A while ago, when my first born was still a newborn, I read a BBC story titled “Children should be allowed to get bored, expert says“. In it was this thought-provoking advice from Dr. Teresa Belton who, through interviews and research, had come up with this theory that parents are doing a major disservice to their kids by constantly keeping them busy and stimulated. At the time, the idea had seemed so counter-intuitive to every other advice which told me to completely immerse myself in my child’s well-being. I was too busy being a new mom however, and filed the story away in the deep recesses of my brain without any further thought.
My cuddly little firstborn is now 5 and a sister to her two brothers ages 3 and 1. Thankfully, being a mom of three hasn’t completely melted my brain and I resurrected that BBC story while talking to a fellow mom recently. We were discussing the challenges of summer vacation and all the planning that goes into keeping kids busy and occupied, and away from screens. And it’s not just summer vacations, for me, I feel so overwhelmed on weekends and evenings when all three kids are together and vying for my attention. I feel guilty refusing to play with them obviously, but then magically I am reminded of what I learned all those years ago, and with a clean conscience, I am not afraid to show my kids and ask them to leave me alone (nicely) and find something to do.
Since that BBC story in 2013, several other publications have supported the idea that boredom is a necessity for kids. One of my favorites is this recent story in Psychology Today titled “Can I Let My Child Be Bored?” where Nancy Colier, a psychotherapist, says:
Being bored has become this frightening and dreaded experience to which we parents must respond immediately. Boredom is not up to a kid to figure out anymore, it’s a parent’s issue and a parent’s problem. Boredom is a state that our children shouldn’t have to endure, and allowing our kids to experience it, not taking it seriously, might even be a sign of parental neglect. As we mistakenly imagine it, boredom is a case of a moment not fully lived, a moment deprived of interest.
As adults, we lead such busy and packed lives full of bills, jobs, and responsibilities, that sitting around doing nothing is no longer a virtue. We have essentially forgotten how to be bored. Even finding time to read a book becomes challenging because there literally aren’t enough hours in the day to accomplish everything that needs to be done along with what we want to do.
But for children, the reality is thankfully very very different. Their only “job” is to have fun and play. That’s what their brains are built to do. That’s how they are built to learn. But at some point, others had us believing that parents need to constantly aid this process and make it better. And we do this by over-scheduling activities, buying new “educational” toys, giving gadgets. According to Colier:
Sadly, we no longer trust our kids’ ability to tolerate or even survive open, unfilled time. We’ve stopped seeing the value in time without a focus, the profound possibility and potential in the cry I’m bored. Instead, we’ve learned to relate to time without an object of attention as nothing—as opposed to—nothing, yet. The truth is we’ve lost faith in our kids’ imaginations, and the power of human creativity—to generate something when it needs to.
Research (and my personal observation from seeing all the crazy things my kids come up with when I leave them to it) shows that a bored brain tends to be resourceful and creative, as kids learn to make something out of nothing. A bored brain has time to look within one’s self and connect with the feelings that often get shut out amidst the external noise. A bored brain is a good observer of one’s environment and has time to reflect on what is going on around us. And lastly, as adults, we already know that a bored brain is a fleeting luxury.
From one mom to another the advice I am leaving you with (as you tackle the rest of summer vacation and hopefully afterwards as well) is to step away and let your kids be bored from time to time.
Do little. Plan nothing. Colier put it best:
… it’s not only okay to let your child be bored, it’s paramount that you do so. When your child complains that he’s bored, you can simply say, it’s okay to be bored now and then, it won’t hurt you and it will help you, in ways you can’t yet know. And just before they leave the room, just whisper, if only to yourself, Your boredom just means I’m doing my job as a parent.
If this advice still seems too good to be true, you can find more interesting reads here and here. It’s not often that an easy path is the right path, but in the case of boredom and kids, it does seem like magic happens when they are left to their own human devises.