We’ve reached that point in the summer where parents everywhere are likely to hear that dreaded statement: “I’m BORED!” But is boredom really that bad for kids? Our resident Early Childhood expert Todd Hioki shares how kids can experience growth from boredom and build important life skills!
Have these words ever come out of your child’s mouth? Sometimes, this is a legitimate statement: a child stranded for 6 hours on a flight to grandma’s house, being stuck in the house for weeks on end due to quarantine, or any occasion where a child has limited access to playmates and a variety of toys and equipment for a prolonged period of time.
But I have also heard a child say “I’m bored” when surrounded with potential playmates and a classroom full of toys.
So what’s going on here? There are unique aspects to each child and situations, but I’m going to outline a few common dynamics that you might recognize.
Exploring their Environment
Young children are constantly exploring, not just their physical environment, but their social/interpersonal environment. In both cases, the child experiments with a variety of actions to see how these environments will react.
When exploring their physical environment, for example, a toddler may kick a rubber ball and discover that it is very bouncy. They may then try to pick up a big rock and discover that it is unmovable.
Similarly, a child will experiment with different social actions to see how people will respond. Some of these actions are built into our biology, such as when a baby cries for food. But as an infant becomes a toddler, they learn to intentionally communicate with others to get not only their needs met, but also their wants.
When a child declares they are “bored”– even when having access to things to do and/or people to play with – it is often an experiment. More often than not, the child hears these words from an older sibling or from media. Underneath the surface of this statement can be (but is not always) an expectation that it is the world’s job (i.e. mom and dad’s job, or the teacher) to constantly provide entertainment for the child.
Many well-meaning moms and dads (and other caregivers) respond to such a comment by frantically thinking of ways to provide some form of stimulus/novelty/entertainment for their child. And by doing so, they make a tacit agreement with their child: you have no responsibility for creating your own projects/interests/endeavors.
Why Boredom is Good
Boredom is actually a luxury. To be in a state of boredom, you have to have all your basic needs met. You are fed, clothed, feel safe, feel loved, and are part of a community. Boredom is an opportunity! It is recognition that one has the capacity for choice and the autonomy to choose what one wants to do.
Even very young children can begin to take on this responsibility, and it is critical for parents to become skillful at recognizing a child’s capacity to make use of their time with the resources they have.
We can help children take advantage of this time with skillful guidance. There is no one right way. When I was 10 years old and told my mom I was bored, she would offer a long list of chores that needed to be done. That was the last time I told her I was bored.
But young children need a little more nuance and support. If a child says “I’m bored,” I often start by drawing attention to the fact that they are making a choice.
“Yes, I hear you are choosing to be bored.” For some children, this statement is enough for them to understand that they have some responsibility for the use of their time. Other children may need a little more scaffolding, but I try not to undermine their potential for figuring things out for themselves.
If they continue to suggest they are bored, I avoid falling into the trap of providing a list of things they can simply veto. I re-frame the situation as one where they can generate some of their own options among which doing nothing is a valid option. “Doing nothing is fine. Sometimes I like to do nothing. Or you can think of something to do”. This phrase places ownership on the child and requires some vigilance on the part of the parent.
Placing a child in this situation can create some tension but it’s developmental tension—it’s creative tension. That is to say, it is the tension created when a person has to be active and practice making choices that form the core of being a healthy human. Even young children can do this!
I hope this piece encourages you to to take some pressure off yourself as a parent or caretaker and try a new approach next time your child is “so bored.” Children of all ages can experience growth from boredom if given a chance.
Todd Hioki is an Early Childhood Educator and a Piper + Enza expert contributor.