What exactly is boredom? When it is a temporary state, it is a lack of stimulation and the unpleasant feelings that come along with it. In most cases, individuals who become bored are motivated to find something stimulating to do. Still, as parents we worry about a child who is slunked in the living room, watching television on a sunny day, complaining, “There’s nothing to do.” In fact, the experience of being bored for a time may be exactly what a child needs “to do.”
Children who experience a lack of programmed activity are given an opportunity to demonstrate creativity, problem solving, and to develop motivational skills that may help them later in life. Are we really doing our children a service by removing quiet, unstructured time from their lives? When we endlessly program them with activities, show them videos while driving, insist on being their playmates when other children aren’t available, and buying them amusements like video games, have we overlooked the amazing opportunities for psychological growth right in the quiet of our own homes?
I’ve always admired friends of mine who live in the countryside. There are few other children around, and few opportunities for programmed activities. Each of their children are enrolled in at most one activity, and even that is a sport that’s played only once or twice a week. And yet, when you met these children they are creative individuals who never seem bored the same way my neighbors’ kids are in the city. The rural children have learned to play guitar rather than guitar hero, which means there is a lot more they can do with their talent than rush to the mall and buy the next video game. They use the craft supplies that their parents provide them. And they take advantage of the outdoors. A 2’x4’ across two sawhorses has become a balance beam that keeps them amused for hours. Teaching the dog a trick took an afternoon. And when a friend is invited over, the novelty of the visit means the children make tents out of blankets and imagine themselves adventurers, rather than spend their time together watching DVDs.
It might sound nostalgic, but we parents influence our children’s level of motivation. A motivated child is one who is raised to seek new experiences, not one who is endlessly protected from boredom.
The antidote to boredom is to provide children with an environment that lets them experience autonomy (the ability to work a little on their own), control (the right to have a say over what they do), challenge (a small push beyond their comfort zone), and intrinsic motivation (the motivation comes from inside them). Notice that the antidote to boredom is not an environment that programs children or removes them from the responsibility of solving for themselves the problem of under-stimulation.
Simply amusing our children endlessly may actually do them more harm than good. They will never learn how to act autonomously, accept responsibility for their own well-being, seek out challenges that interest them, or learn how to self-motivate.
It’s been interesting to hear that more and more summer residential camps are actually building in periods of free play and times when there is no structured programming so children can self-direct their activity. It’s a good lesson for parents, too.
It is important to build into our children’s routines times when there is no planned activity, and when the television, gaming station, computer, and cell phone are turned off. Well, maybe not the computer, if it is being used as a creative activity. There are many children who will teach themselves to type, or create an amazing video, if given the chance to play the artist rather than a passive audience to someone else’s creation.
Challenge your child to create the next viral video. Encourage them with a carton of arts supplies to design their own birthday gifts. Gently push them outdoors and don’t let them back in for two hours and see what friendly mischief they can get into.
They may not thank you at first, but they will, if you’re lucky, experience a period of self-reflection and calm.
Of course, the introverted child will handle a period of “structured boredom” just fine. They’ll enjoy reading and the quiet that comes with being alone and recharging emotionally. If you have an extroverted child, however, the task will be more difficult. But even the extrovert will respond well to boredom if they are encouraged to use their time to do something that will impress others later. The extrovert who learns to play an instrument will be able to perform a song for friends and family. The extrovert who has art supplies, or a kitchen full of baking supplies, is likely to create something that others will enjoy, and get the extrovert noticed. But that opportunity for creativity is not something children will choose on their own; we have to encourage it.
It is mildly unpleasant to be under-stimulated. But it is precisely this mild discomfort that we provide our children which is, in the end, exactly what they need this summer to thrive.
Family therapist Michael Ungar, Ph.D., is the scientific director of the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie University, and the author of The We Generation: Raising Socially Responsible Kids. Reprinted with permission from Dr. Unger’s blog, Nurturing Resilience, published by Psychology Today.