I grew up an only child. My son is growing up an “only child” in his house. He has two half siblings on his dad’s side but they were adults when he was born and are not living in the same house.
When I was growing up as an only child, I drove my mom crazy in many ways. One of those ways was repeatedly telling her, “I’m bored.” I wanted a sibling to play with. I was “bored” when my friends were away. I wanted my mom and dad to play games with me.
I was thinking about that over the long holiday weekend when I was with my son, 24-7. I did play with him, but I had chores and Christmas decorating, and a tiny thing called grooming, in which I like to engage, that prevented that at times.
The strange truth is that I seemed to mind more than he did. My son is adept at keeping himself amused. He spends a lot of his time with all manner of electronic devices, most of which run on batteries. Toy cars, iPad, Nintendo DS, a PacMan joystick that plugs into a monitor, a cheap plastic push button candy fan to name a few. (This reminds me that I need stock in DuraCell.)
One day, we were out driving around, and he left the iPad “on” in the car so the battery died. (He also never really closes out the apps so I think they drain the battery as well). “The battery’s dead.” he tells me. There was a time that such an incident could have triggered quite a tumultuous meltdown. Didn’t happen at all. He simply shared the information and then quietly sat looking out the window.
I kept checking the rear view mirror. He kept looking out the window, talking to himself a bit. We have a DVD player in the car and Spongebob was playing but he was not actively watching it. He was doing his thing. Inside his mind.
I don’t know what happens in there, but it seems like a really good place to be. He is happy there. Sometimes, when he is there, I can reach him. Sometimes, his phone is off the hook. Either way, the one thing I know is that he is never “bored.” Is he different from other kids that way? I don’t know. I just know, as far as that goes, he is nothing like I was.
When he plays on his own, he speaks at a volume that is just low enough that I cannot make out many of the words he uses. He is not speaking to me, or anyone other than himself, but he’s quite busy processing something or another. There is no room for boredom. And nearly all the time, there is a cock of the head and a smile.
Sometimes, I will just watch, silently, in the background. His facial expressions are often animated, emphatically insisting on this point or that to himself. Sometimes, he will sit, surrounded by all kinds of toys, but playing with not a single one. He will be repeating sentences, engaged in echolalia, processing something from weeks ago. He may be laying around squeezing an old pillow or lying on a bed or chair. Often, he is like a tape recorder, playing back conversations we had weeks or months ago and repeating them over and over.
He is restless, easily distracted. He moves through his interest in something so quickly, I’ve barely focused on it before he is on to something else. Some people think this is a sign of ADHD. I’m not so sure. He is a quick study when he wants to be. I have a strong suspicion that he intellectually strips things of their utility in his eyes, and once the use is fulfilled, he moves on. With some things, it happens so fast, it is like a blur.
With other things, my son will obsess. He will study something for hours, weeks, days and months. He will play the same thing over and over. He will slow it down, repeat it out loud, turn it over in his mind and eventually discard or shelve it for something else.
Often, I see him living out a past moment like it’s happening in the now – and who knows? Maybe it is, and I’m the one who can’t see it. It’s all in your perspective. Regardless of what he is doing, or how he processes it, he is not with me at those times. He is somewhere else. And he is not bored.