6. “The Surprising Benefits of Boredom”
I think most parents would agree that kids hate to be bored and when they are bored, it becomes the parent’s problem.
“I’m bored” is the worst song on the parenting soundtrack. Accusatory and always on repeat, it’s performed when you least want to hear it: in the middle of a nice grown-up dinner; during the first stages of a traffic jam; the refrain echoing down long supermarket aisles.
The good news is that experts now say that there are benefits to kids being bored now and then. In fact, the purported benefits of boredom have been elevated by these experts to a dizzying height. Consider this beautiful but mind-blowing quote from Dr. Vanessa Lapointe:
Boredom is magical.
Boredom is the elixir of creativity and passion.
Boredom is the pathway to drive and ambition.
What’s this now? Boredom is “the elixir of creativity and passion”?
In my search to find out more, Carl E Pickhardt Ph.D. offered a good explanation of what boredom is and why it exists:
Boredom is not something to feel guilty about. Boredom is simply a normal response to not knowing what to do with one’s energy, not knowing how to direct one’s life at the moment, feeling at a momentary loss about finding a meaningful way to connect with oneself, other people, or the world. Boredom is a functional. It creates a state of dissatisfaction that motivates people to find something meaningful to do, be it of the passively entertaining or of the self-entertaining kind.
Building on this definition, I set out to find out why kids hate to be bored. Dr. Vanessa Lapointe, suggested another mind-shifting statement – that kids maybe don’t really hate being bored despite their complaints.
Dr. Lapointe points out that most kids given unstructured time will rise to the occasion (after some minor complaining) and find something interesting to do with it. She reminds us that most kids are often happiest in self-directed play. She states that this is because play is children’s work. It’s how kids work out emotions and experiences they’ve had.
Dr. Lapoints goes on to explain that unstructured time challenges kids to explore their own passions. She states that kids need to listen and respond to the stirrings of their own hearts, which might lead them to build a fort in the back yard, make a monster from clay, write a short story, organize the neighborhood kids into making a movie, or simply study the bugs on the sidewalk (as Einstein reportedly did for hours). These calls from our heart are what lead us to those passions that make life meaningful.
She shares what she’s learned in her practice working with parents:
So many parents have come to me over the years desperate to crack the riddle of why their children appear to “lack motivation” or “not care.” The sad truth in many of these cases is that this was never allowed to come out of their children. The child’s sense of self and the child’s sense of being was never allowed to awaken. There was simply not enough stillness.
Many leading experts now understand that boredom fosters many positive things for your child including creativity, independence, ambition, motivation, drive, problem solving, and emotional regulation. Boredom give kids a chance to awaken their curiosity, to think innovatively, and to reflect critically. It allows our kids to self-reflect and think about who they are, and what they want. It also encourages creativity and boosts independence and self-confidence.
Children need to sit in their own boredom for the world to become quiet enough that they can hear themselves.
Children need to sit in the nothingness of boredom in order to arrive at an understanding of who they are. And just as important, children need to sit in the nothingness of boredom to awaken their own internal drive to be.
Creativity is often sparked by a person being bored and wanting to try something new. That’s why new movements in technology, the arts, and even public life usually start when there are still plenty of people polishing and refining the current approach. Innovators change the world because they are bored with the status quo and figure out how to change it.
Creativity cannot be taught. It’s something that kids need to discover on their own. And the best way to develop creativity is to let kids get bored. Aha Parenting suggests that although we cannot plant imagination into our children. we can, provide an environment where their creativity is given the opportunity to flourish:
“Preempt the time spent on television and organized activities and have them spend it instead on claiming their imaginations. For in the end, that is all we have. If a thing cannot be imagined first — a cake, a relationship, a cure for AIDS — it cannot be. Life is bound by what we can envision.” – Nancy H. Blakey
When our minds are bored, they start to daydream, and that daydreaming sparks creative thought.
When our kids have nothing to do, they exercise their imaginations and that just might be the most important skill they can develop. The workplace our children are going to enter is changing rapidly, and we don’t have the ability to prepare them for that world. It’s going to take a lot of creativity to adapt.
Boredom also can help kids develop self-esteem. Boredom teaches a child that they are able to create their own entertainment, and that they are fully-capable of creating incredibly enjoyable ways in which to stay busy. Being bored is an uncomfortable feeling, and through experiencing boredom and letting it in, children are next propelled by the need to be productive. The result is often imaginative play, hands-on learning, critical thinking, problem solving, and/or creative expression.
Boredom gives kids a chance to discover what their true interests are, without an external influence. When we engage kids in different activities WE are the ones deciding what they should do. And we are often influenced by what we like or consider interesting. If parents are interested in art they will be more likely to choose art activities for their kids. If they think that math is important, they will focus more on this. And so on. But what parents like is not necessarily what the child likes.
If kids get bored and we don’t immediately give them a solution, they will come up with their own ideas. This will allow them to gain confidence in their ability to do things on their own. Next time maybe they will find a solution without asking for our help. And in time they will become more independent. They learn that they don’t need to constantly depend on someone. They feel more in control of their life.
Boredom is also an opportunity to discover new hobbies and interest and learn more about who you are and what you like. Think of all the extra time, energy and brain-space a kid has with a bit of downtime.
[…] children also need time to themselves – to switch off from the bombardment of the outside world, to daydream, pursue their own thoughts and occupations, and discover personal interests and gifts.
Researchers increasingly believe that boredom is to the mind what sleep is to the body: a complex, restorative state in which information is synthesized and new connections wired.
Let’s face it. Boredom is part of life. We should not only make friends with it but appreciate the opportunities it offers us.
The more we react by trying to get rid of boredom, the less equipped we are to deal with it. Distracting ourselves again and again, we never learn how to cope with the uncomfortable sensations that come when we can’t get satisfaction. Even meditation can end up on the list of discarded cures, when it fails to deliver the quick bliss we crave. And yet discomfort is an inevitable part of life; it’s hard to avoid boredom forever, and we can’t avoid ourselves. Unless we spend our entire lives running (and many of us try), we need to find some other way of managing the irritation, the lethargy, the rumination, the not-right-in-our-own-skin feeling of sheer, stark, please-turn-me-to-stone-I-can’t-stand-this-another-minute boredom.
Boredom might even be necessary for the mental well-being of our kids.
Researchers are finding that children who are frequently “plugged in” instead of having time to themselves, have a higher risk of developing various psychological difficulties (including attention problems, depression, and anxiety). Unstructured free play and adequate time to think provides children with opportunities to act out their fears and sort through their emotions.
Overstimulation can have some seriously negative health impacts, including higher stress levels, lack of focus and creativity, and technology addiction.
Manoush Zomorodii in her 2017 TED Talk asks:
What actually happens to us when we get bored? Or, more importantly: What happens to us if we never get bored? And what could happen if we got rid of this human emotion entirely? I started talking to neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists, and what they told me was fascinating. It turns out that when you get bored, you ignite a network in your brain called the “default mode.” So our body, it goes on autopilot while we’re folding the laundry or we’re walking to work, but actually that is when our brain gets really busy.[…] the default mode is when we connect disparate ideas, we solve some of our most nagging problems, and we do something called “autobiographical planning.” This is when we look back at our lives, we take note of the big moments, we create a personal narrative, and then we set goals and we figure out what steps we need to take to reach them. But now we chill out on the couch also while updating a Google Doc or replying to email. We call it “getting shit done,” but here’s what neuroscientist Dr. Daniel Levitin says we’re actually doing. […] “you’re not actually doing four or five things at once, because the brain doesn’t work that way. Instead, you’re rapidly shifting from one thing to the next, depleting neural resources as you go”.
Researchers at USC have found — they’re studying teenagers who are on social media while they’re talking to their friends or they’re doing homework, and two years down the road, they are less creative and imaginative about their own personal futures and about solving societal problems, like violence in their neighborhoods. And we really need this next generation to be able to focus on some big problems: climate change, economic disparity, massive cultural differences.
The mindfulness movement is one way parents can counteract this tendency to avoid boredom. Mindfulness is gaining a lot of attention and popularity with kids for this very reason. The health benefits of mindfulness are undeniable and include improved sleep, emotional stability and more success with weight-loss efforts. However, you almost need to be bored to practice mindfulness.
Boredom is good for mom and dad too
Getting some mommy and daddy time is vital to keeping your relationship alive and to being a good parent. Focusing on parenting 24/7 does the opposite. It cranks up your stress and anxiety, which can actually hurt your kids. Children pick up their parents’ anxiety, which can hurt their performance in school and can create behavioral problems down the road.
You don’t need to kill yourself trying to keep your kids happy. In fact, it may make things worse. If you’re not happy, your kids aren’t either, and if you’re not mentally well, your kids aren’t either.
Put down the juggling balls and let your kids be bored for a while.
Take a little time for yourself. Not only is it good for you, but it just might be the best thing you can do for them.
I am the mom of teenage boys. My one son has a lightning-fast mind and wants to be stimulated intellectually constantly. This trait allows him to excel in our fact paced, efficiency-focused world.
However, it recently occurred to me that his reluctance and discomfort with down time may be contributing to his ongoing struggle with certain areas of his development including impulsivity, emotional dysregulation, social immaturity, intolerance, and black and white thinking.
His discomfort of idle time, which provides the opportunity to just sit and think, may be robbing my son of time for important self-reflection.
As it turns out, this observation is true.
Whenever I look back, the things I remember most about my childhood were those moments spent in and out of boredom, a kind of suspended time that only kids understand. Boredom was a portal.
Amy Hertzberg sums it up well in her Parenting Team post:
Resist the Role of Julie McCoy, Cruise Director […] Parents: It’s not our job to fill every minute of our kids’ day with stimulation and entertainment. We are not cruise directors.
In her article on The Conversation, Teresa Belton reminds us:
Parents often feel guilty if children complain of boredom. But it’s actually more constructive to see boredom as an opportunity rather than a deficit. Parents do have a role, but rushing in with ready-made solutions is not helpful. Rather, children need the adults around them to understand that creating their own pastimes requires space, time and the possibility of making a mess (within limits – and to be cleared up afterwards by the children themselves).
Simply amusing our children endlessly may actually do them more harm than good.
They will never learn how to act autonomously, accept responsibility for their own well-being, seek out challenges that interest them, or learn how to self-motivate.
Most parents would agree that they want to raise self-reliant individuals who can take initiatives and think for themselves. But filling a child’s time for them teaches nothing but dependence on external stimulus, whether material possessions or entertainment. Providing nurturing conditions and trusting children’s natural inclination to engage their minds is far more likely to produce independent, competent children, full of ideas.
In fact, there’s a lesson here for all of us. Switching off, doing nothing and letting the mind wander can be great for adults too – we should all try to do more of it.
“Your role as a parent is to prepare children to take their place in society. Being an adult means occupying yourself and filling up your leisure time in a way that will make you happy,” says Lyn Fry, a child psychologist in London with a focus on education. “If parents spend all their time filling up their child’s spare time, then the child’s never going to learn to do this for themselves.”
What practical advice is there for parents on how to help their kids benefit from boredom?
Help them brainstorm about possible activities, but make it clear that it’s their job to figure out how to enjoy their own time.
If a child has run out of ideas, giving them some kind of challenge can prompt them to continue to amuse themselves imaginatively. This could range from asking them to find out what kind of food their toy dinosaurs enjoy in the garden to going off and creating story in pictures with some friends and a digital camera.
Parents need to model unplugging and embracing boredom and in doing so, discover ourselves. Through our own actions, our kids can learn how to handle boredom and how to use it to achieve personal growth.
Embracing boredom might take practice for your kids
Without practicing being bored, we’re training ourselves to require continual stimulation or distraction, and we are reducing our attention-span. When we are afraid to be bored we risk becoming too busy to stay effective. In the rush and haste to stay stimulated and busy we have little time to pause to think about what we are doing, why we are doing, and robbing ourselves on the opportunity to learn new things.
Most of the time, kids left to their own devices end up doing something interesting, but sometimes they really do need our help, especially if you’re newly limiting TV and electronics, or if they suddenly have more time on their hands than usual, for instance when school ends and summer begins. (Once kids get used to limitations on TV and electronics, they become good at entertaining themselves, and more creative at play.)