This holiday season, give them the gift of boredom. (Really!)

Mounting scientific evidence shows kids need boredom to function at their highest levels. How fascinating is that?

You want your child to be engaged and stimulated. So it’s no wonder you take their boredom seriously. That you look for ways of “fixing it” with activities or playdates or (easiest of all) technology. That you develop a fear of your children’s boredom, and strive to prevent it at almost any cost.  

Before you know it, you are the Minister for Entertainment – and engaging your child’s imagination has become your portfolio. 

Yet studies of “bored” brains reveal high levels of subliminal activity – so much so that researchers increasingly believe that boredom is to the mind what sleep is to the body: a complex, restorative state in which information is synthesized and new connections wired.

Allowing your kids to experience “the presence of an absence” – whether that means staring out the window in the backseat of the car, making shadow puppets on the wall of a sun-filled bedroom, or idly watching a line of ants on drill parade – is a parental duty you may never have thought about before.  

What does your child really mean when she moans that she is “bored” – or flings the judgment “BORE-ing!” at any life experience that does not involve a wifi signal and an on-off button? 

It’s a tough one, because the term “boredom” has become a catch-all for a bewildering array of emotional states, ranging from confusion to fear to hostility. Here a few fun facts ithat will help you get under the hood of this most common of kid complaints.

  • Did you know that kids who complain that they are “bored” at school or in any other environment may actually be feeling overwhelmed, not under-stimulated? Like the rest of us, kids tend to shut down when they feel out of their depth. Describing their feelings as “boredom” rather than “fear” is a common form of self-protection - and a way of saving face.
  • Boredom is often the glaze we apply to an underlying lack of understanding or insight. Abstract painting, for example, is “boring” to anyone who assumes the purpose of art is to represent the world we recognise. Geometry is “boring” if you never get to the last stage of the proof. 
  • Children’s boredom can quickly develop into a power play. If you’ve ever wondered, a trifle guiltily, if managing your child’s boredom was at some level a control issue - a gauntlet thrown down as a challenge to your parental mettle or even to the quality of your love … well, wonder no more. It is often exactly that. Not in some conniving, conscious sense. But subtly, unconsciously.  

Cricketing legend Sir Don Bradman credited an under-stimulating bush childhood with his astounding skill as a batsman. Hitting a ball with a stick was literally all he did for fun for tens of thousands of hours. Deprivation? Maybe. But just think how a Nintendo Wii might have changed the course of sporting history.

  • Have you ever noticed that the more “boredom busters” you supply, the lower your child’s threshold seems to go?  It’s like a boredom arms race. As stockpiles of gadgetry, toys, lessons and equipment mount up – so does the threat of annihilation.  It’s not just your kid. It’s all of us. That’s how boredom works.
  • What we dismiss as “doing nothing” or “staring into space” was once esteemed as “reverie.” (The word “boredom” did not enter written English til 1852. And much before the 17th century, there was literally no such experience!) And it is that distinctive type of downtime – a kind of mindful mindlessness - that is especially at risk in the dataclysm of our children’s increasingly hyper-connected lives.

“The capacity to be bored can be a developmental achievement for the child,” says acclaimed British psychotherapist and author Adam Phillips.  “In the muffled, sometimes irritable confusion of boredom the child is reaching to a recurrent sense of emptiness out of which his real desire can crystallize.” Depriving a child of this space – which we dishonor with the off-hand designation “downtime” – is a serious (though understandable) mistake.

Boredom and Transformation

Is it true, as some parents glibly insist, that “there is no such thing as boredom – only boring people?” Admittedly,  it’s a good line. But the science suggests otherwise. Boredom is real. And not only real but potentially really important to our capacity to think and create and achieve mastery.

Like a fallow field, the mind of a “bored” child may seem unproductive – but deep transformations are taking place just below the surface.

Today, our always-connected offspring process more information in a day than previous generations did in a lifetime. In some ways, boredom has never been less of a problem – and more of an opportunity.



Create a space for reverie in your home, with Family Zone - and start your free trial today.


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Topics: Cyber Bullying, Parental Controls, Screen time, Mobile Apps, Excessive Device Usage, Cyber Safety, school holidays, boredom

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