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September 22, 2021

Rethinking Loitering

Seeing a group of young people hanging out often makes adults nervous. Adults wonder, “what are those kids up to?” Quickly answering the question internally, they assume, “no good.” The fear of loiterers is likely based on that adage credited to Benjamin Franklin, “Idle hands are the devil’s playthings.” We believe young people are naturally inclined toward mischief and so a lot of young people with a lot of time on their hands, well, you can do the math.

Adults think about the imagined negatives of loitering so much they spend little time thinking of the positives. Loitering may not actually be the scourge of young life. I dare argue that loitering could be the key to developing community.

It’s not just teenagers loitering at a gas station or a car wash parking lot, something I was never cool enough to do. This tendency starts as soon as “separation anxiety” sets in. Toddlers are notorious loiterers following their parents and caretakers wherever they go reaching for dangerous objects they can grasp.

Group of Kids

The tendency follows them into grade school too. One reason passing periods have a bell is to try to squelch this loitering tendency. Without a time limit each classroom would likely only have a handful of students who want to read books, watch instructional videos, and listen to an adult lecture. The rest would be out in the halls writing notes, drawing pictures, having dance parties, playing games, making jokes, etc. To the kids they would simply be enjoying themselves. To most of us, they would be loitering.

When kids cross into adulthood loitering is encouraged. Retail shops and restaurants want you to stay around longer, knowing that if you stay you’re more likely to buy something. Nonprofits love a loiterer who may end up volunteering or inviting others to loiter too. The entire food truck industry exists knowing that loiterers get hungry and will pay handsomely for a well-placed pizza stand. 

Yuval Harari, author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, has another word for loitering: Gossip. Gossip is merely the trade of information. Who tells the best stories? Who makes the best omelet? Who puts on a great firework show? Who is a swindler? We actually use our communities as sort of a hard-drive of information. We use our neighbors to store information about the world. This storage network became so powerful that Google developed their early algorithms based on the actions of other users.

Group of teens

Now imagine a world where no one could communicate, a world without gossip. There would be no storytellers. The best omelet chefs would only serve their families. And fireworks may be considered an act of war. No other species communicates the same way we do, with the ability to tell stories about others, to talk about memories in addition to things. If we didn’t gossip then our groups would likely be much smaller. We might only be forming connections with others through grooming and eating bugs from each other’s skin. Slimy yet satisfying?

We are actually creating this environment for our children often when we keep them from communicating with each other. Isn’t it evident that children struggle to form strong relationships partially because they don’t have enough time to laugh and play with other kids? Even when they are close together they’re following some program designed to keep their focus on academic learning, not on each other. Connection isn’t built through academics; connections are made through gossip, through loitering.

If loitering isn’t the evil we thought it was we will want to change the ways we try to curtail it. Young people who are inclined to loiter need to have a safe place to do so without disturbing others. I’m not suggesting we make loitering a required course. Our society benefits greatly from the young people who are ready to learn from adults However, we also benefit from young minds gathering together and creating new communities, new games, and new stories that teach us more about how we might interact together.

Loiterers can draw pictures, make music, chat, read, play games, or just sit there and listen to each other. Not only will they build strong relationships but they’ll end up teaching each other things we never would’ve thought to teach them. Think of the things they would be learning. If we want kids to learn how to build relationships, we need to let them loiter. If we want kids to be able to discover their passions, we need to let them loiter. If we want kids to understand how the world works…I think you catch my drift.

The real world isn’t only made of tests, grades, and rigid schedules. The real world is largely about building relationships and being part of a community. If we want to prepare them for the real world, we better give them practice doing real world things.

This article was written by Philip Mott. Learn more about him on his website.

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