Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

All Alone By Yourself

Play is my work.

Play is my work.

Based on a tip from the incomparable Maria Popova, I bought a book published in 1958 called How To Do Nothing With Nobody All Alone By Yourself. (It’s readily available from AbeBooks).

Written by Robert Paul Smith and illustrated by his wife, Eleanor Goulding Smith, the book is a delightful compendium of things kids can do for and by themselves. Kids can learn how to build a boomerang out of Popsicle sticks, carve monkeys out of peach pits, play mumbly-peg, build bolas like the gauchos throw out of chestnuts, or do owl eyes with a buddy (or a mirror).

Smith tells his readers that “If things were as they should be, another kid would be telling you how to do these things, or you’d be telling another kid.” But, alas, Smith thought he was the only “kid” around who still knew how to do these things. He was 42 at the time.

After a hundred some odd pages of projects, Smith writes a conclusion that is both moving and very relevant to our world today:

“ I understand some people get worried about kids who spend a lot of time all alone, by themselves. I do a little worrying about that , but I worry about something else even more; about kids who don’t know how to spend any time all alone, by themselves. It’s something you’re going to be doing a whole lot of, no matter what, for the rest of your lives. And I think it’s a good thing to do; you get to know yourself, and I think that’s the most important thing in the whole world.”

Kids don’t have to be alone to do the projects in the book but they do have to pay attention. That raised a question in my mind: How (and when) do we teach kids how to pay attention? Paying attention seems like a useful life skill but I’ve never seen it as a learning objective in a curriculum guide. We teach kids how to ride a bike or tie a knot, but when do we teach them how to pay attention?

It’s analogous to thinking – another fairly important life skill. We teach kids math or biology or grammar, but when do we teach them how to think for themselves? Mastering received wisdom is a different skill than thinking. Mastering a video game is a different skill than paying attention and learning how to thrive in solitude.

There are probably other skills that are equally valuable and equally untaught. In fact, I just spotted an article in the Washington Post suggesting that learning how to share in kindergarten is a key ingredient of success in later life. The study suggests that we need to spend more time teaching kids “social competence”, a key component of which is the ability to share.

This also led me to the concept of slow parenting. (See also here). The basic concept is to stop rushing around from one activity to another and focus on quality rather than quantity. According to one writer, slow parenting can reduce stress and anxiety, boost IQ, and generally produce happier, healthier kids. We should stop “treating parenting as product development”, slow down, and enjoy each other’s company. The trendy term of the moment is “mindful relationships” which, to me, simply means that we should pay attention to each other. So we’re back where we started: it’s all about paying attention.

My father once told me, “Son, sometimes the best thing I can do for you is just to leave you alone.” It was good advice then and it’s good advice now. And Robert Paul Smith’s book gives you a great place to start.

One Response to All Alone By Yourself

  • Bravo.

    I’d like to hear feedback on your comment about playing video games. Isn’t this something that requires concentration, attention and often is done in solitude?

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