great! be bored!

Screen shot 2013-07-23 at 3.13.25 PM I was picking up my son from camp yesterday and overheard a boy of about 10, also being picked up and waiting while his dad chatted with another parent, turn to his dad and interrupt with “I’m bored.” Eek. The father replied “Just a second. I have a snack for you in the car.”

OK, so the kid probably wasn’t “bored.” He was restless, wasn’t quite sure what to do with himself, and was probably ready to go home. But it brought to mind the idea of childhood boredom – a quickly disappearing gift in many a plugged-in suburban neighborhood – and the opportunities that lie within.

As parents who try to provide a wide range of opportunities and experiences for our kids, it can be pretty irritating to hear “I’m bored.” A declaration of boredom can hit a nerve when we know the kinds of sacrifices a family makes day to day to enable a child’s social life, education, and entertainment.

Ironically it is often the very children who have so much to do who are most susceptible to “being bored.” They have become used to rushing from one activity to the next, constantly being fed entertainment and direction. And snacks. (Since when do kids need to eat every 20 minutes?) Absent that input, they can feel restless, anxious and desperate to find something to do.

And when they come for help, many-a-parent will oblige, if half-heartedly, with suggestions: “Why don’t you read, or go outside?” Here is something I think is revolutionary: resist even this! Offering a suggestion implies that kids really do need to be doing something every single minute. I think it was Richard Carlson (stress consultant!) whose suggested an awesome response “Great! Be bored!” Not only will a child likely stop asking for ideas, they will also come to know that it is not your job to keep them constantly entertained.

Of course this approach isn’t something to do all the time. Most parents really enjoy playing an active role in what their kids are up to, even love just hanging out with them. To encourage boredom on occasion is in response to the tendency of some kids to be overscheduled and overstimulated to the point where it is actually uncomfortable for them to simply be still.

Some of my own favorite and most vivid childhood memories stem from long stretches of spacing out, of wandering in the woods, of riding in the back of the station wagon for hours and hours and hours. I’m not surprised that, as an adult, I now seek these spaces when I need to unravel a problem, make an important decision, or feel dragged down by the static of the day.

As we try to provide opportunities and experiences for our kids to learn and grow from, keep in mind that the ability to be alone, settled and content with oneself is a gift, a place of fertile ground for creative thought and reflection. Amid the everyday busyness and distraction, it can take some practice. Children need to be able to find, and be in, those quiet spaces. Encouraging boredom on occasion is one way to help them get there. –t

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