"Can't we go bowling?"

"No, we can't, honey."

"What about shopping?"

"Certainly not."

"Can I watch TV?"

"On a beautiful day like this? Not a chance."

"Well, what can I doooooooo?"

The grown-up in this discussion had a ready answer. "You could make thank-you cards, as your sister is doing. You could play with dolls, as your other sister is doing. You could do homework, like your brother. You could write something, as I am doing. You could have a snooze, as your father is doing."

The child writhed in exasperation. She and her siblings had the day off school, and life was intolerably dull. She'd done all her homework already, she didn't want to make thank-you cards, and in case her mother hadn't noticed, she couldn't -- and this made tears come to her eyes -- disappear into imaginative play the way she once had. She was too old for dolls and too bored to draw breath.

"The educated mind is never bored," her mother said, tediously.

"Urgh!" groaned the child, and threw herself onto a sofa. She lay there in a state of agitated inertia.

"What you need," said her mother, "is a project. You'll feel better if you do some work."

"It's a holiday weekend. People are supposed to relax on holidays."

This was true, in its way. Yet it's a funny thing: Leisure only feels delicious when it's set against labor. We may think that what we want most is to be able to kick back and relax with no demands on our time or energy. Ah, that would be the life!

In truth, idleness is the real bore. Having nothing to do, feeling aimless, rolling around in ennui -- these are prescriptions for unhappiness. The mother sympathized. She'd felt this way herself, years ago, though that was before she had a to-do list the length of the "Domesday Book."

"Tell you what, the garage is a mess. There's a big stack of wood on the floor, and it needs stacking. How about you bring some music down and listen to it while you stack wood?"

"No way," sulked the discontented youth.

"Well, I guess you'll have to figure something else out then."

A few moments passed. The girl was thinking.

"If I do a good job, will you -- ?"


"OK!" The girl sprang up. "I'll go find the radio."

The child disappeared. Two hours later, an utterly changed personality re-entered the house. This person had glowing cheeks, a sunny demeanor and was carrying a radio.

"I'm done," she said. At that moment, there came a cry of "WOW!" from the garage. Her brother had popped in to see what was going on.

"Come see this!" he yelled. "It's amazing!"

The garage had been strewn with logs and kindling and bikes and snow shovels and a tipped-over kayak. Now it almost gleamed.

Wood was stacked neatly against one wall, bikes and shovels parked politely on another, and the kayak was stretched out beside them. The girl had done all this work and swept the floor.

And she herself was radiant with the pleasure of the exercise and a job well done SEmD and possibly the reward to come.

"So ... " she said slyly, "What do you think?"

Her mother grinned. "Let me get my wallet."

Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at mgurdon@washingtonexaminer.com.