When Dahlia's high, bright voice calls "I'm bored, Daddy," into the home office, Jeffrey Davis shrugs and replies, "Well, do something." This has happened only twice in her five years. Dahlia seems to know it won't have much consequence, aside from a little guidance toward a self-directed activity. "Seriously, the worst thing I could do as a father is to intervene and start trying to entertain her," says Davis, an author, speaker, and creativity consultant.
Still, the dog days of summer take on new meaning when you're dogged with bored kids. With the feeling of slowly passing time playing arm candy to a lack of engagement and low mood, boredom can feel a lot like depression. But is boredom something that should be cured? Psychologists say it actually serves a purpose. In order to be productive, the brain needs rest, and the tuned-out trance serves as a little nap. It filters over- or under-stimulating activities and is a signal to switch focus.
But parents often feel like they're doing a bad job if their kids are bored, and that's often in the marketing. "From the best way to teach your child to read by age two, to how to make your nine-year-old the next David Beckham, parents are inundated with inappropriate expectations about what children can and should do," explains Cheryl Demuth, who has a master's degree in early childhood leadership from Bank Street and is the owner of Hillside Nursery in Kingston, a play-based learning program for six weeks through age three, in Kingston. "Superstar achievement will create a superstar life! But a child, and an adult, can be happy, healthy, and wildly successful without being the smartest, having the most friends, or being the best at everything."
Busyness vs. Idleness
It's a fine line to walk between competitive busyness and helping children to realize their own lively ambitions. "Guilt plays a big role in parents' behavior," says Edith Bolt, one of two head teachers at Hillside. Parents are often busy and need the kids to be otherwise occupied. They can be workaholics or addicted to screens themselves, but offering children TV and video games is a temporary solution that digs people into a deeper hole. "We live in a culture where screens are a part of our everyday life, and it's important to teach children a balance between entertainment and personal fulfillment," Demuth suggests. That means parents need to make friends with boredom too.
Perhaps the real fear behind keeping our kids busy is our own fear of solitude. Parents see their children as an extension of themselves, so there can be a projection of loneliness and social rejection when the kids are just enjoying time to themselves. "Creativity doesn't always look creative," says Bolt. "It can happen in the mind, and we don't always see that." A child staring off into space can look like boredom, but there can be a whole world imagined.
Bolt, who has a master's degree in early childhood education, assures that boredom is not usually a sustained state for children, but she knows how difficult it can be for parents to maintain trust that their children can cope with the difficulty it presents. Teachers, too, fall prey to fixing it. "But children do need a certain amount of struggle to grow," Bolt says.
"It sounds harsh, but the best way to get kids to play, pretend, and create is to ignore them," says Demuth. "Of course, not in a neglectful way! But in a way that sends a message that they need to figure out how to entertain themselves." It's actually nurturing. In much the same way parents encourage their babies with thumb-sucking and stuffed animals, older children need encouragement to self-soothe too. "A parent should not be responsible for constant companionship or entertainment for their child," Demuth says. In working to overcome boredom, kids are developing an important set of tools: self-reliance, risk taking, time management, problem solving, and how to control impulses and develop an inner life.
"It's a little different from children at home alone," Bolt explains. "When children become bored in the classroom, they can become more difficult to handle. They push limits, break rules, so teachers will try to keep them busy because that's an easier way to deal with a classroom of children." However, for parents, mimicking that perpetual busyness can be debilitating at home. "If you truly want to keep a child from becoming creative, treat them like they're an adult—set unachievable expectations and keep them entertained constantly," Demuth warns, ironically. She advises checking in regularly to see whether parents are teaching busyness or self-realization. "If a parent is overwhelmed with activities, then the child likely is too."