Funny, when you think of it, that some of the things we use to punish children are actually beneficial and should be encouraged.
For example, running laps. Exercise is good, why on earth would we link it with punishment in children’s minds?
We do the same thing with solitude. Doesn’t the order to “go to your room and don’t come out until you are ready to behave yourself” send a message that we view solitude as a terrible fate, avoidable only by good behavior?
Let’s think this through.
A lot of attention is given to kids’ social skills, their ability to work in teams, their participation in class or games. Not so much attention is given to developing a healthy appreciation for solitude.
The author, Evangelina Galanaki, PhD, a developmental psychologist at the University of Athens, has also done research into whether kids are able to distinguish among aloneness, the objective state of being alone; loneliness, the negative emotion that may or may not be the result of being alone; and solitude, which is voluntary aloneness.
When they’re young—second through third grade—most kids lump being alone and loneliness together, and don’t understand the concept of solitude. Seven-year-olds have a negative perception of aloneness and identify it as a form of punishment. (Hm, why do you think?)
By about 12 years old, kids understand more clearly that you can be alone and not feel lonely, and vice versa, and they recognize the concept and benefits of solitude.
School-age children are able to identify the following beneficial aspects of aloneness (Galanaki, 2004a): peace, quietude, and relaxation (even sleep), especially after a tiring shared activity; decrease of anxiety, tension, and anger; opportunities for reflection, which can help the child to work through his or her problems, understand his or her faults, and find solutions; planning ahead; gaining a sense of self-reliance, self-control, and mastery; independence; the opportunity for privacy and secrecy and time to daydream and write in a diary (all the above are reported almost exclusively by 4th- and 6th-graders); being pleasantly occupied with something (e.g., solitary play, doing homework, reading, drawing, listening to music); concentration in a task and high achievement; freedom to do things (even "bad" ones); punishment for bad behavior; learning the importance of human relationships; and avoidance of criticism, especially by adults. All these benefits of solitude are very similar to those identified during adulthood (Long, Seburn, Averill, & More, 2003): anonymity, creativity, diversion, inner peace, intimacy, problem solving, self-discovery, and spirituality.
Solitude emerges in the research literature as a fundamental human need. For children, in particular, it appears to be a healthy and constructive experience, and this implies that it should be promoted in the school context.
But is it?
I have heard frequently from parents whose children’s teachers have expressed concern about a child’s tendency to play alone or lack of a large social circle. Learning to play together nicely is part of the lesson plan, learning to happily play alone is not. Daydreamers are chastised. School campuses have few spaces that facilitate solitude; school schedules rarely accommodate quiet time. Have you ever been in a high school cafeteria? Holy Toledo, that’s a chaotic place. Any child who needs to decompress between classes would be hard pressed to do so. Of course safety issues are involved—kids need to be where can be supervised to some extent. But these days even libraries aren’t always quiet.
Galanaki suggest that understanding and appreciation for solitude should become part of a teacher’s curriculum, via reading, writing, and discussing relevant poetry and prose. She suggests activities where children are left alone to retreat into their own inner lives—drawing, gardening, listening to music; these are sort of transitional spaces, where children are not physically alone but are allowed uninterrupted time with their own thoughts. She urges respect for children’s privacy, suggests self-reflection exercises (what do you like and dislike about yourself?) and time to appreciate silence (let’s listen to the silence for a few minutes).
And no, kids don’t necessarily have to put their heads down on their desks and feign sleep during quiet time. Maybe they want to doodle. Or read. Or meditate. (I know meditation/prayer is a hot button, but silent prayer is nobody’s business but the person doing it.) Galanaki even suggests teaching kids relaxation techniques, such as breathing exercises. Of course, as with anything else, all this has to be done in an age-appropriate way (good luck getting seven-year-olds to sit silently for 15 minutes). But activities like this could teach kids not only the benefits and beauty of solitude, but also skills for getting the most from it.
I understand that many teachers are overwhelmed and pulled in a thousand different directions. All this might seem like more crammed into their overfull schedules. On the other hand, maybe daily quiet time is just what teachers need, too.
Check out my books, Introverts in Love: The Quiet Way to Happily Ever After; The Introverts Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World; and 100 Places in the USA Every Woman Should Go. Support your local independent bookstore; click here to find an indie near you.