Embracing Boredom

By Mireille Mckee

“Mom… I’m bored!” How many times have we heard this battle cry? What kinds of responses does it elicit from us? Many parents feel they have to rescue children from boredom, and many more feel that by scheduling lots of activities for their children they will prevent it. But is boredom really a bad thing? Child development experts and a growing number of parents are starting to view boredom as important to a child’s emotional growth and well-being and warn against the danger of over-scheduling our young children.

Probably one of the biggest challenges a parent has today is how much to schedule their children. What activities should children be involved in? How do we know if it’s too much? Is there danger in over-scheduling? These are all questions we get asked frequently, as directors, and lately by parents with younger and younger children. In this multitasking world, in which the push to do more and do it faster is pervasive, it’s no surprise that even our toddlers are affected by the pressure to overbook!

It can snowball easily. Toddlers often have a play date or two each week. Maybe a gym class once a week is added due to the toddler’s high energy. As a preschooler, he has school two or three times a week, maybe a music class, along with the gym class to round him out. By the time he is in elementary school he not only has school five days a week but extracurricular classes and probably a sport or two after school. A few years later, he makes the traveling soccer team which often conflicts with other activities, not to mention family time. He may still manage to squeeze in a music lesson or Boy Scouts before tackling his homework. Wow, I’m tired just thinking about doing all this!

One of the pitfalls to over-scheduling is that children no longer have free time in which to think, create, experience and simply be kids. A little boredom can be a good thing as it can motivate a child to use his imagination and/or problem solving skills, helping him to feel resourceful and in control. These qualities are not only important in how a child feels about himself, but also qualities needed for later success and happiness. Simply “being kids” helps to relieve the stress that is often felt by the hectic pace of the adult world.

Another danger that many families may not realize is how the onslaught of activities may diminish their “family time.” Family members do not have enough time to connect with one another, especially when the dinner hour and yearly vacations succumb to kids’ increasingly demanding schedules. Families need time to interact with one another, to share time and feelings and create lasting relationships with one another through the close connective and bonding atmosphere of a family meal or getaway. When a family’s life revolves around the activities of a child, that child begins to adopt an unhealthy view of his importance. As a result, we may be raising children who become entitled not only with “things” but with “doing.” They can become very self-centered and self-absorbed due to the importance placed on their activities. And we thought doing all these things would make them happy and better adjusted!!!

Diane Ehrensaft, Ph.D., a developmental and clinical psychologist in Oakland, California is concerned that because children are so scheduled they have very little or no “nothing time.” Creativity is making something out of nothing and it takes time for that to happen. Children need to read, write, think, draw, build, create, fantasize and explore special interests. Structured time does not allow for creativity to happen.

Individuals such as Bill Gates, Michael Dell, David Packard and Steven Spielberg, all people who followed their inner passions, were allowed to be creative and had time to investigate, tinker and experiment in areas of their interest. They have all gone on to be extremely successful, along with being happy and contributing members of our society. Isn’t this what we all want for our children? Research has shown that parents who are happier with their lives tend to have children that are happier with theirs. Shouldn’t we all be trying to balance our lives and schedules so we can find time to enjoy each other and experience what makes us truly happy?

It’s important to find that balance between over-scheduling and boredom. Here are some suggestions that you might want to try to combat the dangers of over-scheduling within your own family:

• Be a role model. Children learn more from what you do. Make sure you enjoy unstructured time, so your child can see you value it. He will come to emulate that.

• Have a handy “creation station” box filled with a supply of various materials you might otherwise throw away, such as paper towel and toilet paper rolls, old envelopes, ribbon, yarn, egg cartons, crayons, scissors, etc. Pull the box out from time to time and watch the children enjoy and have fun.

• Empty boxes large and small as well as other items you may have around the house can also offer opportunity for creativity.

• Children may initially need “our time” and guidance to get started…take them on a walk, start to build a fort or create with paints. Once their imaginations kick in, let them direct you. After a bit of playing together, you can let them entertain themselves.

• Find a balance between adult direction and child boredom. Too much boredom can lead to trouble and too much direction and supervision can kill the constructive boredom where creativity comes from.

• Choose toys carefully; children don’t need that many. In fact, research suggests that too many toys may add to a child’s boredom. Choose a few open-ended toys, such as blocks, cars, animals and creative materials. A good toy can be used several ways by any child. Toys that are advertising gimmicks and linked to children’s programming encourage imitative play rather than important imaginative play.

• Be aware of things that rob our children from important experiences to build their skills, creativity and initiative. TV, screen time and gadgets that do things for them all encourage our children to be passive recipients rather than active participants in their world and play.

• Check in with your child. Makes sure you truly know what HE likes to do. If you ask and listen, he will let you know if his day is too busy.

• Un-plan. On a blank calendar, fill in a typical week in your child’s life. List each activity and its schedule. Circle the unscheduled time. Is it too heavy in one direction? Trust your intuition. If it feels too busy it probably is and if your child is anxious, tired, unable to concentrate and has meltdowns, he may be on overload.

• Schedule unstructured family time. Time together can be bonding as well as encourage problem solving, imagination and physical activity …all important for growing children.

• Make sure your child gets plenty of sleep. Create a bedtime routine that works for your family.

• Tune out “I’m bored!” cries. They will eventually figure something out.

Finding the balance between boredom and over-scheduling is one of the most valuable gifts we can provide for our families. My hope is that we can step back and allow children to enjoy some of the “free” times we had as children.

Mireille Mckee has worked with children and families for over 25 years. She has taught classes at Little Wonders for 18 years and this is her 13th year as director of the program. As Little Wonders embarks on its anniversary of “20 Years of Raising Healthy Families”, Mireille hopes to utilize the experience and knowledge gained in her years of parenting and teaching. Her goal is to help parents better understand child development and to help them embrace parenthood as a journey of love, learning and laughter.