Hey Kids -- I Don't Actually Care If You're Bored

by Melissa L. Fenton
Richard Lewisohn / Getty Images

My husband and I have a few standard replies to the one of the most annoying and frequent childhood sentiments that you will ever hear — the dreaded “I’m bored!” statement.

The first time we hear it, we always kick back with an instant, “Good. Keep being bored.” The second, tenth, and twentieth time we hear it, we add something like, “Being bored is a sign of impatience and ignorance, both of which I am not the solution for, but you are.” In other words, I give absolutely zero fucks when my kids tell me they’re bored. But it hasn’t always been that way.

As a mother of young children, I thought it was necessary to fill up every single minute of every single day with some type of brain stimulating activity or event. I believed that idle minds were the devil’s workshop, so to speak, and needed to be kept busy because it was the only way they could grow, develop, and mature into great minds. I thought that bored kids sitting and staring at walls, up at the clouds, and out of car windows was the least desirable thing that a child would want to do (or need to do), and it was my job to fill up the dead time and the dead air.

Then I had a bunch more kids, and necessity became the mother of invention. By that I mean, I was too damn busy drowning in laundry and mac and cheese to give a shit that my kids were bored. This meant my kids’ wailing about how they had nothing to do and they were soooo bored went in one ear and out the other. (If it even entered one ear, that is.) I stopped listening entirely and ignored them — and it turns out, by doing so, I was inadvertently following the advice of childhood psychologists, child development experts, and educators everywhere.

And what exactly is that advice?

It’s to allow (and make, support, and encourage) your kids to be straight up, out of their minds, 100% completely BORED. The research that continues to back up that statement seemingly grows by the month — especially in these screen-filled and over-scheduled times. Times that it seems are producing a bevy of anxious, depressed, and stressed out children and teenagers.

Our good intentions to fill their minds without a break are literally causing their minds to break. Even their school days — which are meant to nourish great minds but rarely include daily recess, p.e., or any sort of free play — are, instead, exhausting small brains and bodies to the point of overload. After school hours are subsequently filled with a whole host of extracurriculars, and then evening hours are then filled with a crap load of homework.

All of this leaves kids befuddled and lost when they do have downtime, because they literally don’t know what to do when nobody is telling them what to do. Hence, the “I’m bored” knee-jerk reaction that your kids are having is their way of telling you their brains don’t know how to flex their creative side — or what neuroscientists call the brain’s “free-form attention network.”

In layman’s terms, that means the part of your brain that works when you’re daydreaming, recalling memories, resting, and imagining things that exist and don’t exist. And those tasks that happen when you’re bored — the free-form thinking tasks — are absolutely necessary in order to function as a person in this world.

Psychologist Lea Waters explains it like this, “It’s a little bit like if you have too many programs running on your computer. Your computer starts to slow down. And when you shut these programs down, the computer speeds up again. It’s very much like that for the child’s brain.”

She goes on to add that just like computers need to reboot sometimes in order to work better (or work at all) children need boredom and goof-off time in order for their brains to work better. Goof-off time includes any unscheduled free time where the child gets to decide on their own what tasks they want to do — if any — without prompting from an adult or parent.

You won’t get any prompting or instruction at my house when you’re bored. You will, however, get an eye roll from me and one of my standard responses. If you’re ready to let your kids really be bored for the sake of their mental health, brain development, and overall wellbeing, it’s not that hard to start. The most important thing is to be consistent, don’t give in, and work with your parenting partner to agree on the importance of downtime, and how you’re both going to react (or not react) to whiny, bored kids.

Give it a few months, and you’ll soon be rewarded with kids who can entertain themselves — and that’s something that everyone can give a crap about.