Learning to Be Alone
“If we don’t teach our children to be alone, they will only know how to be lonely.”Sherry Turkle is credited with saying this and I was magnificently struck by the profundity of it when I read it awhile back. I’ve given it lots of thought and the wisdom of it has settled in a comfortable and, I think, permanent place in my psyche.
What does it mean to be lonely?
When using this word to describe our emotional state, we typically are wishing for the company of another, someone to engage or distract us from the uncomfortable feeling of loneliness. As normal and natural a part of the human condition as I might have previously thought loneliness is, I am rethinking it. I am observing and experimenting and paying attention, to myself and others, as I come to realize that I may have been completely wrong about this.
A whole lot of the way we feel as adults stems from messages, education and conditioning we learned as children. In my life, I have come to spend a whole lot of my time reworking those childhood messages and arriving at fresh new places of thinking and doing. As I look back at my childhood once again and address this state or lack thereof of aloneness, I have shifted my thinking dramatically.
While I had quite a lot of free time as a child to invent and explore on my own terms, I was definitely living under the pretext that productivity and “doing something” was the good and right way to be. If I wasn’t in school, I was in church or girl scouts or playing with friends or with my head in a book. I really can’t even remember a time – ever – that I spent alone… completely alone with my own thoughts. I’m sure it must have happened, I am just not recalling any times (right? surely there were times?).
As I observe the lives of lots of kids I know now, I see non-stop action and enormously scheduled lives. Why is this? Why do we create such lives for our children? Are we afraid of boredom or the mischieviousness that could result from free time? Do we think that our children are blank slates and that the more we can cram into their heads the smarter and more capable they’ll be? Why is this a big deal and worth dissecting anyway?
Because the state of loneliness results from the ramifications of an unfulfilled life, that’s why. If I am claiming to be lonely, it necessarily means that I lack the inner guidance to be comfortable with myself, an absence or shortage of personal interests to inspire me, the inability to value precious alone time, and the insecurity that comes with being unable to reach out confidently to a friend, make a new friend, join a new group, etc. when I am in the mood for good company with others.
How then do we teach a child to be alone?
I have a few ideas about that.
* My ability to be alone and enjoy being alone will serve as fabulous role modeling for my child.
* Creating a household with privacy for each child, and knowing they can set their own boundaries for privacy – unconditionally – seems critical.
* Refrain from scheduling anything for your child unless they tell you they want it scheduled. Give up any notion that this class or this team sport or this group or activity is good for your child. Propose and talk about options ’til the cows come home if you desire, but leave the decision-making to your child and don’t question their ability to know what they want. Just like you, they can change their mind any time they want.
* Welcome boredom. A healthy state of boredom inevitably leads to new ideas and inspirations.
* Encourage daydreaming. When you see your child staring off into space, don’t engage them with something “useful,” just allow and honor their private thoughts.
* Allow each child to make their own friends. Each will do so on their own terms. Some may never make a friend, some will have just one, and some will have many. There is no right way to this. As an aside, my third child had just one friend during most of his childhood. Despite our frequent gatherings with other families and his (temporary) enjoyment of them, he was always adamant that he did not want to make friends or have them over to play. I was sure he was going to be a loner forever. Fast forward to his blossoming since age 21 or so: he is totally lovable, friendly, wise, trustworthy, loyal and very, very popular. Amazing. Really.
Maybe, just maybe, we don’t have to teach aloneness at all. Maybe we’re born with a natural drive to discover and enjoy aloneness and realize our own comfortable, magical inner workings. Perhaps all we have to do is allow what occurs all by itself and trust the divine process.