When I was in elementary school in the 70’s, “bored” became a four-letter word. I would get into trouble for using the “B Word.” This posed a particular problem during the summers. During the school year, I couldn’t wait for summer to arrive. But once it did, much of my days were filled with long stretches with nothing to do. Sure, I read books, swam, played with friends and poked the occasional gross thing with a stick. But there were always long periods of time between activities where there was just nothing to do. I got bored and felt the need to express the feeling.
Children lead very different lives now. Summers are now often filled with summer camps. When I was a kid, I went to one a summer, if at all. TV now offers hundreds of channels. Back then, I had three (PBS didn’t count because it seemed only to show classical music and people saying boring things in British accents). Video games are now sophisticated, cinematic and available on just about any device you can find. Back then, I had Pong. And of course there is the internet, the omnipresent, omniscient replacement for trips to the library and meandering face-to-face conversations with friends.
Obviously, I grieve much of what has been lost with the faster-paced, screen-rich world we have built. But that doesn’t mean I don’t see the benefits. I enjoy having access to resources like Wikipedia and Netflix. But because the world has changed so much, so fast and in such complex ways, we are experiencing unintended consequences that we are only beginning to comprehend. And many of these consequences are likely to have a significant, and potentially harmful, impact on our children.
What Does It Mean to Be Bored?
But is some of this harm coming from a lack of boredom? To explore this question, let’s first define boredom. Boredom is a state of arousal, or desire to act, that is not being satisfied. This is different from being despondent or depressed; though they may look or feel similar to boredom, they actually describe a lack of arousal or desire to act.
Boredom can result from internal factors such as a lack of creativity, interest or focus, or from external factors such as a lack of stimulation or opportunity. Boredom is often triggered or made worse by a lack of freedom or empowerment. For this reason, certain jobs or tasks that are unavoidable can be extremely boring. It is also why children and teenagers are prone to boredom. In addition to often having limited choice in their daily activities, kids typically have little experience and mental discipline for dealing with boredom.
Can You Handle Being Bored?
To better understand boredom, do an experiment. Sit still for five minutes and stare at a wall. Induce a state of boredom in yourself. What thoughts, feelings and impulses come up in just five minutes? Do you feel the urge to look at your phone, pick up a remote or check your email/social media? Consider how you, as a mature, self-aware adult can struggle with boredom and how difficult it must be for a child to allow room for boredom.
You can deepen your understanding of boredom by doing this same exercise, but making small changes to context. Is it as uncomfortable when you sit on the couch in front of the TV, or at your desk in front of your computer, and simply face a blank screen? Is it more difficult than when you just stared at the wall? What about if you sit with your phone in your hand with the screen off? What about if you sit in a quiet room that is free of devices? Or if you go outside vs. staying indoors? What about if you are tired, hungry or feeling stressed?
Learning how different variables impact your experience of boredom can help you understand yourself (this is a central component in meditation, by the way), but it can also help you better empathize with how your child experiences boredom and to help him or her develop strategies for better engaging the discomfort of boredom.
Do Children Need Boredom?
So we have a clearer definition of what boredom is, but still, are children harmed by never being bored?
A growing consensus among developmental psychologists and researchers says that yes, it is harmful.
Being bored is uncomfortable. Boredom leads to the mind wandering. We feel compelled to fill the space. When I was a kid, it was difficult to find external stimulation to fill the space, so I had to turn inward and get creative. This is a very important state for creativity (though it is often derided as lazy or unproductive). Mind wandering is an energy-intense activity—the brain burns a lot of calories during this state.
I can remember one summer in elementary school when I had several days of no playmates. I had to find something to do and was doing a poor job of it. As a result, I was bored. Out of that boredom, I created projects for myself, including building a Battlestar Galactica out of cardboard boxes that filled up a quarter of our garage. It wasn’t a genius work of art, but it was creative and taught me a lot about putting something together from scratch.
Parents Interrupt Boredom
We have developed habits as parents of constantly providing our children with stimulation.
But it is during the discomfort of boredom that the brain is forced to change gears and move into imaginative play, critical thinking, problem solving and self-motivated activity.
The problem often begins in infancy. A baby cries, a parent puts a device in front of the child to distract it. The device could be a toy with lights and buttons, or even a phone or tablet. The infant and the parent both become habituated to this strategy. The child doesn’t learn that she can comfort herself and, more importantly, she doesn’t learn to solve her own problems (in this case, the problem of boredom). This is the beginning of a failure for children to develop comprehensive critical thinking skills.
Children start with toys on which you push a button, something happens, and then repeat. Once they can tie the result to the button push, learning, creativity and problem solving stop. If they continue to push the button, they do so for pleasure reasons, not for learning. Though they appear active on the outside, this is actually a very passive mental activity. As they grow older, these children have the creative and learning functions of their brain get weaker and less engaged, and the pleasure-seeking aspects of their brains ascend into dominance. This drives them to pursue activities that are increasingly passive and offer higher levels of pleasure. The toy that makes noise at the push of a button evolves into a hand-held device, television and video games.
This makes it increasingly difficult for a child to engage problem solving and resolve his own frustration and boredom—he just doesn’t have the mental skills for dealing with these situations effectively.
Why does your child end up in front of a screen? Because she is bored, or is it because she doesn’t have the skill to solve the problem of how to actively entertain herself?
Give Your Child The Chance to Be Bored
So what do you do when you and your child already have habits that limit boredom? How do you introduce healthy boredom into your child’s life?
The first step is to accept that whatever strategy you adopt, it won’t be an easy transition. Being able to deal with discomfort is a skill that has to be developed. Children who are not used to being bored will get very frustrated when they experience it, and you are likely to be on the receiving end of that frustration. This is one of the greatest challenges, and highest callings, of being a parent: taking the brunt of the emotional force for the greater benefit of your child.
Furthermore, any strategy you adopt for your child will be most effective if you apply it to yourself as well. Learning to embrace healthy boredom will not only model the behavior for your child, it will help you better empathize with her discomfort and better support her through the learning process.
Create Opportunities for Imaginative Play and Unguided Activities
So what can you do? One thing is to create opportunities for children to have time that is unguided by activities and to have access to open-ended “toys” like clay, paint, an empty backyard, pieces of cloth, etc. Much of what kids play with these days is designed to drive them through a specific activity or process (Baby Mozart, video games).
Help your child cultivate imaginative, rather than reactive, play.
You can also set aside time for other unguided active activities, like going for a walk or hike, riding a bicycle or even just sitting on the porch and chatting.
These opportunities for undirected time should occur daily.
Improving Your Child’s Environment
Also, consider your child’s environment. Two important places you can create healthy boredom are in the car and in your child’s room. Kids are constantly watching videos or playing games in both environments. Create the opportunity for your child not only to be bored, but also to engage other members of your family.
My daughter has never used a screen in a car. My wife and I have taken her on several cross-country trips and she has always enjoyed the experience. For the most part, she just looks out the window, taking in the country side and sharing her thoughts and observations. Sure we have to engage her a lot more than if we just plugged her into a screen, but we also get to learn about her as she explores her own mind.
Hopefully, this article has given you a better understanding of the importance of boredom for your child (and for you as well!), and gives you some ideas of how you can introduce some healthy boredom into your family’s life.