“Dad, I’m bored…” is a daily exchange between my daughter and I. Getting dressed is boring. Going to school is boring. The park that we just came home from, that was boring too. “Boring” seems to have replaced “tired,” “hungry,” and even “sick” as the single worst adjective in the modern child’s vernacular. Little do they know that in due time, being bored will be the thing they most look forward to. I work hard all year for those few days when I can get away and literally think about and do nothing (hopefully with my feet in the sand of some beach). And surprisingly, one of the hallmarks of good parenting is allowing your child to be bored.
Though we can all recognize when we are bored, “boredom” is actually quite a difficult expression to pin down. From a psychology context, the most commonly accepted definition of the word is stated in terms of attention: boredom is the frustrating experience of wanting to, but being unable to engage in satisfying activity, meaning that a bored person cannot engage the internal (thoughts or feelings) or external (environment) factors necessary to produce a satisfying activity. Basically, it is the want for immediate dopamine-inducing sensory input, without the belief that it is currently easily accessible. Coincidentally, one’s boredom is another’s bliss.
Almost universally, neuroscientists and child psychologists agree that some boredom is important for early childhood cognitive development. Why? Because research has found that children who are bored show the highest levels of divergent thinking skills, including empathy, problem solving, and especially creativity. Child psychology researchers theorize that being placed in situations where one is not provided external sources of sensory activation encourages one to explore, seek out engaging activities, and restore the perception that activities not involving social engagement or immediate sensory activation can be meaningful and significant. Interestingly, studies have suggested that individuals who are bored, have an increased drive to find and engage in personally satisfying activities, much like happy people do. Because they are forced to find imaginative ways to keep themselves busy, they are more likely to find which activities truly satisfy them.
I am not suggesting that you cancel all your children’s scheduled activities and toss all their toys, but provide them opportunities that compel them to create their own satisfaction. And next time they come to you with grumbles about their boredom, maybe offer a slight grin. Here are a few things to keep in mind that help develop divergent thinking skills, empathy, and creativity in your own children.
Limit Screen Time
With all the recent research, it is difficult not to associate the benefits of boredom with screen time. Smartphones and tablets are the ultimate boredom killers, with their endless supply of variable sensory input that keeps our brains on a perpetual dopamine feedback loop. We all have a million adult responsibilities and it is so easy to hand your kids a device and allow them to swipe through cute puppy pictures or use a bird-loaded slingshot to destroy structures all over the landscape, but due to how our brains are hardwired and the process of neural pathway development, screen time makes it increasingly difficult to find satisfaction in other activities. Schedule a certain amount of screen time and stick to it.
Don’t overschedule. It’s that’s simple. Children learn a million different important skills from being part of sports teams and taking musical lessons, and they should all have opportunities to explore these activities. However, they also need time to themselves to push the boundaries of their imagination and seek out what engages and provides them fulfilment when they don’t have outside influences keeping them engaged. They’ll have plenty of time to have every minute of their day scheduled with responsibilities when they reach adulthood. Allow them some free time to explore their boredom while they still can.
Provide a boredom-promoting environment
Ok, this one sounds really strange, but it isn’t as weird as you think. We are all a product of our own experiences and environments. Children will mimic what they see going on around them and adjust to the surrounding environment. This is the basics of nature and nurture. Don’t be hesitant to occasionally model boredom. Pick up a book, break out the old chess set or an adult coloring book, show your children what keeps you engaged when you are all to yourself, and let them know that they are going to have to entertain themselves as you scratch your own boredom itch. Provide them simple implements—a box, a magnifying glass—and let their minds wander. Despite my daughter having all kinds of sophisticated battery-powered toys, when left to her own devices, her most prized possessions are rocks. Maybe the happiest I have ever seen her was when we tossed her inside the old box of a washing machine with the top cut off, dumped a bunch of crayons inside, and allowed her to color.
Filling a child’s time with external stimuli only teaches them to depend on other people and things to provide them fulfillment. Raise a self-reliant, free-thinking, empathetic, and creative problem-solving child by allowing them to be bored…sometimes.