Every week in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.
I’ve read a couple of articles lately about the benefits of two of my favorite pastimes—daydreaming and reading. In “Teach Kids to Daydream,” Jessica Lahey exhorts “Teach your kids how to just be. How to value silence and be at peace with nothing but their thoughts to occupy them. Make the romantic notion of laying back on the soft grass with nothing to do other than to watch the clouds pass overhead a reality.” She waxes poetic about the way daydreaming improves her quality of life by generating peacefulness and creativity, and she longs for more time for her children and her students to engage in daydreaming, too.
Meanwhile, in another article from The Atlantic, Jeffery Wilhelm and Michael Smith identify the pleasures of reading, asserting: “Reading is indeed crucial to success in school and in careers. But we worry that discussions of reading, especially public policy discussions, focus almost exclusively on its utilitarian value. What’s missing is the pleasure readers derive from the reading they do.” Indeed, the authors note that readers perform better on critical literacy assessments when they read material they enjoy, a fact both illustrated by (and probably irrelevant to) the legions of Harry Potter fan-fiction writers still awaiting their own letters from Hogwarts.
I am thankful for both of these articles, not least because I am a daydreamer and a writer and an English teacher and an obsessive reader who derives great pleasure from language. My personal and professional lives are defined by my creative and literary pursuits. I love to get lost in a good book, I count certain books as some of my greatest friends and teachers, and I reread my favorites to see how my perspective on texts changes over time. Yet at the same time that I am grateful for these writers for publishing and proclaiming the benefits of daydreaming and reading for fun, I am saddened by the need for such appeals in the first place.
Why isn’t joy sufficient simply for being joyful?
Writers like Lahey, Wilhelm, and Smith are working against a current that requires every moment of our time—and our children’s—to be accounted as productive. Never mind the fact that we seldom produce anything of value in such contexts, that we consider a productive day a 24-hour period spent in frantic busyness that makes little and provides little meaningful engagement. As the protagonist of Carol Rifka Brunt’s novel Tell the Wolves I’m Home asks, “why would you need to go through the trouble of writing down that George and Lennie had an extraordinary friendship or that Lennie’s death was inevitable?” She speaks of the absurdity of her language arts homework assignment that cannot possibly engage her heart more completely than the story she loves. The assignment is a hoop, a proof of completion that can be forged or fabricated and too often dilutes the joy of the relationship it seeks to analyze.
I don’t mean to dismiss or diminish the work of literary analysis or criticism, but rather, like the writers I mention earlier, to explain that the best works of analysis are self-generated by joy. We think and feel deeply when we have time to think and feel freely, without the constraints of others’ expectations or the burdens of idolized productivity. To produce anything of worth, we need to spend time producing nothing fearlessly. I don’t think we need lessons in daydreaming or reading for pleasure, but freedom to do both, time that is unscheduled—and perhaps time to recover from lessons that too often teach us that reading and dreaming are unproductive or drudgery. We need to reframe our lives and our schedules to make joy more prominent than productivity, even at the expense of not looking busy. Joy is Godly, and our lives should be an outpouring and an expression of joy, a song of praise where our dreams and imaginations flow forth unfettered.