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."
Sometimes complaints of boredom stem from an inability to imagine an activity, either because a child is so used to being scheduled by adults or has grown accustomed to passive activities like screen time and toys that play by themselves. But sometimes the complaints reflect a child's desire to refuel by reconnecting with the parent. "There's a difference in the quality of complaint when a child needs attention versus a child who needs to be guided toward play," Demuth says. Oftentimes, parents can include the child in practical things like cooking and the garden, so children feel a useful part of the family.
Dahlia often asks for a stroller ride, her signal to Davis that she wants to relax but be with him too. They'll walk and trade invented stories. Just as he would with his clients (Davis helps artists and businesses shape their stories), he thinks resourcefully about any creative challenges that come into his home. "Dahlia is more than a client, of course," he says, "but, in many ways, when I can objectively see the situation, there's less attachment to things that otherwise could go downhill, emotionally, pretty quickly." He often asks himself what patterns he's helping Dahlia to create. "What pattern would I set, if I step in and start entertaining her or put a screen in front of her to mollify her boredom? Wouldn't that create the pattern of boredom?"
For Dahlia, downtime comes naturally, like a rhythm, each afternoon. After she's spent time with a friend, a caregiver, or at school, she goes upstairs to her "exploratorium" and acts out with her dolls and ponies some of the experiences she's just had.
It's that sort of processing that Kerin and Sebastian Smith are cultivating in their children, Jayla and Ezra. They live intentionally—considering their choices, focusing on the things they love—and a big piece of that is building downtime into the family's schedule. "It's getting out and having different types of experiences—social, artistic, intellectual," Kerin says. "Then the important piece is creating the space to process it, create something, or just be with it." It results in a sort of parallel play at home, where each member of the family is absorbed in his/her own task. As artists themselves (Kerin studied printmaking at RISD and Sebastian is a graphic designer), the Smiths know that creativity strikes when there's the ability to be still. When working on a project, Sebastian keeps paper by the bed, knowing that the act of lying down allows him to process from the day and produce ideas. Equipping their home with tools, toys, and art supplies, they set the stage for things to happen. "Having a well-organized and curated space is critical for all of us," Kerin says. "The materials have to be clean, accessible, and in a predictable place. So when there's time, they can pick it up at their own pace."
In a culture where bragging about a level of overwhelm is the norm, the Smiths are taking the time to promote stillness. It stems from an early-parenthood epiphany. "Reflecting on when Jayla was born, I was very conscious of the fact that I wasn't going to be a parent who talks to her all the time," Kerin says, referring to the conventional wisdom that babies need constant engagement with their caregiver to thrive in language and development. "I realized that she'd learn that sometimes things are quiet. I felt less guilty as I saw the value of that." Eleven years later, Jayla is skilled in verbal communication and critical thinking. She has an interest in bird watching, her drawings of them detailed and patient. "She gained the ability to sit still and focus for hours at a time," Kerin says. "That's a really powerful skill."
Ezra's boredom comes up mostly in the car, and it presents an opportunity for the Smiths to engage a bit. "He's more seduced by screen time," Kerin says. So they limit it, filter what he's exposed to, and follow it up with other media. If it's an animal show, they get books on animals. "There's not a lot of bartering. He watches a show, and then we transition to another activity," Kerin explains. It's a work-in-progress, and the Smiths have moments when their intentions aren't actualized. "It would be way easier to hand him an iPod, but it's not the route we want to take. I don't want it to be that every time he wants to relax, he gets stimulated by an outside source." For the Smiths, it's not about boredom; it's about encouraging stillness.
As Demuth frames it, "Boredom is the tunnel you walk through to get to know yourself—how you cope and how you think about the world." It's not the crime of bad parents; it's a motivator. And rather than alleviate it, we can stand back and watch creativity spark.