What do you do when the kids are bored? Do you change your tack and do something more interesting, something more relevant? Do you pep things up and make it all a bit more exciting? In this post I want to talk about the Summerhill approach to boredom, because it frequently surprises and challenges visitors: Summerhill says boredom is good.

A Grammar Lesson

First off I am going to bore you all with a bit of an English lesson. Bored and boring are both adjectives and both are derived from a verb. Verbs are doing words, but there is precious little doing involved in boredom. The reason behind this is that they are both participles. Saying “I am bored” is not like saying “I am tall” or “I am clever”. No, what it means is that you have been bored by something, so the statement is inherently passive and the question it always brings to my mind is “bored by what?” The same goes with boring. Think of its opposite “exciting”: I am excited because that acrobatics display excited me: it was exciting; I am bored because that explanation of words bored me: it was boring.

What is more the verb “to bore” cannot be used on its own. It sounds weird to say “the film bores”. It makes you sound like someone who has not learnt English well. You have to have a subject and an object with the verb “to bore”. My teacher (subject) bores (verb) us (object) shitless (adjective). This means that when you say, “That film was boring” you have deleted a part of the complete expression.

Sensitive psychologists are aware of what they call deletions in the way people talk. You can make yourself a real pain in the arse in everyday conversation by asking psychologist-style questions that aim to restore the deleted parts of people’s expression:

Homer is not Bored

“Boring? Who is bored?”
“Well, duh, I am bored and anyone with half a brain would be too.”
“What is boring you?”
“Life is boring.”
“Life is boring you.”
“Yes, life is boring me to death.”
“Can you be more specific?”

I think you can appreciate how this would irritate the average adolescent and it is worth trying just t get that effect. However, psychologists don’t ask these kinds of question just to be irritating but because they have found that when people start to restore the deleted parts in their conversation they open up to new insights. They take possession of their experience of the world. You see, there is a huge difference between saying something is boring and saying you are bored by that something. It may seem trivial but the articulation of the full concept has its value.

The word passive is the key here. Children have a hard time getting away from being the passive recipients of everything the well-intentioned adults around them have designed for their benefit:

  • At home they have their parents looking out for them.
  • When they go to school there is a whole raft of other adults with professional qualifications trying to coach, tease, prod and mould them into better shape.
  • When they turn on their computers lo and behold there are games that are designed specially for them and the great promise is that the next thrill is just a couple of clicks away.
  • There are even people whose goal in life is to entertain them. Sometimes these people will be their teachers and then we are in the truly unfortunate situation of having adults, with the well-deserved reputation of being boring, trying to be exciting.

Summerhill says that boredom is good not because it is intrinsically good to be staring into space waiting for something to happen, but because it is a necessary stage on the journey to interest: interest being here defined as something that comes from you, not your teacher, parent or TV.

I talked about this a little in a post when I discussed Neill’s ideas about interest. He felt that interest was such a powerful and life-affirming motor for action that it put all the usual teachery ways of stimulating interest in the shade.

He meant that kind of interest that comes out of crippling boredom, the crippling boredom itself just another symptom of a dysfunctional system that takes all effective control out of the hands of children. It is no good giving someone something to do when they are bored: you are just reinforcing the passivity of their situation,

Clown teacher
Get Off the Table! What is that all about?

When kids say they are bored they are not giving you a bit of neutral information. They are giving you a little dig. I think it is similar to the way that they complain about food. “I don’t like that,” they say after you have spent two hours in the kitchen preparing a meal. This is designed to annoy you. That is the whole purpose of kiddy food faddism and the only proper response is to say, “That’s too bad… for you.” The last thing you want to do is start dancing around a kid’s tastes: they will end up eating crap and you will end up at the end of your tether.

The food comparison is a handy metaphor for what is happening with boredom. As a part of the strain of growing up kids make a progression from being totally dependent to being fully independent.

When they start to enter an age at which they could be doing things for themselves and are not, it is only natural that they start to refuse the role of passive recipient.

They do this by telling you that what is on offer is boring. Rejection of what you are offering is a necessary stage on the way to independence. If you cater for kids’ boredom you are not going to achieve anything, nothing, zippo, nada. In fact you might end up with something quite appalling: an eternally dependent child who is unable to become a fully-functioning adult. It is perfectly OK for a kid to go through a phase of boredom before it figures out that the world is not there at his beck and call, just waiting to entertain and inform him.

Children get bored at Summerhill because adults do not try to entertain them.

They do not jolly them along to sports events or giving them stirring speeches designed to get them into the classroom. They do not organise fun activities designed to fill up their idle hours. They do not programme every minute of the child’s day. They do not interrupt a child who is doing nothing to say, “What is the matter, fair child? Why are you not skipping gaily across the fields?”

There is a deep respect for the freedom of the child and a profound confidence that children are good- they do not need improving. This shocks some observers because they see boredom as a kind of suffering- a suffering that could be avoided with a little adult intervention. Summerhill says to both its adults and its children:

“Do stuff. Have fun. Get bored. But don’t get into neurotic dependent relationships!”

So the basic Summerhill position on boredom is that boredom is good. This will come as a shock and surprise to all those parents who ferry their kids around from one after school club to another and run themselves ragged trying to get them all peppy and perky and prepped up for the world. Sure universities might look kindly on all those clubs and societies, sports groups and community activities, but universities are, after all, an extension of schooling, aren’t they?

What kind of leaders will we have in our future world if our young people have spent their whole lives being entertained? If they haven’t been bored how are they going to come out the other side of boredom with that strong assurance of self and direction that Summerhillians have?

I’m not the only person who thinks this.  Read this blog: http://jeffzoul.blogspot.com.es/2015/10/great-teachers-are-boring.html

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