Boredom can be good for you (and your children)
“I’m bored” is a phrase most parents dread or at least find quite exasperating to hear. We live in a society that values business, progress, success, and always striving for more. We’d like to slow down and, at times, do “nothing” but we fear this may be viewed as laziness, or that we will get behind and be even more busy trying to catch up. All of this contributes to the negative perception of boredom and the learned expectation of our children that they should always be on the go or entertained. But research suggests that being bored (in moderation) is actually really good for us, and our kids.
Boredom is defined as wanting to engage in a satisfying activity but being unable to access the required thoughts, feelings or materials to do so. Yes, it is frustrating and an uncomfortable emotion. However, boredom allows and facilitates imagination. Boredom drives us to try something new, come up with ideas, daydream, explore options, and discover personal interests and gifts. Research suggests that letting our minds wander while doing undemanding activities increases our ability to come up with new ideas and solutions to problems. So let’s look at boredom in a bit more detail…
What causes boredom in children?
There are three main situations in which a child will perceive themselves as being bored.
- The child loses interest in what he was doing because he is lonely and wants to spend time with someone else (usually the parent).
- The child has run out of ideas and stimulation
- The child still has ideas and something to do, but they no longer seem appealing.
In the first situation, the child is wanting some attention and interaction with another person rather than being genuinely bored. The child is likely to be able to busy herself again once she has had a few minutes with you. If your child is experiencing boredom as described in the latter two situations, never fear, there are several benefits to allowing them to have this experience before helping your child move beyond it.
Benefits of boredom
When our children (or we ourselves) are feeling bored, the tendency is to try to alleviate that state as quickly as possible. It’s all too easy to use an electronic device to consume content or play games whenever we feel a sense of boredom. However, research suggests there are actually benefits to being bored. Boredom:
- Allows creativity and imagination. Much of what our kids do is scheduled and structured. Our children don’t often get an opportunity to just daydream and let their imagination and ideas flow.
- Encourages appreciation of the “little things”. When our children are not busy doing scheduled and structured activities, they have the time to look and really notice what’s around them.
- Promotes empathy. We (and our children) can take the time to put ourselves in others’ shoes rather than getting stuck focusing on our own wants and needs.
- Encourages exploration and discovery. If the current activity is no longer stimulating for your child, they now have an opportunity to try new things, and find talents they didn’t know they had.
- Teaches independence. Children can learn to think for themselves rather than being dependent on media and entertainment outlets to tell them what to think about the world around them. Also, instead of following a schedule or adult-led activity, children have the opportunity to initiate their own ideas.
- Helps with the development of qualities such as curiosity, playfulness, perseverance, observation and concentration – all skills useful in multiple contexts throughout life.
- Facilitates appreciation and gratitude. When our kids feel bored at times, they can then be more appreciative and grateful of all the times when they are not bored because they have access to opportunities, possessions and relationships that are stimulating.
Boredom, therefore, does not have to be seen as a problem, but rather an opportunity to learn new skills and do something different.
Helping your child with boredom
As parents, we can help our children get the most out of being bored rather than rushing in with ready-made solutions to alleviate boredom. Here are a few ways you can help your child use boredom constructively:
- Spend one-on-one time with your child on a regular basis to reduce the situation where your child is saying they are bored to get your attention.
- Encourage exploration and discovery in your family. Children are naturally curious and creative so show them that its ok in your family to try new things, to make mistakes, to persue hobbies and interests. The more things your child is interested in (not necessarily participating in) the more things they can explore, daydream about, or just wonder about. Showing an interest in what your child is learning and doing will also encourage them.
- Allow children down-time. Don’t feel the need to fill every moment with scheduled activities. Start when your kids are young and allow them the time, space and freedom to entertain themselves.
- Teach your child skills they can use in everyday life, whether busy or bored. Basic knowledge such a colours, number and letters can open up a whole world of opportunities and games for young children. Older children who can read will be able to find a book to dive into when bored with other activities. Thinking skills such as questioning, problem solving, planning, and reflecting can help children to either sit with the bored feeling or come up with ideas for something to do.
- Help your child make a boredom jar. Ask your child to come up with as many ideas about things they could do when bored as they can. These activities can be indoor or outdoor, quiet or active, creative, honing techniques, learning new things, chores, solo or with others, require materials or not. Provide a jar or other container for your child to place each cut out idea into. Then, whenever your child feels bored and has trouble coming up with an idea, they have a ready-made lucky dip of ideas to choose from.
6. Limit technology. We are surrounded by screens and technology, which can be great for entertaining and passing the time, but have been found to dull creative thinking and set kids up to expect to be entertained (“internet-ained”) rather than being able to entertain themselves. Encourage kids to do a few activities off the screens first, and keep the technology for when your child actually does run out of ideas instead of jumping straight in front of a screen before even having a chance to try other things.
7. Help your child set up challenges. You can prompt your child and provide some guidance to get started, e.g. provide materials they may need or suggest they go outside or do a chore, but try to let them figure out which direction to take their ideas without adults structuring the activity for them.
8. Avoid feeding a bored child. It is tempting at times to interpret boredom as hunger, or try to alleviate boredom with eating. Research suggests that humans like to eat to abate boredom because preparing and chewing food is highly stimulating for our senses – the opposite of boredom. However, relying on food to combat boredom can reduce a child’s ability to distinguish genuine hunger from emotional eating.
9. Let them be bored. When your child says they are bored, help them change their mindset about boredom with some gentle encouragement, e.g. “That’s great. Enjoy it and see what amazing things your mind can come up with when you give it the time”. When adults are less negative about boredom, kids can also learn to see it as an opportunity rather than a problem. Creative people throughout history have acknowledged the role that boredom played in the development of their skills. Even major discoveries can occur when bored – take Isaac Newton who was supposedly just sitting under an apple tree when he discovered gravity!!!
So boredom, rather than being the bane of human existence, could very well be what we need to come up with new ideas, step out of our comfort zones, and learn more about ourselves and the world around us. As parents, we can teach our children to embrace periods of boredom, and reassure ourselves that we don’t have to rescue our children from being bored. In fact, unplugging from busy schedules, doing nothing, and letting the mind wander and daydream can be good for all of us.
To Know more on how to handle boredom, you can visit www.changespsychology.com.au