Simplifying Childhood is Making Your Kid Bored….. and That is a Very Good Thing

So so happy to bring you a post from ScreenFreeMom who writes at ScreenFreenParenting.com. You can read more about her credentials and work at the end of this post. I know summer can be a tough time for managing screen access/hours with school being out so when ScreenFreeMom asked me if she could share a post with Minimalist Mom readers I was thrilled. Here it is…

As a kid, I was bored a lot.  I had a good friend who was often bored with me.  We were not put in summer camps and we did not have a ton of different “activities.” I am not a gymnast, black-belt holder, or musician; but I think I am a pretty well-rounded adult nonetheless.  We also didn’t have an Ipad with a myriad of games and programs to choose from. Our childhood was filled with boredom.

Boredom had a big effect on us.  Our neighborhood was a new development.  My house was one of the first ten built and by the time we moved out, when I was teenager, there were over 40 houses in the neighborhood.  This meant that there was a lot of construction going on in the neighborhood throughout my childhood.  My friend and I often found ourselves watching the construction, sometimes “touring” the sites, and often digging through the treasure chest of discarded materials when the building was done.  Soon, my backyard had scraps of lumber, unused roofing tiles, and leftover drywall.  We quickly decided we would build a fort. We constructed a chicken-co0p like structure – permanently half-finished but, boy, were we proud.

Also motivated by our boredom, we wrote a soap opera, built a town out of boxes, and founded “The Explorers Club,” a group dedicated to maintaining the woods behind our houses.   Reminiscing about childhood is an enjoyable activity in and of itself.  We had a fun childhood.  We also learned a great deal through our play.  Given the freedom, we created worlds with social order, wrote long narratives, and built a semi-useful structure. I would argue that we learned a great deal more through these activities than we could have through structured academic activities or organized sports.  And, we certainly learned more than we could have through educational applications and television programming.

But, when I compare my childhood to the overscheduled busy childhoods of today, I see one big difference. Children, today, do not seem to have enough opportunity to be bored.  There is a frenzy, in fact, to protect them from boredom (and often all negative emotions).  However, boredom is a very good thing for children (and adults).

Here are four reasons to encourage boredom in childhood today:

  1. Creativity

Boredom is related to creativity.  Boredom leads to daydreaming which often leads to creative insights.  As a writer, I know this, as I often go for long runs before writing.  My mind wanders and in that semi-conscious space, the ideas start to flow.  I am not alone in this as many writers have discussed how boredom is essential to their process.  Parents of young children know this as well.  If able to tolerate the whining that may come with the initial feeling of boredom, they get to witness their children creating very inventive and enthralling games.

  1. Relaxation

Constant on-the-go-ness is exhausting. It is exhausting for parents, but it is even more exhausting for children.  For children, every experience offers some novelty and therefore their brains have to work harder at observing, deconstructing, and encoding all that they are taking in.  Downtime, which may seem boring at first, is essential to allow children the opportunity to replenish their energy and give their brains a break.

  1. Sleep

Relaxation and sleep are related.  Your child should not immediately pass out when their little heads hit the pillow. If they do, they are overtired.  So, if they don’t pass out immediately, what do they do?  They process their day.  This is important work.  They also may experience boredom before falling asleep.  If they are not permitted to experience boredom throughout their day, this emotion will be intolerable for them and they will have difficulty falling asleep.  However, if they are accustomed to boredom and the daydreaming that accompanies it, it will offer a seamless passage from wakefulness into sleep.

  1. Tolerance and Insight Into (all) Emotions

John Gottman has done some great research into emotional intelligence.  He’s taken it a step further to analyze what parents of emotionally-intelligent children do.  His research has found that they tolerate and even encourage all emotions in their children.  The parents also help the children by “coaching” some tough emotions via labeling and searching for solutions.  But, a big key is that the child is allowed to experience emotions, including ones we might consider negative.  Emotion-coaching parents do not inhibit their child from experiencing sadness, anger, frustration, or boredom.  Rather, they accept these feelings as an important part of the human experience.  These children grow into adults who can accept and cope with their emotions and tolerate them.

Conclusion: Embrace the Boredom  

So, when your child is bored, give them space.  Don’t see their boredom as a “problem” you need to solve.  Be supportive and have confidence in their ability to learn to cope with all emotions.  Praise them when they are able to use their boredom to create something great for themselves.

How about you? What creative thing did you dream in your boring childhood? Or what sort of inventiveness have you seen in your children when they are given the opportunity to be bored?

Screen-Free Mom is a psychologist, writer and a university psychology instructor. She has her Doctorate in Counseling Psychology from the University of Miami and Master’s in Clinical Psychology from Pepperdine University. She is happily raising her two kids sans screens.  She runs a website: www.screenfreeparenting.com where she writes about tech-wise parenting and provides tons of screen-free activities.  She has developed psychologically-based system to help organize the activities young children learn and grow from: the S.P.O.I.L. system.  Before you turn on the screen, she asks, “Have you S.P.O.I.L.-ed your child yet today?

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    • Great point, Allison. I think both things are true – parents are quick to find some ‘thing’ to keep a whiny child occupied but children also aren’t allowed the same freedoms as children a generation ago. I spent most of my summers roaming our neighborhood looking for something to do, walking 5kms each way to the library on my own and spending the day at the beach on my own (with friends or siblings) from age 10 up.

    • Interesting article. I certainly believe a balance is necessary between boredom and time spent bonding with caregivers and socializing with peers. I am definitely not advocating leaving children alone for 10 hours per day because it will be “good for them.” However, our need to “solve” all emotions is not helping our children. Even the author of that article seems to have a fear of boredom. She also seemed to fill a lot of her “bored” time with a screen, which we know from happiness research is incredibly unfulfilling. I think both perspectives have merit. Boredom can be great, as can freedom. But, of course there is such a thing as “too much of a good thing.”

  • My kids (9 and 6) like to watch a show after dinner and before bed. Recently, we’ve instituted a “play outside for 30 minutes” rule before allowing them their “screen time.” Initially, they resisted (fearing boredom), but last night, I witnessed a hysterical game of tag involving one stilt, a watering can and my son singing a song that he made up at the top of his lungs. They didn’t realize that I was watching, and I haven’t laughed that hard in a long time :) Yay for boredom!

  • I know all this in my heart. I was raised in the 70’s – and remember when cable first came to my town – and my parents still haven’t ordered cable! I’ve never been to Disney! Yes, I lead a deprived life as a child but was mostly happy in my small coal mining town. Things have changed so much, and my kids own more than I could have ever dreamed of owning when I was their age. And still, they complain of boredom out here in the country with acres to explore! I just tell them that it’s okay – they’ll figure out something to do. My 9 year old son is sitting here now listening to a book on cassette tape that we got out of the library – and he can’t wait to run next door to play with his friend when I let him. Of course, he’d be staring at a screen if I let him. But we’ve had time limits on them for so long, arguments are few. (His 2 brothers are at play practice – the only scheduled activity both asked to do this summer.) Just nice to know other parents are okay with their kids’ boredom.

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