Sunday, September 19, 2010

Weekly Column: Boredom Isn't All Bad

It’s inevitable.

Almost every day, the kids get bored. Their toys aren’t exciting, it’s too hot or messy to go outside, and – worst of all – their unfeeling mother has turned off the TV.

A few months or years ago when boredom would erupt in our house, a few things could be guaranteed: flaring tempers, crying children, an irritated mom, and no more fun. And when all those things came together, we certainly weren’t bored anymore, but we were too busy being angry to enjoy the reprieve.

To remedy the irritation, I was pro-active; I avoided boredom at all costs. If there was nothing to do, I drove into town looking for something to do. Stores, parks, libraries, friends’ houses – anywhere to hide from boredom.

But there’s a problem with that. By never allowing my kids to get bored, I was robbing them of their ability to entertain themselves. I was taking away all chances for them to discover a way out of their boredom.

I’ve come to believe that boredom can be a huge building block in helping our children grow and learn. Experiencing a lack of stimulation, thinking about a way to relieve it, and then accomplishing that relief can build paths for creativity and imagination. At the same time, it’s difficult to let our kids experience the frustration that comes with trying to solve their own boredom.

We hear a whine; we want to make it stop, so we intervene with ideas or instructions. We hear desperation; we want to make it disappear, so we fill their time with activity. But what would happen if we didn’t intervene? What would happen if we didn’t fill their time?

Something like this recent morning at our house, perhaps:

My preschooler had already colored 6 pictures, and it wasn’t yet 9AM. My toddler had emptied the bookshelf in her bedroom, and had wandered into her sister’s room, hoping for better entertainment there.

While they were occupied, I cleaned up the previous night’s dishes and thought about the day ahead of us. It was free and clear. Nothing planned, and nothing needed. Just a day; slow and quiet. Before long, my big girl had had enough of coloring – she was bored -- and wanted to know what we were doing next. My answer (“Nothing!”) didn’t please her. She went off in search of her sister, full of dramatic world-weariness.

“Mo-ooooom!” she yelled when she found her sister. “Sissy dumped out ALL my books! She HAS to clean it up!”

In defense, my toddler yelled back, and an argument was underway. No sooner had that argument stopped than another one began, this time about who got to read a favorite book. I could see that the bickering had started – a staple of unhindered boredom. I stepped in between them, and laid down a rule.

“If you can’t find a way to play together with that book,” I warned, “nobody gets to have it. So you’d better figure out how to share it.”

Luckily, they made it work. My 4-year-old told the story while her sister turned the pages. From there, inspiration hit. A sailboat like one in the story would be such fun to have….

The girls ran off together, overturning a tub of stuffed animals, creating their sailboat. They pulled each-other around the house, screaming about waves and wind, pretending with all their might. Then, they became pirates, and needed swords. Then, there was a damsel in distress. Then, they needed to dress-up…

Monotony had turned into creativity. Dullness, into imagination.

All with the help of a little bit of boredom.

[Online version here.]


  1. AMEN! My father always used to say, "Boredom is a sign of a lazy mind."

  2. I agree, I think boredom can lead to using your imagination. When I used to tell my mom I was bored, she would say cheerfully, "You can do (whatever chore that needed to be done)!" Somehow that instantly cured my boredom, and I could think of something better I could be doing..anything was better than chores :)

  3. I completely agree with you. One of the greatest gifts we can give our children is allowing them to experience boredom. It is through it that they discover their own imagination and creativity. Great post.

  4. Oh, I love it when kids are "bored". That is how I get all the household chores done. They now entertain themselves so that they don't have to do the "big" chores. Darn! My girls are a little bit older than yours, but I have resorted to the chores since they were very small. We usually make a game out of it, but they have learned not to be "bored". It is amazing what they can come up with on their own to do. And also how much fun they can have. You are so right! Great post!

  5. In an age of easy and constant entertainment boredom is something more parents should embrace.

  6. Sarah, I'd never actually thought about this before, but what you say, it makes sense. I get so irked by the whining that I have been known to take to the streets in search of something, anything, too. But in the times when we haven't, I'm recalling that my oldest really did step it up with the imagination.


Hmm...And how did that make you FEEL?