Thursday, November 29, 2012

We Were Bored and We Liked It

Somewhere around hour four of a five-hour flight, my seven year old uttered the inevitable words of a child traveler: I wish we were there already. I shared her sentiment but took umbrage.

She had a bag full of books, puzzles, and an iPod and headphones. I had food stashed in every carry-on: squeezable applesauce, Pirate's Booty, granola bars. I had three flavors of gum, pomegranate lollipops, and a few Starbursts hidden in my purse. I could not fight the Jetstream, but surely my preparation could rebuff hunger and monotony.

Five years before we had made the same journey. It was well before iPods and iPads, and before she had a fondness for Hot Chelle Rae. (To be fair, it was before anyone had a fondness for Hot Chelle Rae.) I had a bag full of stickers, some small cards with ducks, goldfish and a clumsy mini DVD player. Elmo’s World would entertain, in the moments when such devices were permissible, and in the others, she amused herself by head-butting her father. A good time was had by all, until the fun and games ended by an altitude-induced bloody nose.

In my day, I thought now, we were bored all the time. And we liked it.

I do not remember many plane flights from my youth, but I remember many long car rides. My mom would pack some hard-boiled eggs, and my older brother and I would occupy ourselves by monitoring the cloth line that delineated the sides of the back seat. Eventually, my brother would convince me to crouch down where one’s feet usually rest, and he’d stretch out.

He also got me to eat puppy chow, but that’s a story for another day.

The point is that most of the time we expected to be bored and nauseous. It was a tacit understanding and that, I suppose, is where I have put myself into a tough spot. My mother never said, “What do you mean you’re bored? You have hard-boiled eggs and a new Billy Joel tape?”

But, how often do I hear myself saying, “You can’t be bored. You have your iPod and Flavor Blasted Goldfish.”

In the not-so-long-ago past of stickers and Elmo, it was common wisdom to keep the airplane goodies a surprise. Novelty was the name of the game. Anything new—no matter how small-could entertain. But now, the ante must always be upped.

Common Sense Media recently released a study that puts this phenomenon in another context: school. In a report published this November, 71% of teachers surveyed said entertainment media has hurt their students’ attention spans.

The findings have bigger implications for the classroom, both in terms of how students handle obstacles and communicate and in how teachers might attempt to compete, or not, with the format of video games, apps, social networking sites and other forms of digital entertainment.

But what does it mean for the road trip? Or 39,000 feet above the ground? In many ways the plane flight is more complicated than a car ride because you can not pull off to the side of the road to fetch something from the trunk, make a pit stop to stretch your legs, have a picnic in a state park, or swing by Arby’s to get your dog a roast beef sandwich (we only did that once.)

Then, as with now, you eventually have to put the Walkman down. The stickers are all used up. The iPod is no longer amusing. You just have to lean your head against the glass and stare out the window.

To sit quietly with one’s own thoughts, to allow for silence, and to accept that doing nothing may or may not feel like boredom is a noble experience. But if it is not practiced on the ground, there’s little chance that a four or seven year old is going to be happy about it in the air. And the trouble then is that it’s not just the parents who hear and feel their child’s frustration; it’s the entire plane. So we fight against boredom instead of letting it creep in and a victory is never absolute. It’s relative.

On our return, with the Jetstream in our favor, and after we’d gotten off the plane and begun our walk to baggage claim, my husband remarked, “Well our kids were not the worst behaved ones on the plane.”

He wasn’t damning them with faint praise, he was ranking the behavior of kids on the plane and, truth be told, ours actually weren’t the most poorly behaved. That distinction went to the kids in the row in front of us. Three kids crammed into two seats, who at various points cried and squirmed, without a parent in the aisle.

Why this seating arrangement?

They all needed to share the same iPad.

Photo credit: Itsramon, wikipedia commons. 


Lunch Box Mom said...

Somewhere around hour four of a five-hour flight, my seven year old uttered the inevitable words of a child traveler: I wish we were there already. I shared her sentiment but took umbrage.

Anonymous said...

"...most of the time we expected to be bored and nauseous."
With that one line you have written about my entire childhood traveling experience including two flights from NYC to Berlin, two drives across the US, countless drives up and down the eastern seaboard. Who could read? Who could snack? I was too busy trying to balance the ubiquitous coffee can which I carried for purposes I'd rather forget. Now that I'm grown, I revel in travel boredom, leaning my head against the window and looking at the landscape whipping by without (much) nausea.
Another note, teachers/educators have been wailing about the impact of advancing technology for years...decades...ever since telephones, televisions, and all manner of distractions entered our homes and lives. I expect it will always be so. The noisier our lives get the lazier we tend to get. I don't think living off the grid is a solution but some self-discipline would surely help. Okay--hopping off soapbox. Great post, LBM.

Tim Morrissey said...

Indeed. "How much longer until we get there"? I shudder to think how many times I said that and how many times I've heard it from our two, even on a 2-hour trip to Chicago.

Your post makes me recall a fixture of my youth, my mom's insistence on a family "Ride Into Fall" every September, as the leaves changed color in Wisconsin's Fox Valley. Four of us kids (two more would come later, after I was old enough to be able to escape these horrors) would cram into the Chevy Nomad station wagon (later the Ford Country Squire wagon, the model with fake wood on the side panels) and endure 90 minutes of looking at things we didn't then care about, a trip which invariably featured at least two rounds of car-sickness from younger siblings.

As adults with our own broods now, my siblings and I are able to laugh about the "Ride Into Fall", but have all lived true to our vow never to inflict such a thing on our offspringe.

As is so often the case with your posts, Sarah, you touch on a universal human experience, and describe it with enlightened narrative. Kudos.

Lunch Box Mom said...

Thank you for the comments. Great stories Patty and Tim!