In a February column in the New York Times, Pamela Paul opined: “Boredom teaches us that life isn’t a parade of amusements. More important, it spawns creativity and self-sufficiency.”
Three cheers! And now let’s bring on March Break, a golden opportunity to hear kids say: “I’m bored.” The two words that strike terror into the heart of modern parents. OMG, have we failed as parents? What is it that we have not done, what parental lapse has created this child who is bored? Have we under-stimulated our little prodigy? That’s on us.
Or is it?
In the olden days, that is when we we were kids, if we were bored, our parents told us to go play outside. Bundle up and get out there. What we did became our responsibility- a big learning for us. Our parents assumed we’d figure out something to do, and they were almost always right, because the other kids in the neighbourhood were out there too, so kids got up to games, road hockey, impromptu soccer or softball, shooting hoops in somebody’s driveway, sidewalk hopscotch with a nub of chalk found in a drawer… or good old make-believe.
There are several problems with that strategy. One, the neighbourhood kids aren’t out there any more. They’re either inside on their devices or at a program. Some programs are because kids want to be there. Some are for babysitting. Some programs are because parents believe they’re developmental. And some are because of how much we fear our kids might get bored. This is not a good reason, because boredom is good.
The loss of unstructured play and the astonishing takeover of kids’ lives by screens have, together, resulted in a generation of kids who, literally, don’t know what to do with themselves. Absent stimulation, they get instantly bored and are not ok with it.
This is not positive. It does not bode well for these kids’ future lives. Because so much of life requires us to step up and make our own fun/thoughts/activities. If we can’t tolerate boredom, and we always have to reach for a device or other distraction to prevent it, then we never get to the other side of boredom. Like many of life’s big challenges (mourning, serious illness, major issues with a loved one) boredom is one of those things best gone through. Because going around it doesn’t teach anything. And you can’t always get around it.
A 2012 American study looked at the relationship between boredom proneness, sustained attention and adult symptoms of ADHD. The results showed that high boredom-prone individuals performed poorly on measures of sustained attention and had increased ADHD and depression. The Times article also cited research that advises parents: “The ability to handle boredom, not surprisingly, is correlated with the ability to focus and to self-regulate.”
Bottom line: When kids complain they’re bored, let it be. Device free. They might surprise themselves.
Like I did recently. Let me tell you about my recent colonoscopy. I was so worried about being late (and so unnerved by the prep) that I was over an hour early. They made me put all my stuff in a locker. I asked to keep my Kindle. They said no. So there I was, for 1½ hour, waiting in their ready room with nothing to read. AARGH!
It was great. This experience made it a great day! With nothing to do, bored stiff, I meditated for 1½ hour. Never done that before. Also never felt so calm and peaceful. Lesson learned.
But I had to be forced. Same deal with our kids. From boredom comes creativity…invention…new ideas… stories. So bring on March Break!