A Little Happier: We Don’t Always Know When Children Are Wasting Their Time.

As a parent, it’s very tempting to try to prod our children into useful or enriching activities: play chess, practice piano, play tennis.

But sometimes children want to do things that might look like a big waste of time—and when my children are doing that, I remind myself of the many examples I’ve heard of, where what looked like “wasted time” to an adult ended up being very useful to that child, later in life.

Because of my current obsession with color, I was reading a book called How to Decorate put out by Farrow & Ball, a well-known maker of paints and wallpapers.

This passage I read is from Joa Studholme, who is part of Farrow & Ball’s creative team.

“I had no formal training. I am Farrow & Ball homegrown, nurtured by an astonishing group of people. However, as a child, I did spend an inordinate amount of time rearranging my set of Caran d’Ache crayons to see how different colour combinations worked. My dolls’ house was constantly redecorated and I was always experimenting with colour, painting my ceiling bright yellow to try to fill the room with sunlight or creating cosy spaces in cupboards by painting them dark.”

As a child, did you do something that adults dismissed as “a waste of time” that proved to be no waste? Or have you seen that phenomenon in children you know?


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  • This was definitely true for me. My parents thought I was wasting my time spending so much of it on the Internet, but I was learning how to make websites. Now it’s my career!

    • gretchenrubin

      Terrific example.

  • Alison

    So true for me, too! I was a horrible kid — I was constantly trespassing on other people’s property and even breaking into their houses. I didn’t steal or vandalise. I simply wanted to see what those houses were like. My neighbour sometimes came with me, and he did steal; he’d take plant cuttings for propagating in the garden of our block of flats.
    Fast forward many years. My former neighbour is an award-winning landscape architect. I am a real estate writer for a major newspaper group, and people now welcome me into their houses legitimately. I’m good at buying and renovating property, and I love where I live. It’s exactly the sort of place I dreamed of living in as a child.
    Sorry to dish up such morally dodgy examples, but we juvenile obsessives come in many colours.

    • gretchenrubin

      What fascinating examples of how childhood interests lay the groundwork for adult occupations. Love it!

  • Milenis Díaz

    Love the report, since childhood I LOVED taking care of others when they were sick without even getting paid (it didn’t matter to me), now I’m a nurse.

  • I was obsessed with magazines. Every type and style. I did not become an editor, but I have a blog – and that’s even more fun!
    My daughter made endless crochet chains, nothing else, just miles of chain. She has a degree in textile design.
    My son spent weeks making rough plywood forts. Many bent nails. He’s a mechanical engineer.
    Don’t despise the day of small things.

    • gretchenrubin

      Such great examples.