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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.