“I’m bored!” is a cry that is often heard from children. For many modern parents, this declaration invokes feelings of dread and a desire to tackle the issue by finding something to do. We hear this cry and we reach for solutions. We offer to play a board game, take them to the cinema, or to a swimming pool. We get out of the craft box and Google “easy paper crafts with kids”, or we offer to do some baking.
Once we have exhausted all our options, we sigh and hand over the tablet or the games console. Anything to avoid our children being bored, but is that really necessary? Is boredom something that should be feared? Or, should we perhaps be encouraging it?
When Did Boredom Become The Enemy?
Parenting has changed a lot in the last couple of decades and many of these changes have been overwhelmingly positive, such as the move away from physical forms of chastisement, and a move towards treating the child as an individual with rights, rather than an item of property that the parent owns.
Perhaps driven by social media accounts of pretty toddlers in exotic locations, modern parents tend to see being a parent as a lifestyle, hence the emphasis on the word “parenting” as a concept, rather than on “parent” as a definition of a relationship. In this new world of “parenting”, children are no longer regarded as something that we need to find a way to fit into our lives and take responsibility for until they reach 18. Instead, there is a much more child centric approach with our lifestyles adapted to focus on the happiness and wellbeing of the child.
The result is an endless stream of activities for children. We take them on days out to farm parks at the weekends, instead of dragging them round Asda to do the weekly shop, something that is now considered a heinous crime according the world of Mumsnet. During the week, we sign up for baby yoga, baby gymnastics, baby singing, baby football, and baby sensory, feeling like utter mugs when attending the latter and realising we just paid £7 to let our child play with some dry pasta.
Once our child reaches school, the endless entertainment continues with after school and weekend clubs for swimming, dance, gymnastics, art, drama, and cricket. There are even after school clubs for Lego. That’s right, now you can pay money for your child to play with Lego somewhere other than your home where you probably have enough Lego to build a life size Buckingham Palace.
Our children have become so over-scheduled that they have little time for downtime, and when they do, the temptation of the tablet and games console is overwhelming. It gives parents a breather, and it gives children the thrill of reward.
Boredom has therefore become an alien concept to many children. It is simply not something that factors in their lives very much, so when it does appear, it becomes a problem. Children who are bored will become whiny and pester their parents to resolve the issue for them because they lack the tools to do so themselves.
Boredom Is Necessary
However, instead of fearing boredom in our children, we should embrace it. Instead of finding new and ever more exciting ways to combat that bored feeling in our kids, we should take a step back and let them find their own way through it.
Why? Well, for one thing, boredom has been shown by various studies to fuel creativity. Children who are allowed to get bored will find new ways to entertain themselves by letting their imagination take over. A child who is bored may daydream and, as a result, come up with a new and exciting story, or perhaps they will try and find new ways to use objects around them to combat boredom, building dens or different models with Lego. A child who is never given the opportunity to be bored is likely to end up with poor imagination skills – something that is essential for problem solving.
Boredom also helps children understand their own interests. Too often as modern parents we sign our children up to a barrage of activities without actually checking if it’s something that they might interested in. Children who spend time being bored can discover what really interests them, whether it be kicking a football in a garden, drawing a picture, or immersing themselves in a good book. It’s an opportunity to explore the things that excite them and it helps them to develop their personality.
Furthermore, research has shown that there is a link between boredom proneness and the ability to maintain attention. Children who develop skills to cope with boredom will be able to maintain concentration for longer, an essential skill when it comes to school. In later life, the ability to deal with boredom will help your child progress in the workforce, as they will not shy away from taking on the mundane, yet essential tasks that keep business flowing.
Ways To Help Your Child Manage Boredom
If boredom is necessary, how then can we encourage our children to develop the skills needed to manage that boredom and learn through it, instead of coming back to Mum and Dad to pester for attention? There are several ways that you can help your child with this, without intervening with the actual state of boredom.
1. Acknowledge But Don’t Assist
At the moment your child comes to you and declares themselves to be bored, they are expecting you to find a solution to their “problem.” Respond in a manner that acknowledges their boredom, without offering any assistance, and keep doing so even if they continue to pester. For example:
“Hi bored, I’m Mum.”
“What can I do?”
“You tell me! What would you like to do?”
“I don’t know, I’m so bored!”
“Well, I’m sure you will think of something.”
This turns it back onto the child to find a solution, but without you appearing to reject them outright.
2. Prepare To Listen
Sometimes a child might have another reason to tell you that they are bored. It could be a way of your child seeking your attention. Sometimes we become so engrossed in work, school, clubs, playdates, homework, toddler groups and everything else we schedule in our lives that we forget to simply spend time with one another listening. Sometimes what your child needs isn’t a way to occupy themselves, it’s for you to spend quality time with them listening to what they have to say.
If you think this is the case, then you can invite your child to join you with whatever activity you are doing, whether it be emptying the dishwasher, walking the dog, or weeding. This gives your child the opportunity to chat with you without you providing yet another activity specifically to entertain them.
If your child is just bored, then they will probably sigh at the opportunity to join you with such a mundane task and hopefully turn away to channel their creativity into finding a way to amuse themselves.
3. Limit Screen Time
Screen time has its uses, and it’s certainly not the devil incarnate it’s often presented as in some parenting blogs and forums. Children do need to be technologically aware in modern society, and games are a fun way to pass time.
That being said, screen time has been linked by several studies to the release of dopamine. Often called the “feel good” hormone, dopamine is actually released when we experience reward, in order to motivate us to repeat the efforts that obtained the reward in the first place. When we receive a smile from a friend, do some exercise, or taste something delicious, our brain releases the reward hormone and we are encouraged to seek out the same experience.
Much of social media’s success is driven by dopamine, with “likes” giving us the dopamine hit we crave. It’s even been speculated that some algorithms used by social media platforms have been deliberately designed to maximise our response to dopamine in how often we receive notifications about “likes” and other interactions.
Even if your child is not on social media, using a tablet or games console will still have this dopamine effect, with most games focused on providing some sort of reward. More modern games have moved towards the use of “loot boxes” which again take advantage of how dopamine drives us, providing us with options for additional rewards. Loot boxes have been likened to gambling, so much so that it is looking increasingly likely that the UK government may introduce legislation to regulate their use in games.
If your child is used to getting their dopamine hit from screen time then they will struggle to find the motivation to seek new ways to reward themselves. Therefore, their ability to overcome boredom by themselves will be limited. Whilst it is tempting to hand over the tablet when your child complains of being bored, it isn’t really helping them in the long run.
Although there is no need to ban screen time all together, do consider reducing the amount of screen time your child has. This is especially essential if your child is starting to complain of boredom every time they are away from screens, as this indicates a possible addition. You could try limiting screens to a set time during the day, or even have “screen free days” two or three times a week. Be firm on the rules, even during the school holidays and trips away to avoid slipping back into old habits.
4. Have A Creative Station
We know that when children mix with arts and crafts it does tend to be messy, but giving children the opportunity to create artwork has been demonstrated in various studies to have multiple benefits. Children who dabble in art become more creative, more observant about the world around them, and better equipped to solve problems and engage with critical thinking as they try and work out what colour goes where, what materials to use, and how to stick everything together with Sellotape. All of these skills are essential for enabling children to overcome boredom by themselves.
You might have craft supplies that you use as part of sort of scheduled activity that are then carefully put away afterwards, but giving children the opportunity to spontaneously move to those activities will foster that creativity further, as they are able to respond to the world around them and create something in the here and now.
Therefore, if you have the space, consider setting up a small craft station for your child with access to paper, pens, safety scissors, sticky tape, stickers, and other items, including glitter if you are particularly brave. Not only will this give your child an outlet for their creativity, but it also gives them an additional option for something to amuse themselves when boredom sets in.
5. Get Outdoors
Spending time outdoors has been proven time and time again to have positive effects on mental health, but it is also has significant benefits for children with regards to their ability to overcome boredom. Studies have shown that children who spend time outdoors and in nature develop confidence and creativity through exploring a non-structured environment, such as a woodland where they can spot wildlife, climb over trees, and build dens. This confidence and creativity, as well as a general boost to mental health, will give your child the tools they need to overcome boredom.
It can be difficult to prize children away from the comforts of indoors with their screens and toys, but you can try and find ways of fostering a love of the outdoors through activities that you can do as a family, whether it be cycling, golfing, hiking, orienteering, or geocaching.
6. Reduce / Rotate Your Child’s Toys
“How can you be bored? You have so many different toys to play with!”
Well, maybe that is part of the problem. Research has shown that children who have too many toys find it difficult to hold their attention on to something and are less creative, resulting in a less enjoyable play experience. It’s thought that the extra toys provided too much of a distraction, and when children were given less toys to play with in the study they played with toys for twice as long and came up with different ways of playing.
Children are often reluctant to give up toys, even if they haven’t played with them in a while, so reducing the amount of toys your child currently has may be difficult, but you can try and rotate them by putting some into storage and leaving others out. You can then swap them around every few months to give your child something new to focus on.
No one is suggesting that at Christmas and birthday times children shouldn’t receive any presents, but if you have a large extended family who tend to go all out, consider asking them if they would contribute to an experience such as tickets to the zoo as an alternative. Not only will this reduce your child’s over-flowing toy box and therefore help them overcome boredom, but it’s also kinder to the environment.
7. Schedule No Schedules
Finally, remember that not only is it ok for your child to have nothing scheduled to do… it’s actually good for them. Too often we as parents are made to feel guilty by the barrage of social media images that present perfect families enjoying perfect days out and make our own lives seem inadequate in comparison. However, the truth is that everyone needs down time, and sometimes the best fun can be found and the best memories are made when we simply step back, do nothing, and see what our child comes up with.
Perhaps they will invent a wonderful story, build a gigantic rocket using cardboard tubes, invent a new board game by drawing it out on paper, or simply melt into giggles during a game of hide and seek. Without boredom, none of these possibilities could arise. So, don’t hide from boredom, embrace it and see how your child grows as a result.