Boredom and Its Perks

A wandering mind fosters creativity.

Posted Feb 09, 2016

There’s the kind of antsy boredom you might have felt as a child while sitting in church listening to a sermon, and there’s the kind you experienced when there was nothing to do.

Believe it or not, as a parent, giving a kid nothing to do these days may well be one of the best gifts you can offer. It forces your child to get moving, get desperate and just possibly get creative -- as long as the Xbox is off-limits except for designated times of day (or not there at all).

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A recent cable TV special about the late Robin Williams began by talking about the comic genius’ fascination with army figures, spending hour upon hour in his room while his often-absent parents had left him with a nanny. Despite the sad snapshot of that in our minds, however, Williams was forced to use his imagination to keep himself busy, possibly contributing to his off-the-charts creative talents later in life. There are countless stories of how people have invented things, written melodies, and drawn masterpieces during moments of sheer boredom, but we seldom think about boring our kids to death as a good thing. Instead, we enroll them in multiple sports activities, hand them iPads, or simply become thankful when they’re out of our hair watching some inane show on TV or playing video games.

None of this makes you a bad parent. It just doesn’t show your risk-taking side.

A parenting blog finds one mother named Karen talking about Why I want my kids to be bored. The post relates how she came to her conclusions after reading a HuffPost article titled I’m Done Making My Kid’s Childhood Magic.  She suddenly began to see boredom as an opportunity.  “Boredom might just be the space in which creativity and tenacity and invention and excitement happen,” she says. “I want them to figure it out – not be told or rely on someone else to provide them with momentary happiness or something to do that just fills the space of boredom but really doesn’t solve it.”

I’d like to think that if our kids can master the art of filling bored spaces with something they thought up all on their own (short of building a bomb), they might just be able to use those skills when they become adults.  In her Fast Company article The Science Behind How Boredom Benefits Creative Thought, Vivian Giang laments how boredom gets a bad rap.  She cites a Pennsylvania State University study by researchers Karen Gasper and Brianna Middlewood where participants who were bored outperformed those who were relaxed, elated, or distressed on creativity tests.

After participants were asked to view video clips design to elicit specific feelings, they were give some creativity tests. “One is called the remote associate’s test where you’re given three seemingly unrelated words and you have to figure out the connection to provide a fourth word. In the second test, Gasper and Middlewood provided their participants with a category and asked them to come up with an example,” Giang cites. “If you were asked to think of vehicles, the first thing that comes to mind might be a car,” one of the researchers tells Fast Company, “but if you’re bored, you might be more likely to say that a camel is an example of a vehicle. So you see how things that might remotely seem connected are connected to what you’re thinking about,” she says.

Other researchers, such as Andrea Elpidirou at the University of Louisville, confirm that boredom can help to restore the perception that one’s activities are meaningful and significant.  “In the absence of boredom, one would remain trapped in unfulfilling situations, and miss out on many emotionally, cognitively, and socially rewarding experiences,” she says. “Boredom is both a warning that we are not doing what we want to be doing and a ‘push’ that motivates us to switch goals and projects.”

When confronting my daughter’s 5th grade teacher at a parent-teacher conference about why my daughter was not a problem in her class that year (unlike all the rest), her caring-but-firm matron chuckled, citing how, when my kid was not paying attention, she was flipping through a dictionary she would pull off a nearby shelf. “How can I discipline her for something like that?” she asked. Strangely enough, my daughter not only went on to start her own company at a young age over being bored crazy by traditional “jobs” but also wrote a best selling book talking about her struggles.  In other words, that dictionary time might just have paid off when she wasn’t paying attention to business. To her, boredom had become a golden motivator and continues to spur her on to new ideas at the age of 31.

So whether you are a parent or a teacher, the next time you catch an off-task or bored child in your midst, consider this: by allowing him or her to daydream, you just might be doing the right thing.  And what comes of it just might produce the next brilliant tech guru, clothes designer, artist or scientist.