When our world here in Nashville shut down in response to COVID-19, my kids found a much-welcome distraction through daydreaming.
At first our boys, ages 16, 13, and 9, were antsy with nothing to do. But after a week or so, something shifted. Without the usual stream of happy activity hurtling us into the future like a train at full throttle, long afternoons stuck at home were spent playing around with dream schemes: skateboarding and scooter tricks to launch their imagined X Games careers, and just lying around, staring at the ceiling and daydreaming.
Other parents I’ve spoken with have noticed it, too. With more time on their hands, their kids have been daydreaming of attending college in California, visiting Paris, becoming the next YouTube sensation, or coming up with alternative endings to all the Star Wars saga. In other words: the stuff of kid dreams.
More time for daydreaming is a good thing.
No doubt that isolation and stay-at-home orders can generate negative things, like loss of school time, lost jobs, and the threat of the illness itself. Yet time at home might also mean kids have more down time for daydreaming. And this is definitely a good thing.
Daydreaming, far from what your algebra teacher told you, can be beneficial to kids (and adults). Psychologists sing daydreaming’s praises. While it looks like distraction to the outside observer, zoning out in your own internal world is good. It can help to plan the future, generate ideas, regulate emotions, and spur creativity.
Daydreaming is the place, researchers say, where the mind can imagine a future for itself, make an internal home for “realizing our deepest desires and strivings,” and figure out who we really are and what we want. This is critical to ensuring a happy and secure adulthood. Yet we rarely give kids the opportunity to slow down enough to reflect on the past or imagine the future. Life is often moving too fast, and there are too many interesting things competing for our attention.
Maybe this moment, when life has slowed down to a crawl, is the time. We can put a premium on the positive kind of total boredom, and daydreaming. Similar to free play and loose parts play, there's value in just letting kids be.
Science supports daydreaming.
Unlike my sons, I grew up in a world without smartphones, Xbox, and Netflix. I spent the vast majority of my free time lying across our family’s picnic table, dreaming about being a grownup. From picturing a romance with a dream partner to receiving that Academy Award, to daydream is to be human and considered an essential human activity.
Human brains are engaged in stimulus-independent thought about half their waking hours, generating inward-facing thoughts separate from what’s happening in the present moment. That might seem like bad news for teachers in classrooms, but those hours spent zoning out can serve a purpose.
Recent research has shown distinct benefits to mind-wandering. Back in 2014, psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman gathered all the research and reframed the idea of daydreaming as wasted time. Instead, mind-wandering, he wrote, often brings about the kind of cognitive benefits believed to come from constant focused attention on school and work.
Daydreaming helps with arranging various ideas and plans into a cohesive whole to provide a “greater sense of identity and personal meaning.” Daydream fantasies are also linked to creative achievement. Kaufman wrote about a study that followed elementary children into adulthood and found that the best predictor of creative achievement, better than grades or even IQ, was whether kids had created a discernible future image of themselves.
One study showed how fantasies are complex. They involve several regions of the brain, including areas associated with complex problem-solving. "Mind wandering is typically associated with negative things like laziness or inattentiveness," Kalina Christoff, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, told Science Daily. But their fMRI study showed that “our brains are very active when we daydream—much more active than when we focus on routine tasks."
Let's nudge our kids and ourselves to take time to daydream.
When it comes to weeks or months of isolation, daydreaming can be a good thing, or a source of anxiety. It depends on how you use it.
Psychologist Jerome Singer, considered the father of daydreaming research, found that there were three distinct kinds of mind-wandering. Poor-attention-control daydreamers have difficulty concentrating and don’t engage in elaborate positive daydreams. Guilty-dysphoric daydreamers focus on unpleasant emotions, like “anxiety, guilt, fear of failure,” and may engage in fantasies of being aggressive toward others.
But Singer found that the third type, positive-constructive daydreamers, were different. They had the kind of positive thoughts and feelings that led to a happier, higher quality of life. Positive-constructive daydreamers were more open to experience. Plus they had the desire to unravel ideas, imagine future scenarios, and explore their feelings.
Kids who use positive-constructive daydreaming to fill the hours while they’re isolated at home, Kaufman said, can reap the benefits. But if a child is already prone to anxiety and worrying, “now is the time that kids could be at risk of having guilty-dysphoric daydreaming style,” Kaufman said. Parents should keep an eye on kids who over-focus on fantasies of what could go wrong during the pandemic.
Instead, Kaufman said, parents might ask kids to fantasize and talk about what a positive future might look like after isolation. They can dream up everything they’re going to want to do once they get back to “normal” life. Creating a structure around positive daydreaming can really help kids overall.
“Escapist daydreaming occurs at times of stress, frustration or boredom,” psychologist Cliff Arnall told UK magazine Psychologies. “Being able to revisit a daydream that makes us feel safe or happy can help us endure a situation that may be difficult to change in reality.”
Daydreaming can help us imagine a better future.
When I was 17, I was in a serious accident and had to be home for months. Being stuck inside the house in a hospital bed all that time was hard. But it was during then, looking out at our boring backyard, that I daydreamed a plan for my life. It became a blueprint for my future self that has remained pretty much constant all these years later.
Singer found in his research that daydreams and fantasies were in many ways precursors to action.
My friend Gillian has seen this at work recently in her 15-year-old adopted daughter. Isolation time has given her daughter time to ruminate on the unhappy trauma from her time at the orphanage. Through conversations with Gillian, she’s now expressing a desire to help others not as fortunate as her. She has been daydreaming about going to college and maybe becoming a social worker.
“Since I adopted her, she’s never had the space to breathe, and now all this is coming up,” Gillian said. “She’s got really complex, grown-up ideas and [an] understanding of the world that I’m not sure would have come up had she not had this time off to sit with some things.”
According to psychologist Eric Klinger at the University of Minnesota, a function of daydreaming is “keeping your life’s agenda in front of you; it reminds you of what’s coming up, it rehearses new situations, plans the future and scans past experiences so you can learn from them.”
So remember this the next time you call your kids for dinner and they don't respond. Instead of ignoring you, they may just be better understanding their deepest selves and their desires for the future. They may just be daydreaming.