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Tips on Kids' Boredom, Chores, and Decision-Making

Preparedness helps a lot, but adapting to what actually happens endures.

Key points

  • When bored, young children usually just need a jump-start suggestion or two, based on the things they have shown interest in previously.
  • Compensation arranged beforehand in the form of a privilege works better as chore re-enforcement than money.
  • Granting kids' reasonable decisions shows them that what they want or think matters to you.

As school started, it was hard to avoid the feeling that we were still under the lingering shadow of COVID-19. Given that reality, I sensed that parents would not be helped much by the back-to-school boilerplate we child development experts grind out at this time of year. We pretty much all agree that prevention is the best medicine, and most parents of young children are already doing the best they can. But none of us get it all right, and plenty of things we try to prevent blossom in our families anyway. Boredom, chore avoidance, and squishy decision-making comprise my favorite trilogy of things that tend to escape our best efforts at prevention.

Sam had been excited about school’s opening “because I can play with my friends all at once, not just one at a time” (referencing summer playdates). But, after one week, he shuffled head-down and pouting into the kitchen where his grandfather was having coffee. “What’s up, Sam?” his grandfather asked. “I’m bored” Sam announced. With an affectionate hug, his grandfather pulled him close and said, “That’s terrible…should we call the doctor?” Like most children, Sam wanted to make his “boredom” someone else’s problem to fix. Instead, his grandfather conveyed the message that it was not an illness and that fixing it was probably in his wheelhouse, eliminating the need for medical attention.

So, what’s a caregiver to do in these situations? Here are a few tips to help you prevent boredom and chore avoidance as well as encourage positive decision-making as children settle into the new school year:

Managing Boredom

  • Offer suggestions. Most of the time, young children just need a jump-start suggestion or two, based on the things they have shown interest in previously (good to keep a “list” in your head). Yes, their interests, not yours. Two choices are plenty, and encourage them to pick one. If they come back after trying that idea with “I’m still bored,” they arrive at the threshold of learning how to overcome failure and start over with the other choice.
  • Don’t decide for them. If they shoot down all your suggestions, odds are they are more attention-seeking than bored. This can be hard for parents, new ones in particular, who might tend to drop everything because they don’t want their child to feel “bored.” However, this child learns that mom/dad is a heck of an entertainer and will always have the answers (not them), proving that they lack the ability to actually engage in satisfying play of their own choosing and making.

Sticking With Chores

  • Start early. Since we know that sticking with chores while young breeds confidence and competence, helping them succeed early is money in the bank developmentally. When you are ready to assign a duty, be specific and realistic. “Start with your markers” works better than “clean up the playroom,” which will defeat them for sure.
  • Take the money off the table. Compensation arranged beforehand in the form of a privilege (e.g., reading two books instead of one before bedtime) works better as chore re-enforcement than money—a road you want to avoid as long as you can, given its complexities in our cultures. Allowances are for when they are older—if at all—depending on your own familial values.

Helping Kids Make and Stick with Decisions

  • Start small. Start small with toddlers and preschoolers. Ask “Which veggie or fruit for snack?” instead of “What would you like for snack?” With the latter, there’s too much room for uncertainty, and the decision becomes overwhelming. Tantrum usually follows. Granting their reasonable decision shows them that what they want or think matters to you.
  • Be patient. This skill, like the others, takes practice. When they struggle over wardrobe choices morning after morning, they are probably dealing with information overload anxiety. Give them two (weather-appropriate) choices, not a closet or drawer full, and prepare to outwait them. This will help build a structure of decision-making around them that feels trustworthy, one where they can recognize that their own decisions matter to you and them.
More from Kyle D. Pruett M.D.
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