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What to Say When Your Kid Says "I'm Bored"

It's your kid's problem to solve—not yours—if you allow them to.

It's the question I've been (surprisingly) asked by parents more frequently than any other over the past year. So what do you say when your kid says "I'm bored"?

Well, not much. The thing is, it's your kid's problem to solve. And there is a deep signal in the question they are asking that typically alludes us.

This is how it plays out. A parent will say that they are amazed that their kid is bored. How can they be bored, they ponder. There is so much stuff around to keep them occupied. All kinds of structured activities. Schoolwork. Every iteration of technology. So much more than we had when we were growing up ... and yet we weren't bored!

Therein lies the truth.

Kids live in a world where the vast majority of their time is managed and scheduled. The stimulation is structured and the motivation tends to be extrinsic. When a kid is presented with nothing but free time, after a while all the external stimulators lose a little luster.

So back to the question. What parents say they typically ask their kids is, "How can you be bored?" They get annoyed and inevitably try to make suggestions to counter the boredom. How about this? How about that?

That's not going to solve the problem, because what your kid is really saying is "I'm not engaged." And the reason is that kids just don't get enough free time anymore to know what to do with it when they actually have it. Plus, the message our over-scheduled and over-structured world is sending them is "downtime," that time when you don't know what to do with yourself, is a bad thing. It's wasted time that could be spent doing something productive.

How do we counter this? First of all, recognize that it's not your place to come up with solutions to the boredom problem. It will lead to more boredom because boredom is a signal that your child needs to come up with something on their own. Boredom isn't a bad thing. It's a good thing, an internal register that says, "My brain is craving something, and I need to muck around until I find that something that satisfies me."

So maybe you have this chat with your kid the next time they are bored. After a few trials, when they say "I'm bored," smile sweetly and say "OK, got it. So enjoy your free time and figure out something to do that isn't boring to you." And leave it at that.

Of course, this will work even better if we start giving kids more free time, and let them know that we value it, and that it's theirs to enjoy however they like. Follow a pleasure principle without evaluation. Soak up life a little bit. Find your inner muse, or just what makes you happy.

It's certainly true that sometimes those experiences stimulate what becomes our passion. In Raising Can-Do Kids, we talk about how innovative people often take those "bored" moments as opportunities to come up with something fresh and new.

But it's also true that sometimes "doing nothing" is more important than "doing something" even if it doesn't lead to anything. Check out Brad Paisley's song "Time Well Wasted" for some good ole advice along those lines.

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