We hear it a zillion times: “I’m bored.” And when we do, we’re compelled to engage with our kids. That’s whether we work outside the home (“I hardly see them enough!”). Or stay at home (“Isn’t this why I left work to begin with?”). But guess what: boredom is good for your child.
I get it though, it’s hard not feel obligated to entertain our kids and save them from their boredom. This, despite the toys and books and opportunities for them to play. But first, why do our kids get bored?
Why kids get bored
- Too much structured time. Organized sports, classes and activities aren’t bad. But not having free time can make kids bored. With a packed schedule, kids rely on the events that fill their day for entertainment. So when they’re left with a block of time, they feel bored in comparison to their usual busy lives.
- Too many toys and books and gadgets. Yup—plopping your kid in the middle of too many items can spur them not to have fun but to feel… bored. Psychologist Barry Schwartz has said in his book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, that too many options can paralyze us into inaction. We mull over what we passed up. We analyze our decisions and feel dissatisfied with what we chose. Over-stimulation can drive a child to feel distanced and unfocused.
- Too much screen time. I don’t let my kids watch television until they’re two, and I’m glad for it. Television isn’t the evil of the world. But a habit in front of the screen (and smart phones and iPads) makes kids rely on them.
- Not enough attention. Sometimes when my child says he’s bored, he’s not so much out of ideas but craving my company. If you hear your child say he’s bored, consider whether he wants to be with you.
Why boredom is good for your child
It’s easy to get bored, and much easier to feel uncomfortable with boredom. No one likes twiddling their thumbs, waiting instead of doing, or feeling like time is one big void. Still, boredom is good for your child, regardless. Here’s why:
Kids learn to wait.
One of the biggest reasons kids need to feel bored is so they develop the ability to tolerate boredom.
You see, we have to wait. And the difference between a kid who can wait and one who can’t can affect many outcomes in her life. Kids who can wait reap the benefits of delayed gratification. Researchers have linked this ability to wait to general success in later life.
Kids learn to distract themselves. They play games, twiddle with their shirt or hands, or hum a tune—activities that make the waiting game less awkward.
They’re also less likely to whine and complain when they can entertain themselves. They don’t look to external sources to fill their void.
And they’ll only learn all that if they’re given the chance to be bored. To tolerate boredom and all its emptiness.
Kids get creative.
I’ve heard a stereotype that the youngest child in the family is the most creative. Why? Because while her parents may have fawned over her older siblings, she instead was left alone. There’s not enough attention to go around when you have five kids instead of one.
And when you’re the youngest, your parents are done hovering. They assume you’ll figure things out on your own.
In short, you had to deal with your boredom. And that’s fantastic news for you and your creativity.
As the youngest in my family, I can remember the many times I played by myself out in the yard or in my bedroom. I still sought other people’s company, but I also entertained myself. (“If I plant this pencil in the ground, will it grow into a giant pencil just like how seeds grow into plants?”) I played with open-ended toys and tools like pastels, charcoals and crayons.
Creativity isn’t only defined by the arts, either. Kids learn problem solving. They develop internal stimulus instead of searching for external sources of entertainment.
The bored child will learn to tinker with the toys he has. He’ll find a new game to play, or immerse himself in a project or problem he otherwise wouldn’t have had a chance to.
Speaking of which…
Kids turn inward for internal sources of joy
A friend of mine had to care for two kids separately. One child can entertain himself with a handful of toy soldiers and a box of crayons and paper. The other child—given the same items—scoffed and laughed. He defined entertainment as amusement parks, movies or outings. Not a box of crayons.
And it’s unfortunate. The more jam-packed their entertainment, the more they’ll rely on grand things to meet their needs.
Boredom forces your child to enjoy simple pleasures and requires him to turn inward to find joy. Television and high entertainment make kids recipients instead of creators or givers.
Kids given the opportunity to feel bored create a solution to that problem. Even if it means finding joy in a pretend game of plastic toy soldiers.
Provide them with open-ended toys, or easy-to-reach bins filled with activities and books. Involve them with your tasks around the house. And pay them attention when they seem to need it.
But be their guide, not their problem solver. Provide the channels to avoid boredom, but don’t always rescue them. They’ll be happier with simple pleasures instead of the latest gadgets and entertainment.
Kids try new things.
My husband recalls his introduction into playing guitar as a kid. “Someone had given me a guitar,” he began, “but it just sat there for the longest time. Then, one day out of boredom, I picked it up. And that’s how I realized how much I liked playing guitar.”
Boredom can be so uncomfortable that it pushes us to try new things. Things we would otherwise overlook amid schedules and screen time. Things that seem better than nothing… until we realize how much we love it. And even if we don’t, we would have at least tried something new. That says something, right?
The same is true for our kids. Desperate to escape nothingness, they’ll try anything. Or maybe resume an old project, or rekindle an interest in an old toy.
Your kids socialize with one another.
My husband and I take our kids out on outings, particularly on weekends. We’ll go to the farmers market, or to a family party, or to the museum. And when we do—when we provide entertainment—our kids don’t really interact.
Boredom encourages your child to play with others. My one-year-olds will sit and play in the same area. My four-year-old will toss balloons at them and pinch their cheeks. They’ll make faces and laugh at one another.
When we’re out and about, kids are interested with what’s going on around them. This is totally fine because I still want my kids to experience new outings and not be housebound. But to do this all the time means they wouldn’t play their silly games with one another when they’re bored at home.
Kids won’t feel burned out.
I have this rule that if we have plans for the day, then we can’t squeeze in other plans for the same day. We relax the remaining hours of the day. Maybe it’s staying home or walking to the park or running our usual errands. The ordinary moments.
I do this so that my kids won’t feel burned out. I don’t worry if they’ll bore themselves silly. I’d rather lessen their outings so they can find something entertaining to do the rest of the day.
Things kids can do when they’re bored
It can seem unfair to leave our kids hanging when they’re bored. You shouldn’t “save” them from boredom, but give them opportunities to cope with it. Below are a few things kids can do when they’re bored:
- Turn on the radio and dance to the music.
- Play with old toys.
- Dress up in pretend clothes.
- Do a jigsaw puzzle or other brain teaser game.
- Play with play dough.
- Make a macaroni necklace.
- Go for a walk.
- Play with wooden blocks.
- Cook with you.
- Read books.
- Create items from arts and crafts.
- Draw on a chalkboard or dry eraser board.
We expect to entertain our kids, placing that responsibility on ourselves. We hover over our babies even when they’re already over-stimulated. And we scramble to fill our kids’ days with back-to-back activities. We’re compelled to entertain them 24/7 even though they want to play independently.
We don’t actually like boredom. It leads to listlessness and lack of motivation. It’s not pleasant.
But that’s the point: We can’t always save our kids from life’s duller moments. Doing so would do a disservice to their ability to overcome challenges.
So the next time your kids say “I’m bored,” think of it as a blessing in disguise.
Get more tips:
- The Benefits of Open Ended Play and How to Encourage It
- How to Be Awesome at Playing with Your Kids (Even if You Don’t Like It)
- The Downsides of Having Too Many Toys
- How to Nurture Your Child’s Creativity
Your turn: Why do you think boredom is good for your child? Do you feel compelled to entertain your kids out of boredom? Let me know in the comments!
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