Boredomtunity: Why Boredom Is the Best Thing for Our Kids
Research shows intriguing positives sides of boredom.
Posted Dec 26, 2018
It was the morning. The busiest time of our day, when I had to fit in a workout, get myself presentable for work, keep the peace and somehow hustle reluctant kids out the door. 30 minutes ago, the kids had been badgering me for their tablets (which we never allow in the morning).
My kids felt perfectly justified following me around and haranguing me, even though they knew it was against our rules. Why? Because they were bored, and boredom is the worst.
Yet as I headed toward my son’s room, I could hear the happy play noises. I walked into the dark room and was almost hit by a multicolored LED bouncy ball. My son had named this ball on a string Sir Barks-a-lot and claimed it was his pet dog. “Mom, you’re ruining the experience,” he announced. “It needs to be dark.” Opening the door had flooded the room with light. But my other son ran over to hug me. Then they declared in unison, “Mom, you’ve got to go. The room needs to be dark.” As I closed the door, I heard them discussing what sounded like a very elaborate play scenario.
What is boredom, anyway?
Boredom can be defined as “the aversive experience of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity.”1
You know it: the restless feeling you get waiting in line that makes you reach for your phone before you consciously realize you did it. And the same dissatisfaction when you scroll through your phone and what’s on there wasn’t actually interesting after all.
Jude Stewart does a great job of breaking it down in her piece for The Atlantic. There are studies showing the negatives of boredom: bored people may snack mindlessly, drive poorly, or engage in risky behaviors. Many of us hate boredom more than physical pain.
But there are intriguing positives to boredom: “By encouraging contemplation and daydreaming, it can spur creativity,” writes Stewart. In a couple of different studies, people who were bored before being given a creative task did better on the task.
Is boredom good for kids?
It depends on what happens when they are bored. Do they plug in? Then no. Or does it spur them to creative play? Then yes. Do they get frustrated and have to figure it out? Then also, yes.
Creating a Boredomtunity
There is no way around it. The first barrier to our kids’ boredomtunities is us. The obvious reasons are that we hate their whining, we find their unhappiness very hard to tolerate, and sometimes we just need to get something done.
And then there is the deeper reason. When we are bored, we cannot avoid whatever is bothering us, large or small. Deep down we hate boredom; it taps into our deep and often denied anxiety about the big questions of life. Is life good? Is it happy? Is it really going to be okay?
Step 1: Believe in your kids (and yourself).
Creating a boredomtunity for our kids means trusting that we can take their discomfort, and trusting that they will rise to the occasion. Kids are inherently creative. Of course they are! Everything about humans is wired for innovation, problem solving, and imagination. We imagined ourselves as more and tinkered with things until we came from the huts of the village to the skyscrapers of the city. We wanted to touch the sky, so we did. We wanted to see the moon, so we got ourselves there.
Your kids can definitely handle boredom. Just wait and see what they do.
If you doubt your child’s creativity, just hang out in the doctor’s office. Ignored, even briefly, kids find lots of creative ways to deal with boredom. They sing to themselves, poke the computer, spin in circles, climb on the exam table, and generally annoy the adults. Yes! Mischief is absolutely evidence of their creativity.
Step 2: Make space for boredom.
Our kids lives often become incredibly busy, and we have to make space in their schedules to allow them to experience boredom. I often tell my patients that if they don’t have time to stare at the wall, then they are too busy. “But doctor, they have these amazing travel competition teams, and they’ll miss out.” I hear you. Stay with me, because we need to talk about what they’ll miss out on if they never great bored.
Step 3: Make them responsible for their own boredom.
We need to let them know that it’s their responsibility to find something “constructive” to do. Did you ever hear that one growing up? If we let them believe that it is our job to entertain them constantly, they will bug us until we give them a tablet or a snack to get them to be quiet. (And don’t forget that they will imitate our behavior faster than they will listen to what we say. To make this work, we have to be careful about how we use our smartphones.)
Given enough time, kids do find a way to manage boredom themselves. In past generations, kids did not have that many toys, but they made up games with sticks. They dug for worms. They also had more chores to occupy them. Were those kids different? I really doubt it. I believe the difference was in belief. Those generations of parents believed that kids were responsible for managing themselves, but now we seem to believe that parents are responsible for managing kids.
We take responsibility for their entertainment in little ways all the time (without realizing it). When I was growing up, children who interrupted their mothers got a raised finger or the “look of death.” I rarely see that now. Instead we make sounds of annoyance or hand them something to entertain them. Or we actually put a full stop on our adult conversation and turn to them (because we read somewhere that it might hurt the "attachment" if we don't).
Try asking your kids "What should you do when you are bored?" When they retort with "I'm so bored. I'm bored to death!" Ask them (with complete seriousness), "Can boredom kill you?"
Make it easier for yourself by providing interesting items in the environment. I have an entire board on Pinterest with ideas for kids activities. Or when faced with a boring place like my pediatric office, some parents come prepared for the wait with art supplies or homework. One of my favorite things as a pediatrician is to walk into an exam room and find that the kids have drawn all over the disposable exam table paper. Or even better, finding a rousing family game of hang man in progress.
Step 4: Fully commit to creating boredomtunities.
My kids made it really hard for me when I first started deliberately creating boredomtunities in my home. They were annoying about it, constantly begging me for their iPads and being generally disruptive. Slowly, as they began to realize mom really meant it, they started to find ways to entertain themselves.
My kids truly surprised me. I knew it would lead to more bickering between them, but it turned out it has actually reduced their bickering. They are very different in personalities and interests, yet being thrown together forced them to work together to solve their boredom problem. They have developed greater friendship and harmony with each other.
I simply wanted to give them a chance for more creativity, but they ended up developing conflict resolution skills. It’s cute to hear them negotiating solutions when they bicker. (Hey parents of 2- and 3-year-olds! It’s going to get better. You can begin to hold this attitude with them even now, at least a little bit.)
When boredom results in creativity, we experience something profound and healing.
I know. That’s a huge claim. So let’s look at what happens when we get creative. We engage our playful imagination. We connect with our deepest selves. We make something new, or we combine the old in new ways. However it looks, creativity is the riot of joyous life pouring out of us.
It’s as simple as adding an extra pinch of spice to your pie recipe and creating something that tastes so much better than before. It feels good. We feel more confident.
And that’s it right there. We feel more confident and capable. We take that with us wherever we go: the knowledge that we can do it and we can make interesting things, cool drawings, and beautiful ideas.
What will your child do with their boredomtunity? What will you do?
©Alison Escalante MD
Eastwood et al., “The Unengaged Mind” (Perspectives on Psychological Science, Sept. 2012)