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An Unexpected Key to Healthier Child Development

Why boredom should be encouraged.

Key points

  • Living in a high-tech world rarely allows us the space to truly feel bored.
  • Boredom is an emotion that has numerous benefits, especially in childhood development.
  • There are several ways that parents can encourage constructive boredom.

We live in a world of stimulation; high-tech gadgets, toys, and screens. It’s become a new norm. But what has also increased are behavioral concerns among children. Is it normal development? Is it bad parenting?

I recently took a flight to Denver, and the number of children preoccupied with screens in the airport and on the plane itself was nearly 100 percent. Quite frankly, I get it because screens do work in the moment. The child is entertained and focused on a show or movie, and the parents get a break.

Screens and stimulation are also here to stay, and as time progresses, we will only see more advancements. But as a result, what has also occurred are lower levels of tolerance for boredom. In current societal standards, boredom gets a bad reputation, especially among children. However, what if boredom held the key to healthier development among our children? The following are three ways that boredom assists children’s development.

Boosts Frustration Tolerance

By Pexels on Pixabay
Source: By Pexels on Pixabay

Simply put, frustration tolerance means having the ability to manage emotions; especially unpleasant ones such as anxiety, irritability, annoyance, and boredom. Teaching a child to build frustration tolerance will allow them to handle more in life. As humans, our knee-jerk reflex is to quickly resolve unpleasant emotions. However, this also subconsciously sends the message that we can’t handle these emotions, which is why we need to get rid of them immediately.

Children pick up on this learned behavior. Learning to sit with discomfort is exceptionally important to teach. Learning to sit with boredom teaches patience and mindfulness. A child will learn to be in tune with his or her emotions by becoming more familiar with them. As time builds, unpleasant emotions won’t feel as intrusive or threatening and will be easier to navigate.

Encourages Creative Thinking and Decision-Making

Children do well with structure. But just as we can overdo other "good habits," we can overdo structure. When a child’s day is structured, it’s predictable, productive, and allows the child to focus better. However, what’s missing are decision-making skills. The child doesn’t have to worry about how to occupy his or her time as everything has been pre-planned.

Allowing space for "boredom" encourages creative thinking and problem-solving skills. Instead of following a schedule and going to the next task, the child will need to make a decision on how to occupy their time. This can lead to deciding to play with dolls that foster imagination, grabbing paints that can foster creativity, or building a fort fostering spatial skills.

Boredom Builds Identity

A child that is given the space to decide on what they want to do is building an identity. Oftentimes, parents involve their children in numerous activities (sports, clubs, extracurriculars). The aim is to expose the child to numerous alternatives and allow the child to decide which they enjoy most. This is a fair idea, but also comes with possible limitations and biases, for example, a child is put into numerous sports to identify which he or she prefers.

Let’s say the child picks soccer, maybe because he or she does best at this sport, or it has been encouraged by the parents. However, let’s also say this child has inner creativity and a knack for music. Perhaps the parents never had a pull toward music and instrumentation, so this idea was not at the forefront of their minds when choosing extracurriculars. Allowing this child to be constructively bored could have exposed this interest. The child might have shown they enjoy listening to music, dancing, or creating songs. This identity formation is crucial for healthy development and self-esteem building.

How to Encourage Constructive Boredom

A child certainly needs structure, but perhaps downtime can be incorporated into that structure. Here are several ways to encourage constructive boredom:

  1. Schedule downtime in the routine. Prepare a child for upcoming periods that are not structured and brainstorm ways to fill this time.
  2. Encourage periods of no screen time. This can be a challenging feat in today’s world, but an important step in building frustration tolerance.
  3. Foster a space to build and create. In a world of high-tech gadgets and advancements, encourage play with ‘basic’ toys such as blocks, paints, and dolls.
  4. There is a time and place for negotiation. For example, when traveling with children, encourage self-soothing while waiting to board a flight with the reward of screen time during the flight.
  5. Encourage play in nature. Numerous studies show that children process a higher level of creative thought when encouraged to play outdoors.
  6. Ask "leading questions" to spark creativity. For instance, when preparing for periods of downtime, lead with something like, “The next hour will be downtime; I will be using that time to read. What do you think you will do during downtime?” This type of questioning allows the child to focus on creating an activity for downtime instead of focusing on the fact it’s happening.

In our high-tech, stimulating world, allow the space to be bored. Everything has limits and boundaries, even "good things," like structure. Embracing the dismal moments of boredom will help our little ones become adults that can engage in conversation, withstand stressful situations, and grow into individuals that have a solid sense of identity.

More from Claudia Skowron MS, LCPC, CADC
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