I saw it again, just the other day: a car driving past our car, a woman driving, a toddler in the back in his car seat–not such an unusual sight, really, except that the toddler’s eyes were staring with fixed intensity at the cartoon playing on the TV screen in front of him, the one mounted to the back of the driver’s seat.

Aside from the toddler and, presumably, his mother, the car was empty–but there was a second screen mounted to the back of the passenger seat beside the driver, so that if and when an additional child came along for the ride, there would be separate entertainment possibilities for both children.

It seems like wherever you go, the new pacifier of personal entertainment media goes with you. As I commented on what I’d seen in that car, my husband and daughters mentioned seeing a woman in a store’s checkout line hand video games to two little boys, to prepare them for the “long” wait, and about seeing another parent go by with a little girl seated in a shopping cart, the child’s eyes intent on the movie playing on the little screen in her hand.

Children aren’t the only ones with these gizmos, of course. For the younger set it may be video games and personal DVD players, but the adults have their pacifiers, too–phones, internet devices, handheld computers and the like, all instantly available the moment a line becomes too long, an elevator ride too crowded, or a pause in conversation too pronounced.

It’s as though the citizens of the twenty-first century have decided that human beings have a new right, the right never to experience so much as a moment’s lapse in the onslaught of entertainment and information with which we surround ourselves. If we’re aware of any tedium, the fault is a simple one to remedy: we just need the latest electronic device to fill those moments of inactivity and keep us from ennui.

But if we embrace this new right, I think we are at risk of losing a much more valuable, much more intrinsically human right: the right to be bored.

For yesterday’s children, boredom was a common occurrence. It was easy to find opportunities for it: in the car on long road trips, in school, while accompanying adults on their errand-running or on visits to elderly relatives or friends, and on many similar occasions.

And sometimes boredom was unpleasant, leading to childish whining, the tormenting of siblings for entertainment value, and other infractions–always quickly stopped by mom or dad, or any adult within earshot. But even when boredom seemed difficult to endure, it was teaching us things we needed to learn to survive as adults, things like patience, and politeness, and maturity.

Beyond those mundane lessons, boredom had the potential to teach much more; for it was that state of boredom that made the launching of creativity a regular and highly-appreciated part of childhood. A bored child is just a creative child who has not yet sent his imagination soaring; boredom, as much as necessity, is one of the progenitors of invention. Take a bored child, a grown-up relative’s backyard, and an interesting climbing tree, and the results are almost a foregone conclusion–and the memory the child will have forever of climbing that big tree at Grandma’s house will be something real, a cherished recollection of a mighty and heroic deed of valor that won’t be diminished at all when a picture he sees years later shows him that the tree in question was approximately five feet high at the time of his conquering ascent.

What about those times, though, when the child is both bored and limited in the scope of his activities–say, on that car trip, or in line at the grocery store? If he has begun to cultivate his imagination, it will serve him well there, too. A little boy might picture the nearby shopping carts as wiry dragons that thunder, not through the aisles of the store, but toward the brave knight who will vanquish them all–see the look of delight on his face when one shopper’s cart lets out a squeal from a damaged wheel that sounds like a wounded beast fleeing in terror! A little girl might, if her personality is the sort, share that daydream–or she might dream instead of coaches drawing up before the drawbridge of a castle, as richly dressed princesses hurry inside to a ball full of romance and splendor.

From this interior life of romance and imagination comes things like observation, recollection, conversation, the interchange of ideas–all in a childlike state at first, but slowly evolving from that state toward the goal: the rich inner life that many adults have carefully cultivated over a lifetime of experience, and from which flowers inspiration, ideas, challenges, stimulating and educational hobbies, friendships with complex and interesting people, and so many other rewards. The four-year-old in his car seat who wants to know why the sky is blue can become the young man of ten who will shyly request from a librarian a book explaining Earth’s atmosphere that is written at a level he can comprehend–or he can become the young man of ten who spends endless hours on the couch, staring at the flickering screen in front of him.

It isn’t all or nothing, of course. Like it or not, we live in an age of ubiquitous and sometimes intrusive technology, and our children will have to learn to navigate that world. But when I see children being handed gadgets and gizmos all to keep them from being bored–and when I see adults modeling this same behavior as if boredom were the worst of all fates–I can’t help but wonder: what will happen to creativity and imagination in a world where the electronic pacifiers have quieted that state which, more than any other, produces those fruitful stirrings of the restless, boundless human soul?