Boredom: the seven-week itch

Throughout the school summer holidays parents dread the 'B' word - but Pru Irvine is learning to live with it
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Things must be organised with military precision. We must have stratagem and spreadsheets. Above all we must stick to the plan and be punctual. God forbid we should find a gap. We might all fall through and what would become of us then? This, believe it or not, is the standard blueprint for getting through the school summer holidays. Every newspaper has been full of it since the end of term. Other people's descriptions of how to survive seven weeks of hell and boredom without feeling a failure.

When my boys broke up at the end of term they were cross and exhausted. They were dying for the summer hols. They go back to school this week ( we live in Scotland). I'm a touch irritable and knackered. They're fresh as daisies and dying to get back to the cut and thrust. Certainly, there's been a bit of skiing, swimming, reading and foreign villas. But in between those there's been nothing.

Not so very long ago we tried a holiday in Cornwall with another family. We're a bit bookish and slouchy on holiday. They're a bit steam trainish and clotted cream. So we had a splendid variety of activities until we wanted a day to ourselves to stare at the sea. Their pre-pubescent 11- year-old decided to stay too. We warned her: "We're doing nothing today. Nothing at all." "Oh, I'd love that," she said, "Mummy doesn't allow us to be bored." What does a child's boredom evoke in an adult - apart from disapproval, that is? "What shall we do now, mum?" is, after all, one of the great existential questions which the child is never allowed to answer. For the parent it feels like a demand that can't be satisfied. That turns into a feeling of failure and you get cross. "I don't know," you snap. "You've got a room full of toys. Read a book, ride your bike, go swimming. Anything. Okay, I tell you what, occupy yourselves for an hour or so and then we'll go out somewhere."

It all sounds so familiar. for some of us; if we're honest, it's also frightening. We spend our lives keeping busy for fear of what might happen if we found a space. But I'm a great advocate of space. I tell my children that their lives don't have to be endlessly interesting. If we equate being good as having lots of interests, particularly if they happen to be respectable and ones we mothers can be proud of, then the demand becomes oppressive. I wouldn't accept such dictatorial behaviour from my boys.

Would you from your children?

In his book On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored, the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips describes boredom as a "state of suspended anticipation in which things are started and nothing begins, the mood of diffuse restlessness which contains that most absurd and paradoxical wish, the wish for a desire". Do you remember what boredom felt like as a child? It's a difficult mood to describe. It's sort of lethargic and desperate and irritating. But like panic it passes because it normally comes between two things. You weren't bored this morning and you won't be after tea because something will happen.

When I read about those incredibly well organised parents who plan out seven weeks of activity from scuba diving to tea with Tommy, I'm amazed at their inventiveness and their cash flow. I don't remember my school holidays being mapped out for me. But then my mother didn't work and there wasn't the same amount of outside activities on offer. I confess that as a working mother I have to write at night or farm them out to pastures green when that's not possible. I suspect, though, that being a working parent isn't the true story behind the summer holiday offensive. Being bored was simply unacceptable when I was a child. I wonder whether the military mums and dads labour under a secret suspicion that boredom is catching.

So when my boy complains that there's nothing to do over the holidays, I reply: "If nothing takes your fancy be bored. Do nothing." "I can't be bored, Mum," he says. "Yes, you can. You are." He splutters and stamps upstairs. It takes courage and a faith in your ability to learn to wait for things. If I sabotage his feelings of boredom by making life endlessly interesting, I might ruin his chances of finding the things he really wants to do for himselfn

Bridget Jones is on holiday

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