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6 I’m Bored TheTwo Faces of Entertainment PARENTS’ OBLIGATION to keep children entertained intensified fairly steadily in the 20th century. The amount of entertainment specifically available for children increased massively, a major facet of the burgeoning consumer society. Entertainment standards went up accordingly : if it was easy to give children fun, then surely parents and other adults must keep up the pace. Advertisers rang the message endlessly: buy this, take them there, and you’ll know from their joy that you’re a really good parent. Often, the sense of responsibility for providing fun seemed to outstrip the activities that were regularly available. Obligations increased at times, also, because of new parental guilts. If I am forcing all this schooling on my kids, and if schooling is not really natural, surely I owe them an extra-good time in compensation. If I as a mother am going out to work, leaving my kids in a way my own mother did not do, I’d better make sure they’re entertained when I get home. Or even: if I, as a new-fashioned dad in the 1920s or 1970s (the type kept getting reinvented) know that I owe my kids attention but have to go on a business trip, I must be super-fun next weekend. Or, obviously : if we’re getting divorced, so consumed with our own disputes that the kids have to take second place, we have to be sure to provide pleasure in repayment. Obligations increased, finally, because in some ways kids found it harder to entertain themselves than had been true in the past, and not only because of the intrusion of more school discipline. Given the dangers of city life and the isolation of the suburbs, more and more families 163 found themselves in situations where children had trouble organizing activities on their own outside the home. The decline of large families reduced the availability of sibling playmates. Again, parents had to think about taking up the slack. The idea of the entertainable child bore some relationship, clearly, to the vulnerable child, with fun helping to cover up children’s deeper demons. It certainly followed from the idea of the precious child, owed more because of his or her scarcity value in a low-birth-rate society. Schooling entered in, and not only because of concerns about its burdens . We will see how entertaining young children became part of the need to stimulate creativity and intelligence as part of the preparation for school—but this also meant entertaining them in the right way. We have noted, in the previous chapter, how changes in attitudes about children’s work were also involved in the entertainment revolution, as parents increasingly were told that they should help make work fun. Work and play changes were almost inseparable by midcentury. One reason children’s chores declined was to make room for fun, as the parental entertainment quota grew. Two kinds of anxieties developed around children’s entertainment, and this chapter explores both. First, parents worried deeply, if not always effectively, about their degree of control over the entertainment their children received, and about the appropriateness of the entertainment offered. Second, parents worried deeply, if not always effectively, about whether their children were being entertained enough, about whether they were falling into boredom. Here is where the parent-asimpresario entered full force. The two facets of parental entertainment anxiety were not always compatible. It was easier to be assured that children were being entertained if one could erase worries about the source and quality of entertainment , and vice versa. Trying to operate on both fronts could easily up the worry ante, creating some genuine parental frenzy to keep children amused, but in the right, not the easy, way. Not all was gloom, of course. While parents in every age and every society have had fun with kids, opportunities expanded in the 20th century . Certainly, there was every encouragement in the new culture to share enjoyments with children. Many parents appreciated children’s sense of wonder and spontaneity and sought to benefit from these qualities in their own recreational lives. Here was a key component of the idea of the precious child. But it could be challenging to draw a line be164 ANXIOUS PARENTS tween sharing pleasure, taking advantage of children to enjoy amusements that might otherwise seem too childish for contemporary adults, and feeling that one was on another parental treadmill, toting up the fun occasions that one had provided...

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