boredom the state of being weary and restless through lack of interest
For as long as I’ve been a parent the issue of how to deal with kids uttering the dreaded “I’m bored” has been a topic of discussion, articles, commentaries, and books. The conventional wisdom goes through phases. Bored kids are a sign of defective parenting. Boredom needs to be alleviated at all costs. Boredom prepares kids for the “real world.” And on and on.
The latest commentary I’ve come across was published in the New York Times. Kids need to be bored, Pamela Paul says. They need to learn to endure boredom because, you know, jobs.
I don’t quite see the point of putting value judgments on boredom. Feeling a lack of interest in something, or experiencing a sense of restlessness, or having days where you’re downright weary are simply part of the human condition. They are to be neither sought nor prevented, nor can they be. They will come, as sure as the sun rises and sets.
And yet, I can’t recall my kids uttering the words “I’m bored” much at all. Ms. Paul might say they were too engaged and didn’t face enough of a “steady diet of stultifying boredom.” I say hogwash. Of course they had their moments of losing interest, feeling restless, and lacking a sense of inspiration. They’re human, and they grapple with those rough spots just like we all do over the course of our lives.
Why were they able to do that without automatically turning to me or another adult with the display of helplessness that is inherent in the words “I’m bored”? One could say personality, except — four kids, four very different personalities. Even the one who fit the criteria for an attention disorder didn’t talk much about being bored (Ms. Paul tells us that research shows people with attention disorders are particularly prone to boredom). He bounced from one thing to another like mad, focused intently then moved on to something else on a regular basis, but if he was particularly prone to boredom, he figured out how to handle it.
I think that when kids complain of being bored what they’re really saying is that they can’t figure out for themselves what to do, and when kids spend their days being told what to do by adults, why should that surprise us? They get a double whammy. First, they’re forced to sit in classrooms listening to things they may or may not be interested in, getting that steady diet of stultifying boredom. Second, they’re not able to do anything to avert or change it. They must endure it and do what they’re told day in and day out, as their ability to figure out how to spend whatever free time they might have diminishes.
As Ms. Paul points out, in earlier generations when kids weren’t so scheduled and had unstructured time to fill either alone or with friends in the neighborhood, they at least had agency over some part of their lives. Yes, they spent their days in a classroom but they had recess and afternoons and weekends to play, ponder, self-regulate, and figure out how to be with each other. That’s often not the case with today’s kids, who, even if their after school hours are not filled with structured activities, are dealing with a more rigid, standardized school environment that involves less flexibility, less play, and more judgment. So what to do? Do I agree with Ms. Paul that children who say “I’m bored” should be cast off and left to their own devices? Not necessarily. I think that in most cases, kids who say they’re bored are really saying that they need something, and the caring adults around them ought to pay enough attention to see them and figure out what that might be, whether it’s help realizing they are competent to engage themselves, or acknowledgement of how they feel, or simply a hug.
I also think that in discussing the issue of kids and boredom, we can get confused about the difference between boredom and solitude. Boredom is unpleasant, and recommending a steady diet of it for kids is like saying you want children to have miserable, unhappy lives. Sure, life sucks sometimes, but why anyone would want to inflict difficulty on their child to teach some sort of misguided lesson, when difficulty will always come of its own accord, is beyond me. Solitude, on the other hand, is a space in which people can think, process, replenish, create, and learn to be in the moment. That’s what Lin-Manuel Miranda was talking about when he said, “there is nothing better to spur creativity than a blank page or an empty bedroom.” My kids’ childhoods alternated from free play with other kids, to watching adults talk and work, to spending time alone hanging out in their rooms or the backyard with a book or a project or an idea. What grew from that was not simply people who are “engaged” with the world, but people who understand that it’s up to them to choose how to find their way in it. So if you want your kids to be resilient, self-regulating, creative, and vital, don’t give them a steady diet of hard knocks and boredom. Rather, give them space, time, freedom, solitude, and love.