I’ve already heard it at least once a day: “I’m bored.”
Or its famous counterpart, “There’s nothing to do.”
And we are not even a week into summer break.
While hearing “I’m bored” from my children is not new, it feels different this year. I’m an advocate for my kids feeling bored and I’ll share some reasons why in just a minute, but I want to stop and acknowledge that this year is different. This year, we’ve been home pretty much all the time for three months, missed spring sports and competitions, celebrated birthdays and graduations virtually, and have been creatively occupying ourselves in the new normal we are experiencing for some time.
I have been noticing that when I hear the words I’m bored,” I start to feel a feeling of panic rise inside me; my heart starts to race, my hands start to sweat, and I can’t help but think with despair, “It’s going to be a long summer!” As I reflect on the reasons why this summer feels different, I can name the surface ones easily. Big trips have been postponed. Traditional summer events cancelled. Classic summer activities modified. Just yesterday afternoon I went to suggest a trip to the library to get some books, a favorite summer pastime in our home, only to stop myself because our library is closed.
But I think the panic feeling comes from a deeper place of feeling responsible for my children’s happiness. I wonder if I’m accepting the responsibility of entertaining my children rather than letting the sit in the space and even discomfort that comes from boredom. In our instant gratification world, it’s rare to wait, to sit, and ponder and yet, this it’s from this space that big ideas come from. Researchers have found that we need to be bored to build creativity and self-awareness! We need to be bored!
Boredom is one of the birthplaces of creativity.
Not being entertained or occupied gives space for the mind to wander, to daydream, and to come up with new ideas. I can recall memories of childhood summers, spending long summer afternoons outside, playing house, cops and robbers, or inventing new games. And I hear it in my own kids when they come in after a long afternoon playing with neighborhood friends, building a fort or dreaming about a roadside bake sale. All from boredom.
Boredom helps foster self-awareness and self-efficacy.
When we take a step back, stop filling every minute of our child’s day, or fixing every problem they encounter, our children start to learn how to do it for themselves. They probably won’t do it the way we would do it and it might make a big mess, but that’s all part of the process of learning who they are, what they like, what they’re good at, and what it takes to get better.
I can imagine some of you are reading this and thinking, “that’s great but what do I do when my kid keeps complaining over and over that they are bored?” I’m laughing as I write this sentence because just as I sat down to work on this article, my oldest came marching by saying in a sing-song voice, “I’m bored, I’m bored, I’m really really bored.” He came back five minutes later and told me a little more about his boredom and why he was bored. And I’ll admit, I wanted to fix it but here’s what I’ve found to be a more helpful response.
- Brainstorm a Boredom List. At the beginning of the summer we brainstorm a list of activities people can do when they are bored. Some the things are on the list summer after summer but I find the act of making a list helps get the creative juices flowing. This year the list is posted on the wall between my kids bedrooms. They see it often and it’s a good reminder of different things they can do to occupy their time.
- Have Things to Look Forward To. There is a time and a place for structure and for looking forward to things. This summer we’re getting creative by planning baking competitions and Nerf gun wars more than trips the community swimming pool but having these things to look forward to helps in the unstructured moments.
- Encourage creativity. My kids know that when they come to me telling me how bored they are, they will most likely hear at some point, “You sound super bored and I’m looking forward to seeing what you will create.” I just used that phrase with my oldest. He rolled his eyes (he’s a teenager) and then decided to go find something to bake, with the promise of cleaning up for me when he’s done. (I did mention he’s a teenager)
Yes, I imagine there will be days when we will want to pull our hair out because of boredom this summer. For the kids it might be the unending hours on their hands and for parents it might be hearing “I’m bored” while juggling all the many other things on our to-do lists, but I also imagine that if we can sit in the discomfort of boredom, our children and our families will all benefit from the boredom.