Thinking About Kids

Parents, kids, and the way we live together

Are Today's Kids Programmed for Boredom?

Are today's teens bored because they weren't bored enough as kids?

Boredom proneness and the ability to shape leisure

One of my former colleagues, Linda Caldwell, has spent most of her career studying adolescent leisure and boredom proneness. In our work together we focused on how some kids were really good at figuring out what they liked to do, knew what they found boring, and could find ways to use their free time to make themselves feel good. Other kids weren't. One of many things I learned from Dr. Caldwell was the concept of leisure education.

Leisure education?

Isn't leisure just hanging out and having a good time? And doesn't everyone know how to do that?

Actually the answer is NO.

High quality leisure provides opportunities for relaxation and for flow. Flow is that wonderful psychological state where you are completely engaged in what you're doing, not self-conscious, and positive. You are in the moment. Flow usually occurs when you are doing something that is challenging (and therefore not bored), but that is not so hard that you're stressed or scared. For me, sailing in a good wind or kayaking in easy whitewater or playing music when we're all really working together can produce a state of flow. Being in social situations where where you are laughing and telling stories and effortlessly engaging in back and forth banter can produce a state of flow.

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As we grow up, we learn what kinds of things produce positive leisure and flow experiences for us. It's different for everyone. I like playing music, boating, drawing and reading. My husband likes tai chi, playing the ukulele, and telling stories. Some people love sports. Other people lose themselves in video games or embroidery or writing. The point is that for each of us, some activities strike a real chord and others leave us cold.

Learning not to be bored takes several important developmental skills.  Kids need to . . .

  • Be aware of their internal states so they know when they're having a good time and when they're bored
  • Learn what they like to do. In other words, kids learn to understand what is producing those positive internal states - for example, is it kayaking itself or is it the social situation of kayaking that they're responding to?
  • Learn to actively make situations happen so that they get more positive leisure and less boredom. In other words, once I recognize that I'm bored I need to know that I can do something more fun and know what that fun thing might be.

Active leisure orientation: A challenge for our time

Oddly enough, one of the reasons that many kids and teens have trouble with knowing what to do when they don't have something specially scheduled is that they haven't been bored enough.

When I was a kid, we were bored all the time. There were no extracurricular activities for kids until junior high except for Scouts once a week or maybe 4H and Sunday School. Few moms worked, so we came home from school at 3:00 and just hung out. They hadn't invented Sesame Street yet and Bugs Bunny and Rocky & Bullwinkle were more or less all of kids' television unless it was Saturday morning. And there were 9 channels - and we lived near New York City. An hour north and you got four stations. In the mountains, there was fuzz.

What that meant is that our moms - who were busy cooking, cleaning, watching soap operas , hanging out with their neighbors, and generally running a huge network of non-profit services (Scouts, Church, Red Cross, etc. etc.) would typically respond to our complaints that we had nothing to do by suggesting that our rooms could definitely use cleaning. We learned not to ask and figured something out.

Contrast this with the typical experience of kids growing up today. Young kids are in daycare where they are either in social situations or - in higher quality care - engaged in a wide range of social and cognitive activities for most of the day (i.e., play, arts, and circle time). Then they graduate to school where they are kept in very structured activities most of the day. After school, they move into other structured settings - after school programs, soccer, violin lessons, etc. In other words, they are kept busy and safe in adult structured activites. At 13, many kids graduate into extracurricular activities or - probably more problematically - go home and hang out.

These experiences might all be great. HOWEVER, from a developmental perspective, kids have very little experience learning to find things to do FOR THEMSELVES. They have been PASSIVE. Adults shape their activities. When they get to the point where they are too old for that - or there just aren't adults to do it - the kids are at a loss. They might know what they like to do - or what they don't - but they have little experience figuring out how to make good things happen.

Boredom is okay.

So why did I say boredom can be good? Adults don't like being bored. Kids are seldom happy when they say they are bored. A second thing that Dr. Caldwell taught me is a better appreciation of what kids mean when they say they are bored.

When adults say they're bored, they usually mean that some task that they have to do - sorting socks, writing a report - is tedious or repetitive. Caldwell suggests that this is not always what kids mean when they moan that they're bored. Sometimes - like when they're doing their homework - it may mean that. But often, when kids say they're bored, they mean that they do not want to engage their emotions in the activity. For example, square dancing may be ‘boring' not because skipping and swinging with friends in complicated patterns to bouncy music is tedious and repetitive, but because they think it looks silly and they don't WANT to have fun doing it.

Saying "I'm bored" may be a sign of rebellion - you can't make me have fun doing that.

"I'm bored" may also signal that the child is motivated enough to overcome inertia and take a more active approach to shaping their own leisure.

Technically, it may signal a state of sub-optimal stimulation. They are not in a state of flow (balance of challenge and ability) because there isn't enough challenge.

Boredom can be a great tool,

Why? If I'm really bored, even reading that dumb book I haven't wanted to pick up may be the lesser of two evils. My brother, who teaches middle school Social Studies, swears that lots of his late blooming readers fell in love with the written word when they couldn't think of anything else to do than pick up a book. Calling a friend, going for a bike ride, pulling out old paints, or K'Nex or blocks may all be better than feeling really bored.

What kids need to make that boredom a positive experience is to

  • understand that they really are bored
  • have a feeling of efficacy so that they know that THEY CAN CHANGE IT and stop being bored
  • be able to generate other potential behaviors that are likely to produce a more positive psychological state

The challenge for parents is to help them make that bridge between recognizing they want to do something else (they don't like how they're feeling) and figuring out what they might like to do.

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More reasons not to worry about 'bored' children who have nothing to do:

Of Robotic Vacuum Cleaners and Free Range Children

© 2011 Nancy Darling. All Rights Reserved

Follow me on Twitter! @pt_think_kids

Nancy Darling, Ph.D., is a Professor at Oberlin College.

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