Mummy, I'm bored

It's the school-holiday chorus that every parent dreads. But do children need every minute of their day crammed with activities?
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Indy Lifestyle Online
So what are your children doing this half-term? Learning to play bridge? Enrolled on a course of "fun maths"? Improving their cricket skills? Partaking in a music workshop at the end of which they will have composed their first concerto? Or maybe this week's timetable is punctuated with "treats" - the latest Disney, a trip to Alton Towers, lunch at the Pizza Express.... Just anything to ward off the possibility of our children uttering those dreaded words: "Mum, I'm bored."

Perhaps the problem is exaggerated in the hot-house atmosphere of London's private schools but were you to have stood outside the gates of Bute House, a preparatory school for girls in west London, last Friday, you would have heard the baying tones of parental one-upmanship as mothers quizzed each other on what was in store for their offspring this week. "It makes you feel so guilty," confessed one mother. "Georgia will be mooching around the garden picking flowers and just ... well, thinking, I suppose. And when I ring up to invite her friends around to play they are all set up with things to do and I torture myself with thoughts that she'll be left out at school because they're been doing all these intellectually enhancing courses and cementing their friendships over half-term. But the worst of it, you know, is that they do all this organising behind your back, and then say "Oh Cecilia's doing the music course - haven't you heard about it?"

Parents fall in to two categories, says Diane Thompson, with the world- weary cynicism of one who has been a nanny for 11 years. "There are the ones who are fiercely ambitious for their children and expect them to be bridge-playing, tap-dancing, musical and artistic geniuses by the age of six. And then the other ones are simply terrified of being left alone with their children for five minutes and so ensure that every second of the holiday is accounted for with courses and entertainments." This somewhat jaundiced view may have been coloured by the fact that I had just dumped two of my children on her on a bank holiday Monday - "help, Diane, just do something with them" - in order to get this article written, but there is certainly something in it.

Today's parents are eaten away by the twin demons of guilt and ambition when it comes to their children. If a child is bored it is our fault: we should be making matchbox castles with them, or taking them on nature treks, not trying to shush them up while we catch the end of The Archers. But we like to think our own offspring are so intellectually replete and imaginative that they are incapable of being bored. Few parents can remember exactly when their child first spoke but the day those dreaded words fall from unpolluted lips is engraved on the memory.

When they are little - until the age of perhaps four or five - they wake up every morning with shining eyes and incredible enthusiasm - hey, world, come and get me. So when they first look at you with dull, greedy eyes demanding deliverance from boredom come as a terrible shock. In the early days of the disease it's quite easy to deal with: you make a cake, do some painting - anything that generates a large amount of mess is usually all that's required to stave off boredom. But as they get older and contaminated by materialistic and peer pressure, it gets tougher. Then "I'm bored" cannot be taken as a description of a pathological state - it simply means, "I want you to buy me lots of sweets/ take me to Disney World/ let me spend hours zapping my brain on the computer."

And it's a brave parent who does not give in to some form of this emotional blackmail. Well, you've got to think of the half-term diary for a start. "Monday - didn't do much. Tuesday - watched television. Wednesday - felt fed up..." Can't have them handing that sort of thing round the staff room, can we? In fact schools add to the pressure for they too seem to think that a week out of school is a yawning chasm in your child's life to be filled with character-building activities. At Colet Court school in London there are always courses going on in the holidays - cricket, badminton, bridge.... Yes, bridge (it's a shame not to leave something to do in middle age isn't it?). One 10-year-old boy from the scholarship stream who found the holes in his holiday schedule being filled with extra Greek homework was heard plaintively to cry, "But I'm only a child - I should be playing."

Adam Phillips, the child psychotherapist, wrote a brilliant piece on boredom in an American journal some years ago, the basic gist of which was that boredom is healthy, perhaps even essential, for normal psychological development in children. In it he tells of an 11-year-old boy who was referred to him as friendless and depressed. "He was mostly in a state of what I can only describe as blank exuberance about how full his life was." When asked if he ever got bored he replied "with a gloominess I hadn't seen before in this relentlessly cheerful child, 'I'm not allowed to be bored.' " It is one of the most oppressive adult demands, says Phillips, "that the child should be interested, rather than taking time to find what interests him.

Though this was not his intention, Phillips's work is a wonderful let- out for parents. Boredom in children, he wrote, is heard by adults "as a demand, sometimes as an accusation of failure or disappointment, [but] it is rarely agreed to or simply acknowledged." I have yet to try this on my own children - saying, "yes, darling I can see that you are bored" in that incredibly irritating tone people who have been on parenting courses use - but then I've always found the threat of taking them to visit a National Trust house has an instant purgative effect on boredom. But a light smattering of Phillips is brilliant for dealing with the sort of parent who will tell you next Monday how they simply couldn't drag Henry away from the local history exhibition at the library. Next time they tell you that Henry has never once, in his 10 years of life, been bored, cultivate an expression of sympathy and horror and suggest an urgent appointment with the child psychologist.

What not to say to a bored child

Do you want to do a job then?

When I was your age I only had a box of buttons and three cotton reels to play with and I was never bored.

Only boring people get bored.

How about some violin practice?

Use your imagination.

Haven't you got any homework?

How can you be bored when Richard and Judy are on TV?

Why don't we all go to Sainsbury's?

What about your reading book?

THE ADVENTUROUS ALTERNATIVE: CHOOSE A HOLIDAY CAMP

One option for parents who are unable or unwilling to entertain their children over the holidays is to send them to an adventure camp. Rather than feeling guilty they should recognise that they will be doing their children a favour. Children need to push themselves. By confronting graded challenges within a framework of encouragement and safety, they can build their confidence and resourcefulness.

Adventure holidays for children are big business. Centres range from those that offer a single base, home-from-home ethos to those that take thousands of children a year in a network of nationwide centres. With a choice of hundreds of centres, how do parents choose? To some extent this will be governed by location and a child's predilection be it for watersports, riding and so on. Multi-activity centres offer all of these and much more including bad weather alternatives. Some centres operate on a daily basis for children as young as three; others are wholly residential. Most centres are a daytimer/ resident combination. Daytimers miss out on the organised evening activities. Some companies take children from the age of six on a residential basis.

Parents should check the credentials of any organisation with which they are unfamiliar, and ask for details of staff to child ratios and staff qualifications. The Sports Council (0171-388 1277) can supply an address list of the governing bodies of virtually all sports, and individual instructors' qualifications can be checked through them.

Specialist companies range from the giant PGL which has 40 years' experience of children's holidays and now has centres in France and Spain, to Little Canada started on the Isle of Wight last year. Established specialists (residential prices) include:

Adventure and Computer Holidays (01306 730716). Based in Cornwall. Ages six to 14. Special emphasis on a caring environment. Arranges optional transport from London and the south-east for pounds 35 return. Multi-activity or specialist (such as horse-riding and sailing). pounds 253 per week.

Calshot Activities Centre (01703-892077). Surrounded by water, Calshot near Southampton is definitely for the watersports enthusiast. Six days pounds 225. Ages nine plus.

Camp Beaumont (0171-724 2233) has centres in Devon, Norfolk and Shropshire and organises packages in France. pounds 288 plus pounds 25 insurance for a week. Ages seven plus.

Experience UK (0181-349 1945). Based at Old Buckingham Hall boarding school in Suffolk. Ages from six to 16. pounds 239 plus pounds 12 insurance for a week.

Hamble Dinghy Sailing (01703-453101). Adventure sailing holidays at Newtown Creek, Isle of Wight. Ages 10 to 16. Also multi-activity watersports on the River Hamble and Solent for ages seven to 11.

Little Canada (01983-882523). North American-inspired summer camp on the Isle of Wight. Ages seven to 16. Unaccompanied or families. From pounds 264 weekly plus pounds 18 insurance.

Mill on the Brue (01749-812307). Based in a Somerset farmhouse. From pounds 250.50, including insurance. Ages eight plus.

PGL (01989-768768). 22 centres nationwide. Arranges 30 pick-up points nationally. From pounds 199 a week, plus insurance pounds 24-pounds 29. Also Ardeche-Mediterranean holiday nine days from pounds 349.

Youth Hostel Association (01433-670302). Multi-activity breaks in Llangollen and Edale. Ages 12-15. pounds 255 plus pounds 12 insurance for a week.

Victoria Pybus is the author of 'Adventure Holidays 1996' (pounds 5.99, Vacation Work)

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