Nothing to do but grow up

6th December 2002 at 00:00
Teenagers need the space to come to terms with boredom. It's how they work out who they are and what they want out of life, says Joanna Williams

Well boring" - "Bored out of my brains" - "Help." This isn't the latest script for Harry Enfield's Kevin. It is the graffiti wall that is the new advertising campaign to promote after-school clubs.

The premise of the campaign is that boredom is bad. It has "destructive consequences" as teenagers turn to - well, who knows exactly what - out of sheer boredom. By keeping kids off the streets, after-school clubs will help protect the public from teenagers and protect children from themselves.

Boredom is surely as fundamental a part of being a teenager as acne, getting drunk and worrying about how you appear to the opposite sex. With the desire to experience all the adult world has to offer but no money or independence, bored youngsters have existed since the discovery of the teenager.

Given the over-examining in our education system, it is a wonder teenagers find time to be bored. Let them enjoy every precious moment of it. If you can't engage in a spot of navel gazing as a teenager when can you?

It is through boredom that you work out who you are and what you want out of life. Boredom can motivate people to read a book, have a conversation or find a hobby. It can also motivate teenagers to sit around doing nothing all day, but is that so terribly bad? It may lead to a few cases of mischief but it is through boredom, and learning to deal with it, that ultimately, teenagers grow up.

Two factors have combined in recent years to ensure today's youngsters have less free time in which to be bored than ever before. The first is the desire to cram every moment of a child's day with a meaningful learning experience. Many children lead frighteningly busy lives with a different activity, sometimes two, every evening of the week.

The second curtailer of free time is parental panic over child abduction. To many a "good" parent is someone who never lets their child out of sight, except for when safely delivered to another responsible adult.

Kids' clubs are ideally placed to tap into both of these concerns: to provide safety and meaningful activity. Yet, for all their advantages, there are some things that a club, no matter how well run, just cannot provide. Children cannot have fun with adults; there is no time for snogging, drinking or smoking - nasty habits maybe, but an essential part of growing up. A supervised club also cannot provide children with any experience of facing risk; negotiating their own way home from school, learning how to cook and care for themselves, learning how to manage their own time.

Kids' clubs are aware of these criticisms and try hard to work around them. All the clubs stress that they provide the children with fun. Yet - a bit like explaining a joke - say often enough that children will have fun and the funny side soon disappears. All this enlightened thinking leads only to the creation of a Truman Show-style bubble in which children are further stifled.

It is like the mother who lets her child walk to school alone but secretly follows a few paces behind. What kids really need is to be left alone. Really left alone - not monitored or guided into a particular activity. It is only through negotiating risk, independence and boredom that teenagers grow up. Then we can all breathe a sigh of relief.

Joanna Williams is an English home tuition teacher.

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