Boredom gets a bad rap. Kids whine about it, grown-ups dread it, entire industries aim to eliminate it. It might come as a surprise, then, to hear that being bored sometimes is good for kids. Before you sign your child up for a class or hand over your game-loaded cell phone, consider the benefits of boredom.
Being present. Boredom can help kids be present and aware of the world around them. One of the delightful things about young children is their curiosity and fascination with the things we adults take for granted: the colors of a moth on the window, the noises of a recycling truck, the way old snow crunches under your feet. Making those discoveries is how children learn.
Even though they don’t realize it, kids need us to make the space for them to be drawn in by the world around them. If we never let them get bored, they never discover how interesting the world really is. Because their attention, self-control and other executive functioning skills are not fully developed, it’s even harder for kids to resist distractions and new things than it is for adults (and let’s face it, it’s not easy for us). If they are constantly occupied by screens, activities or new toys, they don’t get the opportunity to discover.
Taking brain breaks. We are all so busy trying to do everything at once that it’s no surprise stress and anxiety are on the rise, and not just among grown-ups. Kids’ brains need stimulation, but they need downtime, too. Fortunately, many schools and families are involving kids in mindfulness activities, which can help children and adults quiet their minds and feel calm. But there’s also something to be said for good, old-fashioned staring off into space. There is some evidence that daydreaming is associated with better cognitive skills and the ability “to think beyond our immediate surroundings.”
It can be hard to leave space for downtime, so some families find it helpful to schedule it (as funny as that sounds). You can make sure that your kids have a couple afternoons or evenings per week when they don’t have an organized activity. In our family, we also find it helpful to establish screen-free zones. When we’re in the car and on public transportation, we don’t allow media except for music and podcasts. Do our kids complain about being bored? Sometimes, yes. But they also knew from a young age how to get around their city and appreciate all the interesting people, cultures and surroundings it offers.
Being creative. We often think that “creative” means artsy, but really it’s about coming up with new ideas and solving problems in innovative ways. To develop their creativity muscles, kids need time to think and the motivation to come up with something new. Playing pretend can help children develop social skills and self-control. Thinking outside the box can help them solve the problems that seem small to us, but are huge to them. Our children will need these problem-solving skills now and as they grow up in a rapidly changing world.
But research suggests they might not be getting the chance to develop those habits. A long-term study finds that creativity has been steadily declining among children of all ages over the past 30 years. The researchers think it has to do with the way we’re raising our kids, both at home and in school. If we’re constantly filling their schedules and their brains, they’ll have no need to imagine a story, wonder how things work, or construct a fort with pillows and blankets.
A parent recently asked me if she should have a craft or activity set up for her preschooler when she gets home from school. I was touched by her dedication and struck by her good fortune at having the time and resources to do that. But setting up an activity every day is not only unnecessary, but a disservice to children. If you want to lead a project with your child sometimes, that’s wonderful! Do it all the time, though, and your child won’t develop the habit of creating her own ideas and projects.
Fostering independence. Some experts worry that stuffing our children’s schedules full of activities or leaving them to their (electronic) devices is spurring a crisis of dependence, a trend of young people not being able to manage their time or take responsibility for themselves. Some structure is good for children, and activities are great for them to learn new skills and make new friends. But unstructured play helps them develop a different set of important skills and relationships. Creating unstructured time means introducing the possibility of boredom, but also the chance to work through it.
I recently heard my 9-year-old and his friend in an age-old conversation: “Let’s do something. What do you want to do?” “I don’t know. What do YOU want to do?” Shrugs all around. Believe it or not, that’s a very important conversation! They were learning to listen to each other, share their opinions, compromise and take responsibility for managing their own time. I don’t remember what they ended up doing that day (or the many other days they’ve had this conversation), but I know they found something that didn’t involve the TV, cause a fight or burn down the house.
Of course, being bored all the time isn’t healthy. What parent hasn’t dreaded the last hours of a long school break, when days of unstructured time lead to sibling squabbles and meltdowns? Where’s the line between too much boredom and not enough? It’s different for every kid and every family, and it may take some time to figure out where your line is. It can be hard to let your kids be bored. Just like you have to live through your children’s tantrums so they learn to cope with frustration, you have to live through their boredom so they learn to be self-sufficient, engaged and aware of the world around them.
Letting your kids be bored will accomplish something else important: developing them into interesting, funny, thoughtful people who can have dinner time conversations and cope with long car rides. That’s good for them and for all of us.