In households all across the world, kids are bored. I imagine the same phrases are being heard over and over again: some rendition of “I’m bored,” “What can I do?” or “Mom, there’s nothing to do!”
It’s the perfect storm for kids who are bored. As I write this, we’re three months into North America’s COVID-19 shut-down with summer upon us. While I recognize that the COVID-19 safety measures have meant something different for everyone, in the vast majority of cases, our lives have already been significantly impacted and will continue to be. For families with kids, that looks like virtual school, summer camps cancelled, few playdates allowed, and very few events or trips on the calendar. Not to mention that we parents still have to work and can’t spend hours entertaining the kids.
That being said, feelings of boredom are universal, and 2020 does not have exclusive rights to the feelings and phrases uttered in the whiny, frustrated tone that every parent knows: I’M BORED!
All this led me to the question: as a parent, what should I do when my kids are bored?
In the back of my mind, I suspected the answer was that I should do nothing. A corner of my brain reminded me of my own childhood spent largely without the aid of video games and technology and that shout-out from the past said, “Don’t worry… boredom is a normal and a healthy part of childhood.” Perhaps even a part that we have forgotten about and a gift that we should embrace straight from the depths of the global pandemic thrust upon us.
But the logical part of my brain still sought the research, the proof, and the expert opinions. And, let me tell you, neuroscience did not fail me!
Boredom is no doubt an uncomfortable feeling, but it has its importance. After all my research on boredom, I’ve identified that when kids are bored, it can be broken down into 5 distinct stages.
Stage One: Boredom Resistance
As a society, we’re busy! Our calendars are typically chock-full of activities and events, and when we don’t have planned activities, we fall back on schedules and to-do lists. We’ve become accustomed to not getting it all done and the feeling of overwhelm that follows. For parents, our obsession with doing this to ourselves spills over to our children. Their calendars, schedules and to-do lists are almost equally as full.
North Americans are no longer used to feeling bored. It’s an unfamiliar, unpleasant, and uncomfortable feeling that we’ll do anything to avoid.
Hence the symphony of complaints that arise in our children.
Naturally, we search around our environments looking for anything that can satisfy this craving and allow us to avoid the unpleasantness. According to Nancy Collier, a psychotherapist and the author of the book The Power of Off: The Mindful Way to Stay Sane in a Virtual World, “When we say we’re bored, it’s because, in essence, we have nothing to distract ourselves from ourselves. We’re stuck with just ourselves and our own attention to pay attention to.”
It sounds strange to say we’re afraid of being with ourselves, but it also rings true.
But, in the midst of this discomfort, the magic begins to happen for our kids…
Stage Two: Rest and Recharge
Pushing through the initial discomfort, our children (hopefully) begin to relax and settle into the downtime.
One of the greatest benefits of boredom is that when we embrace downtime the brain recharges. Kids begin to recuperate from the cognitive overload of today’s busy world. The brain sorts and organizes experiences and thoughts and recharges its executive functioning skills.
You know that feeling of coming back from vacation and seeing your to-do list with fresh eyes? Things suddenly don’t seem as overwhelming. They make sense and the overwhelm has eased off. Our children need to experience that too, and it doesn’t need to wait for summer vacation.
Stage Three: Daydreaming
When the mind relaxes it starts to meander: otherwise known as daydreaming. While kids are daydreaming their minds are subconsciously sorting out who they are, including what is most important to them, what they like doing, what they’re looking forward to, and maybe even what they could do, accomplish, or become.
The key with daydreaming is that rather than looking to the external environment for these answers, they’re searching within themselves.
Daydreaming is important to our kids’ sense of self. Great ideas rise to the surface, and those ideas shape who our children will become.
Stage Four: Creativity and Return to Action (On Their Own Terms)
Enter creative thinking. Sometimes it shows up as a story where two action figures battle it out. Sometimes it’s a business plan for a lemonade stand. And sometimes it’s a creative piece of artwork or woodworking. What matters is that your child has a chance to express themselves – and even more importantly, a chance to express themselves in a way that is completely natural to them as a unique individual.
Many amazingly creative, and innovative ideas have come out of the darkness of boredom.
Stage Five: Inspiration Becomes Motivation
One of the most common complaints I hear from parents is that their kids need to be told what to do. They wonder why kids today don’t have any self-drive.
I too struggle with self-drive when I’m overwhelmed and doing more of what other people tell me to do than what I have chosen to do. Isn’t that exactly what kids deal with all the time?
When kids are bored it leads to their brains recharging; recharging leads to daydreaming; daydreaming leads to creative thinking; and that leads to a deeper level of engagement and personal motivation.
Boredom and this five-phase process is not the only solution to low self-drive, but it’s a big one. When we back off, our kids get the chance to pick up the reins and practice self-direction. Even if it’s in the smallest of ways – it’s still the perfect starting point.
Boredom is a Developed Skill
Creative thinking and self-direction, two of the skills developed by kids who learn to deal with boredom, are 21st century skills. They’ll be even more important in the future than they are today.
Chances are great that when our children enter the workforce, they won’t be able to rely on someone to tell them what to do. In developed countries, our workforce is moving faster and faster towards thought leadership: the ability to think for yourself, to solve problems, to invent and create.
I believe that the more children have a chance to be bored, the faster they’ll move through the feelings of discomfort and into the more pleasant skill development that follows.
Seen in this light, I’m shouting from the rooftops: bring on the boredom!
Here’s how I see it: something as simple as being bored can teach my children fundamental skills of creative thinking, executive functioning, self-direction and an understanding of their unique selves and gifts. And I don’t even have to do anything? Then my job as a parent just got extraordinarily easier!
I do see this as one of the gifts 2020 has brought my family – allowing my children to get comfortable with the feeling of boredom and to tap into their own inner creativity and knowledge of themselves.
If the world ever goes back to some semblance of normalcy, this is one thing that I hope changes forever; that we give our kids the gift of downtime more regularly, and all the ripple effects that come with it.
OK, the Kids are Bored and that’s a Win… but, What Do I Do?
Read on in part two of this blog series for actionable steps to take with your kids.
And, If you are interested in going deeper into the neuroscience behind creative thinking, dreaming bigger, and instilling motivation and self-drive in your kids join our waiting list for the beta launch of our Dream Big Together program.