Last month, my husband and I completed what some of our friends considered a fool's errand: a 32-day, 5,232-mile camping trip from Louisiana to California and back with three children in our Volkswagen van.
It wasn't the certainty of back-seat squabbling and high gas prices that provoked our friends' skepticism. It was that we planned to make the trip without a DVD player to occupy the children as we crossed scrubby west Texas and New Mexico.
"They'll be so bored," one friend said. "It's going to be awful," said another. Even my husband had his doubts. "I'm not opposed to getting a DVD player," he confessed as we sat in traffic outside Beaumont, Texas. "Things might get a bit boring for the kids."
I asked him what I had asked myself in the run-up to our departure: What's so bad about boring?
My friend Renee, who has driven cross-country with her three kids eight times, calls boredom the mother of creativity. She's not the only one who sees virtue in idle time. In a recently published paper, researchers at East Anglia University in England concluded that the trancelike state helps recharge the mind and is "central to learning and creativity."
I wasn't trying to make my kids smarter or recharge their minds. I also do not dislike television. I know all the words to the Scooby Doo theme song, and when I visited New York last year I spent a Sunday morning at the NBC Store, where I loaded up on souvenirs with "The Office" logo on them. But I understand too well television's power to transform our kids into zombies tuned out to the world. The bottom line was, I didn't want to transport zombies across the country. I wanted our kids to be there with us, even if being there meant boredom and the protests that go with it.
They were there all right. "Texas is so boring," our 7-year-old son announced on Day 1. "This is dull," he declared on the way to Carlsbad Caverns along lonely state Highway 54. The next day, struggling against his seat belt, he wailed that he "couldn't take much more of this," before melting into cries of "Arrrghh!"
His 5-year-old sister was better at the long hours, pulling stickers off a sheet or playing make-believe with the stuffed animals she had packed for the road. Our toddler daughter was likewise a natural at free time, coloring her knees with marker pens and ripping sheets of paper from notebooks and flinging them around the car.
Our son got better at boredom as we made our way west. On Day 3 he began to count windmills and look for trains. He started to see poodles and dolphins in puffy clouds in the Texas sky.
"Texas is not as boring as I thought," he said. I often joined the kids in the back, where we did taste-comparisons of gum, thumb- and toe-wrestled and used a monkey and a frog as proxies in mixed-martial-arts contests. Our son counted and recounted his money in preparation for stops at gift shops. "Gift shops are the best part about Texas," he said.
We had conversations that we would not have had if Scooby Doo, Shaggy, and the rest of the Mystery Inc. Gang were with us. With the Superstition Mountains in the distance, my husband told the children the legend of the Lost Dutchman's Mine and the many failed attempts to find the gold in the mountains near Phoenix. "Arizona is not as boring as Texas," our son declared. The children used diaper wipes to fashion capes for their animals. The baby learned to feed herself French fries with her toes.
While there is no research on the benefits of eating French fries with your toes, I feel as if we all gained something in daydreaming out the windows. Our son sometimes settled into quiet contemplation of the landscape, which more than once he described as "big and square."
I hope the trip gave him some of the resilience that comes from learning to entertain yourself, but I also wish for something smaller. Lazy, unstructured time feels like a luxury to me, and I hope that the kids learned something about valuing it instead of looking for the fastest way to burn it up before the next stop at Dairy Queen.
I do not always make the right call as a parent. I have been known to serve Cocoa Puffs instead of oatmeal. I am more likely to lose track of idle threats than follow through on punishments that may be well deserved.
But parenting is often about picking your battles, and the mostly happy antics in the back of our van let me know that in banning the small screen we made the right choice this time.