose for themselves: Book or Broom? When I cleaned, they cleaned. When I read, they read with me, or I read to them. (Full Disclosure: I read the first 5 Harry Potter books out loud to my sons. And half of Anne of Green Gables. And Where the Sidewalk Ends. And Ride a Purple Pelican. And … You get the picture.) When we were done cleaning and reading, we went to the park, or played marathon games of Uno, Monopoly, Dominoes or Risk! for hours.
I told them, and I tell my students now, “Boredom is an attitude within your mind, not an attribute of the world around you. Not a thing outside of you is ‘boring’ – YOU are boring. If a subject in school, or an idea, person, place or thing is ‘boring’ you, it is either too easy, or too hard. Start asking questions. Get interested, and get interesting.”
Ever play 24? My sons and I loved that one. And we loved reading the classics. We read Alice in Wonderland and the book of Tobias out loud more than once….but we were far from the ideal in modern Catholic life. Still, I treasure those memories…
Wonderful and inspiring. Thanks.
Living in such an unstructured way, Steve, contributes to your creativity. Keep up all your good work.
Thanks for putting this up again. A distinction that is good to make is between entertainment and refreshment. For example each day in monasteries there is usually an hour or so for recreation (another good word for refreshment). The monks (and cloistered nuns) sit back and talk, have some fun playing music or doing simple tricks to amuse each other, or go for a walk, in order to clear the mind and relax the intellect. Then, refreshed, they can pray and work with renewed energy.
If I used my computer to read on the internet the good Catholic blogs I follow for just one hour, what would I do with the other hours I usually spend? Learn about myself, and how my life gives glory to my Creator?
There are so many good insights in this piece – thanks again.
Hi my friends in Jesus & Mary,
Speaking of which;)
My daughter just published her first Catholic novel: “The Sun and the the Shrub”
She has been working on this trilogy since middle/high school, and now she is earning her way through nursing school.
I really haven’t gotten an acceptable balance with the phone. I do know, however, that I and my family were better off before it. I feel like it’s better than going to the PC, but that may be backwards.
By the way – my own 4 bored kids, between 1 and 7, make the din you describe extremely familiar. It’s also somehow reassuring that our blanket tents and kitchen floor coverings are so popular.