On the way to kindergarten, various accounts hold (with slightly varying details), Orville Wright passed a neighbor’s barn where he found an old, broken-down sewing machine. Fascinated, he spent the day taking apart the contraption. For the next month, rather than attend school, he and a friend hid in the barn and reassembled the machine. When his teacher told young Orville’s father that his son hadn’t been to school, he went to see how the boy was spending his time. Appreciating Orville’s curiosity and ingenuity, the father deemed it time well spent and urged him to continue on.
Could we imagine parents today letting their children take similar time to explore and learn, to follow their curiosity? Could we imagine allowing ourselves this freedom? Before the pandemic, I certainly could not.
In March of last year, when life as we knew it shut down and restrictions abounded, I simultaneously experienced the gift of time opening up and slowing down. Rather than zipping off to a next event on a crammed calendar, my husband and I took long, leisurely strolls through our neighborhood, where children, freed from their own hectic schedules, played hopscotch, rode bikes and drew on the street with chalk — no watchful parents in sight.
These scenes brought back memories of timeless hours passed with my own children when they were young, picking up rocks, counting the number of legs on a caterpillar or trying to catch our shadows. Or even further back, my own childhood summers, when my five siblings and I, along with neighborhood kids, spent hours building forts out of sticks.
Before then, my days were like a lot of Americans’ — clocked in scheduled units of seconds, minutes and hours, or in my case, as a psychotherapist, 45-minute hours. Ancient Greeks named this chronos time, for the Titan god of time, Cronus.
After March 15, 2020, we were suddenly living more in the moment, or what the Greeks called kairos time, named for Cronus’s brother Kairos. Kairos time is measured not by the passing of hours or years, but in experiences: memorable moments of awe, like when we fall in love or gaze at the majesty of the Grand Tetons; or moments of trauma, such as 9/11 — or, more recently, the pandemic, a time of incalculable suffering and loss for millions.
Young children, by nature, live in kairos time, where one day blends into the next; filled with moments both insignificant and momentous, where something new and unexpected can happen. Kairos time allows for openness, an expansion of boundaries. Sadly, this state doesn’t last long today.
Many older children and adolescents nowadays live in chronos time, always moving forward, marching to complete a never-ending list of pursuits — sports, music lessons, tutoring. Too often, those activities are performed not for what they offer in the present, but for some distant goal, such as getting into a top college. The rare hour or two when they might, say, lie in the grass, lost in memories, fantasies and imagining, are instead spent inside, attached to an electronic gadget.
Few kids seem to take real pleasure in these activities. Instead, they are exhausted, and merely going through the motions. They have no time to linger, to experiment, and often decide that if they aren’t “talented,” they should give up. As Stanford child psychiatrist Alvin Rosenfeld, author of “The Over-Scheduled Child,” wrote, “By the time [teens] reach high school, they are bored and burned out.” The impact of this deadly pace is evident in the increase in adolescent depression, anxiety and suicide.
If we want our children to find true success, to discover a passion — whatever their definition of success and passion might be — we grown-ups need to be a bit more like Orville’s dad, a kairos father, who allowed his son time to make mistakes, struggle and figure things out for himself. Milton Wright was a conservative clergyman who encouraged his children to read both religious books and books that questioned faith, both of which he kept on his shelves. He seemingly understood that to discover anything of value requires an opportunity to try, fail, question and try again. It paid off for Orville Wright and his older brother, Wilbur, who are credited with inventing human flight.
Creativity arises from long periods of freedom, followed by moments of surprise, wonder and inspiration. The alternative is to follow the path of Cronus, who, the myth holds, devoured his own children — the past thus suppressing the future.
Just imagine what our children might create and discover if we allowed them — and ourselves — the freedom to stop time, to relish the impossible, to once again live in kairos time.
Kerry L. Malawista (www.drkerrymalawista.com), is a writer and psychoanalyst in Potomac, Maryland. She is co-chair of New Directions in Writing, a board member at the Washington Baltimore Center for Psychoanalysis and founder of the recent project The Things They Carry — offering virtual writing workshops for health care and front line workers.