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Bored and dangerous to know

Adults dread being bored. Usually boredom is thrust upon us in long dull meetings or by the wrong choice of entertainment. Left to our own devices, we normally find plenty to do.

But boredom is a distinct part of the experience of childhood. We too easily assume that children will occupy their time in the optimism of play, by themselves or with friends; it is easy to forget the other side of childhood where not all is pleasure.

Children also have boredom created for them, especially in school. Any observation of pupils' daily experiences will show up hours of waiting; waiting for instructions or for the bell. Many tasks are routine, leaving children plenty of time to be distracted, to day-dream or find some means of passing the time. But they also seek out boredom. It has a particular place in their lives. Why?

The idea of having nothing to do is a sign of a lack of inner security, a desire almost not to think. Like adults, children see boredom as being a dangerous state with the potential to lead to bad behaviour: "When I'm older, I might hang around with some boys who'll get me into trouble." (Boy 8) But boredom is also a state of mind that can be induced - in the distractions offered by entertainment. Certain types of reading, like comics, are used either to fill the time when they might be bored or as a boring activity in itself.

"I save them for a rainy day or if I ain't got nothing to do." (Girl 7) Comics are seen as a last resort, when there are no other distractions. Boredom is a form of loneliness and a sign of being "fed up". So, much time is spent consciously being wasted.

"I never do anything when I go home. I just watch telly. I don't like watching telly. We've nothing to do in our house." (Girl 8) A lot of time is spent in undemanding entertainment which fills up the time without making any demands. Children seem to find this a necessary vegetative state not just through a lack of inner resources but as a kind of refuge from those moments or times of unhappiness or discontent they all share.

When children talk openly about their experience, they acknowledge the difficulties, trouble with their friends or with themselves. "I got no friends except for Daniel. That's only one. I wish I was different." (Boy 8) Children remember times when they were constantly content. They share the nostalgia of adults."I'd like to be changed back into a baby again, because whenever I go to my friends' house, which has a little toddler, I love the toys that they play with." (Girl 8) One way out is in the escape route of distraction. When there is nothing better to do there is always the chance of familiar entertainment: another book, another comic, another television programme. "Distracted by distraction from distraction," wrote T S Eliot. Like children, like adults.

Cedric Cullingford is professor of education at Huddersfield University. His book, The Formative Years: Children's Tastes in Reading, is to be published by Cassell

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