Tips for When Your Kids Are Bored
Why Kids Get Bored So Easily, Why Boredom Is Good(!), and What To Do About It
by Steve Silvestro, MD @zendocsteve
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Most of us said this to our parents all the time when we were kids. So why is it so darn annoying to hear now that we’re parents??
As I write this, summer break is upon us. That means that parents everywhere need to brace themselves and get ready to hear a steady stream of “I’m bored” or “What can I do?”
And while it can be so easy to point out the dozens of toys your child owns—or to half-sarcastically respond with, “Well, you can do the dishes, the laundry, clean your room”—the best approach is the most surprising one of all: Let your child be bored.
In fact, boredom is not only a normal occurrence for both kids and adults, experiencing boredom just might be one of the best opportunities for your child to grow into a pretty amazing person.
This article is going to show you why—plus what to do when your child is bored.
But first, it’s important to understand why kids say that they’re bored so often.
WHY KIDS GET BORED
It often seems like it’s the job of every older generation to point out how things were so different when they were kids. These stories often make it sound like kids had it harder back in the day (walking to school uphill…both ways…in the snow…comes to mind). But it’s true that life as a kid is different for each subsequent generation.
If you think about a modern child’s life, it’s easy to see how they’ve gotten used to constant stimulation:
Full Activity Schedules
Many kids participate in multiple activities throughout the week, leaving very few days with “nothing to do.” And it’s easy to see how we all get wrapped up in these busy schedules. Soccer becomes a fall AND spring sport. Karate school charges by the month and allows you to come as much as you want, so you go a few days a week to get your money’s worth. The ballet teacher says your child is gifted and encourages her to go three times a week.
Plus, once your child gets into an activity and likes it, it’s hard to stop doing it. The end result is that kids’ schedules are often entirely determined by adults and offer little downtime for self-direction.
Netflix & Chill…All Day
I hate to sound like an old curmudgeon, but back when we were kids, our TV shows had commercials. Not only that, we couldn’t pick what was on—kid shows usually only aired at certain times of day and you got whatever episode was on, meaning that the TV was often turned off because either Saturday morning cartoons were over or the show was a rerun.
Now, however, Netflix, Amazon, and YouTube let today’s kids watch whatever they want whenever they want. They can be instantly satisfied by pulling up the exact episode of Pokemonthat they want to see, and then the next one starts up as soon as the first one ends.
Of course, we adults also love this instant-access when we watch. And just as you might feel a bit of emptiness when you’ve finished the last episode of a favorite show and have nothing to watch next, your kids feel the same way when you tell them it’s time to turn the TV off. After getting used to Netflix immediately satisfying every whim, screen-free time tends to create an itch that’s hard to scratch.
Pinterest & Bounce House Childhood
Whether it’s just out of love, or it’s due to some feeling of regret from our own childhoods, many of us modern parents are creating a fairly charmed life for our kids.
How many bounce house birthday parties have you been to so far? Gone are the days when a birthday party consisted only of ice cream, pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, and playing in the backyard. Whether it’s to give kids a fun time or just to avoid cleaning the house, many parents now plan action-packed birthday parties that have kids either adult-directed or trampolining the whole time. The result is that when kids are invited to a low-key party at someone’s home—or they happen to have a weekend without a party—they don’t know how notto be as rambunctious as they would at the bounce place.
But it’s not just birthday parties that leave kids expecting BIG and AMAZING all the time. Pinterest has certainly brought a ton of creativity and variety to parenting. But when every preschool lunch is a beautifully crafted piece of art, and every outing is curated and photo-worthy, then we’re setting a high bar for everyday occurrences for our kids.
When every activity is amazing, downtime is bound to be boring.
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING BORED
So yes, we’re kind of setting ourselves up to hear “I’m bored” whenever our kids’ lives aren’t scheduled.
But it turns out that boredom is actually a good thing for our kids—and there are many reasons why:
Boredom Sparks Creativity
Think of when many people get great ideas—in the shower.
Doing the same routine every day, often at the same time of day, over and over again—it’s pretty dull in there. That dullness and monotony actually gives your brain freedom to wander and explore nooks and crannies of thought that you might not meander through at other parts of your day.
It’s the same for your kids when they’re bored—their brains are now free to wander and explore and create.
When your kids are bored, watch to see what they finally end up doing. While they might fall back on something they know most of the time, you’ll be amazed by their ingenuity when they come up with something new.
Boredom Creates Leaders & Decision-Makers
Let’s face it—while you might think you’re benefiting your kid when you sign him up for a dozen activities, what you’re not allowing him to develop is independence, internal motivation, or ownership over his choices.
Kids take initiative when you’re not running the show. If you’re not around or actively directing them, they have to problem solve on their own. When a kid is bored and doesn’t get suggestions from a parent, she needs to step up, take charge, and take her happiness into her own hands.
Better still, when kids are bored with other kids around, it’s an opportunity for them to learn valuable social skills. In deciding what to do and how to do it, they learn what it takes to lead, negotiate, compromise, and work as a team.
Letting your kids be bored just might turn them into a leader better than a scheduled activity ever could!
Boredom Allows A Chance To Reflect
As a pediatrician, I’m often asked to talk to kids about the importance of sleep. I usually phrase my conversation like this: “In the daytime, your body uses energy to talk, move, and do things. At night, you’re not doing all of that, so your body gets to use energy to heal, grow, build muscle, and strengthen the connections your brain made in the daytime. Sleep makes you healthier, taller, stronger, and smarter.”
In a sense, boredom offers something similar. When kids aren’t busy doing something, they’re free to think about whatever they want. It’s an opportunity for them to reflect on things they’ve experienced; to ask questions of themselves and ponder the answers; to put their own mental imprint on their experience in a way that can’t be done when they’re actively doing something else.
As psychologist Dr. Vanessa Lapointe notes, “children need to sit in the nothingness of boredom in order to arrive at an understanding of who they are.”
TIPS: WHAT TO DO WHEN YOUR KIDS ARE BORED
Okay, so it’s clear that being bored is actually good for our kids.
But I’m a parent—I know how frustrating it can be to have a kid constantly harping about how bored they are.
What on earth should you do so that everyone survives the day??
When you respond to your child’s complaints of boredom, you don’t necessarily want to direct him with a dozen structured suggestions, because then you aren’t letting him come up with his own idea. Y’know, that would essentially defeat the purpose of this article.
But it’s nice to have some sort of loose scaffolding to turn to when you’re at wit’s end. So, here are some approaches you can use when responding to your child, plus tips for creating inspiration and opportunity when your child is bored:
- Respond without suggestions – Of course you have to respond to your child; ignoring will only get you so far. The best approach might be to say something like, “I love it when I’m bored.” Then tell your child why—“Being bored means I get to choose what I do next. It gives me time to think. I get to decide how I feel and what I do.”
- Routinely have days with no plans at all – Again, if every day of a child’s life is Pinterest-worthy, then he won’t know how to handle a day that’s just average. Make sure that you keep at least one day every few weekends “plan-free” and see what magic happens…
- Keep a list of “bored options” on the fridge – You and your child can work together to create a list of things she can do when she’s bored. Put it in an accessible spot, like the fridge. Whenever she’s bored, tell her to look at the list. That way you’re not quite giving her specific ideas, but instead allowing her to take initiative and make a choice.
- Start an “Idea Jar” –This variation of the bored list is a bit more fun. At the dinner table or some other time that you’re together, come up with ideas of fun activities, write them down on small pieces of paper, and put the papers into a jar. Next time your child is bored, have him pick a paper from the jar for inspiration. You could even have a rule that he can only pick up to three papers, or even that the first idea has to be the one he does.
- Have supplies – We often talk about the importance of minimalism—kids have too many toys, we all have too much “stuff.” This is totally true. That said, having things around that can inspire creative play help to validate those things’ existence. Stock up your home or play are with items like art supplies, a kid-sized apron in the kitchen, magnifying glasses, flashlights, etc. Flashlights make everythingcool!
- Keep those supplies general – To inspire the most creativity & variety of options, try not to have supplies that are limited to a specific activity. For example, have more open-ended art supplies like paper, crayons, tape, and wrapping paper tubes—instead of specific craft kits. Even though your child might love Star Wars & Ninjago LEGO sets, try to keep a stock of generic LEGO pieces that would encourage your child to build whatever he thinks of on his own.
- Build a “Thinking Spot” –Create a space in your child’s room or a playroom with a comfy seat or pillow, paper & pencils, perhaps even small toys for inspiration. When your child is bored, suggest that she sit in the Thinking Spot and come up with ideas.
- Ease up on cleaning the playroom –Sure, you want a clean house. But seeing things mixed together might inspire your child to be more creative. Usually, when he plays with trains, he plays trains. When he builds with Magnatiles, he builds. BUT, if the Magnatiles and trains are both out together, then he just might inventively meld the ideas together and build a city aroundhis trains, with tracks darting in and out of Magna-tunnels and skyscrapers.
It’s true, we all had plenty of opportunity to aggravate our own parents when we were kids with complaints of being bored. Somehow, we gathered our might and made it through that boredom and most of us turned out, well, pretty alright.
By understanding why today’s kids are set up to have a hard time tolerating being bored, and by following the tips outlined above, you can help your child navigate the doldrums of boredom—turning it instead into a spark of creativity, insight, and growth into a pretty amazing young person.