The most common question I get in my talks to parents around the country is this: What should I do when my kid says he’s bored?
Recently, one mom told me that her son is always asking her, “What should I do next? I’m bored.” This mom, like many parents these days, feels a tremendous pressure to occupy her son’s every moment—to immediately get rid of his boredom and provide activities to quell his discomfort.
Many children these days have remarkably busy schedules; their time is filled up to the last second of the day. Their attention is unceasingly attended to and for: afterschool classes, sports, tutors, playdates, the list goes on. Even at birthday parties, when a dozen kids are gathered together, the parents often feel responsible for entertaining them at every moment.
Being bored has become this frightening and dreaded experience that parents must respond to immediately. Boredom is not up to a kid to figure out anymore, it’s now a parent’s issue and a parent’s problem—and allowing our kids to experience it, or 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; as if it’s a missed opportunity. We relate to it as an absence, a state of nothingness: There’s nothing to do, nothing to learn, nothing to experience. Boredom, as we see it, is emptiness.
As a result of our fear of boredom, we’re encouraging our children to be perpetually focused on some object of attention. At the same time, technology has made constant engagement the new normal. With tech has come the expectation that our kids (and us adults) should live in a state of uninterrupted entertainment and pleasurable busyness at all times. We even get to congratulate ourselves for this under the guise of learning more, doing more, communicating more, and what we’ve convinced ourselves is living more.
Sadly, we no longer trust our kids’ ability to tolerate or even survive open, unfilled time. We’ve stopped seeing the profound possibility and potential of boredom. Instead, we’ve learned to relate to time without an object of attention as nothing—as opposed to nothing, yet. The underlying truth is we’ve lost faith in our kids’ imaginations and the power of human creativity to adapt to its environment.
The Benefits of Boredom
Two things of great value happen when we’re bored. First, we have to use our imagination; we have to invent. This is a skill that can’t be underestimated. Some people argue that kids no longer need this skill because they can just use tech to stay occupied. This is like saying that as human beings, we should no longer learn to walk because we have cars. Regardless of how plentiful the opportunities to avoid boredom have become, the ability to create, generate, and self-engage is still profoundly important in the development of a healthy human being.
It’s our responsibility as parents to build the skills of imagination and creativity. We do this by planting the seeds when our children are young—by giving them the chance to play, evolve, do their work, and become who they were meant to be. Boredom is water for these seeds. When we’re supplying all the goods for our kids’ attention, we’re actually encouraging their imaginations and creative capacities to atrophy and die.
Secondly, when a child says “I’m bored,” it’s because he can’t find anything that interests him. But where is he looking? Usually, outside himself. When we say we’re bored, it’s because we have nothing to distract ourselves from ourselves. Unfortunately, we’re being conditioned to experience our own company as nothing interesting. When we frantically shove an activity in front of our child when he’s bored, we’re creating (and supporting) his belief that without something added to himself, he’s nothing.
The remarkable invitation that boredom offers is the invitation to spend time with, take interest in, or at the very least, learn to tolerate our own company. It’s in the gaps between focused activities that we can turn our attention to our own thoughts, feelings, and maybe even to the experience of boredom itself.
Even if technology now makes it possible for our children to outrun themselves all the way to the grave, nonetheless, the ability to not fear their own company is the most valuable skill they will ever learn. In boredom lies the possibility that we can become a worthy destination for our own attention.
So in answer to the question, “is it OK to let my child be bored?” It’s not only okay but also paramount that you do so. When your child complains of being 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 then, bask in the satisfaction of knowing that their boredom just means you’re doing your job as a parent.
Nancy Colier is a psychotherapist, interfaith minister, author, public speaker, workshop leader, and author of several books on mindfulness and personal growth. Colier is available for individual psychotherapy, mindfulness training, spiritual counseling, public speaking, and workshops, and also works with clients via Skype around the world. For more information, visit NancyColier.com