How to Let Your Kids Be Bored, And Why it Matters
One of our family’s yearly late-summer rituals is a road trip to Michigan, where my husband and I are originally from, and where his family still lives. Because we have small children, a big dog, and we like to visit a few of the Great Lakes while we are there, we opt to drive the 10+ hours instead of flying. Needless to say, we spend a good deal of time during these trips in the car. And for the first time this summer, we experienced a new phenomena. At some point early in the drive my six-year-old announced she was bored. My four-year-old, always eager to keep pace with her sister, announced she too was bore-ing (I assure you, she is not).
At first, we offered my daughters a few solutions for their newly discovered malaise. I had packed books and art supplies, stuffed animals and dolls, all stacked between their car seats to keep themselves entertained. But as my older daughter repeated every five minutes like the world’s most annoying metronome how she was still bored, I told her quite simply what I honestly think about her boredom. Namely, that her boredom isn’t my problem to solve for her. And that boredom has some positive attributes for those willing to tackle their road-trip ennui.
While past research around the subject of boredom tended to focus on it as a negative, recent research has begun to argue that a little boredom can do us all a lot of good. But as anyone who has languished through a long car ride while forced to listen to the NFL Draft for hours (trust me, that is a level of boredom no one deserves), the question is, what does boredom do us good? And why, as parents, should we not rush to get our kids out of it?
According to several recent studies focusing on boredom, being bored during tasks actually made people more creative and cognitively engaged in the next tasks they took on. Further, researchers also found that people who are bored actually display similar motivation as people who are happy. That is, they actively seek out new and engaging activities. According to researcher Andreas Elpidorou, “boredom is both a warning that we are not doing what we want to be doing and a ‘push’ that motivates us to switch goals and projects.”
So how do you translate this to a response when your child whines boredom, without just reaching for a screen or hurrying to solve the issue for them? My vote? Let them be bored. And let them find their own way out. Researcher and Family Therapist Michael Unger suggests parents need only provide the child enough autonomy, control, and challenge to support their own way out of boredom, while the motivation should be their own.
By the end of the car trip, we witnessed successes and a few failures as our kids struggled to entertain themselves and see themselves as the agents of change in their boredom gridlock. But I wouldn’t trade any short-term solution I could have come up with for them for the magical place I remember discovering myself as a child during my family’s long road trips. A daydreaming place. A place of imagination. A place just a few steps past boredom, discovered on my own, and well worth the trip.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Amy is a freelance writer and digital communications specialist who has lived in Western Massachusetts for the last ten years. The mother of two young daughters, Amy is a frequenter of coffee shops and bookstores, and an avid hiker. She is a long-time student of mindfulness meditation, and loves nothing more than a good friend, a good book, or a good nap.