Last Saturday, by some miracle, we didn’t have anything scheduled for the day. Sometime in the middle of the afternoon I found my daughter bent over her desk by the window, half-in, half-out of her chair, little tongue poked out in concentration. She’d pushed open the window, and fresh air and sunlight were streaming into the room.
“Whatcha doing?” I asked her.
“Eh.” She shrugged. “I was bored, so I figured I’d make a comic.”
I peeked over her shoulder and saw that she’d stapled folded paper together to make a book and had drawn dragons with little word bubbles floating over their heads.
My daughter was onto something.
Boredom begets creativity. Boredom is a good thing, and we could use more of it.
More and more, we’ve begun to recognize the problem with overscheduling our kids, how our well-meaning plans for enriching their lives and offering unique experiences often ends up producing unnecessary anxiety and inhibiting independent thought.
Parenting has gotten downright competitive in the past couple of decades, and it’s easy to feel guilty if our kid isn’t involved in at least a few activities. What are they learning if they’re just hanging out at home? What skill are they developing? What kind of parents are we if we’re just… reading a book on a Saturday while our kids fend for themselves?
Maybe we should ask different questions: Are our kids learning to self-reflect and self-direct? Do our kids know how to handle a stretch of unscheduled time? Are they capable of suffering through a little boredom and coming up with something to do on their own? Boredom is useful and good for us, and we need to make sure we give that gift to our kids. Here are a few reasons why:
1. Boredom stimulates creativity.
Sure, we can set up an art project in the kitchen and it will probably yield results we’d stick on the fridge with a magnet. But it’s still something we came up with. We provided the impetus and encouraged the action. It’s not the worst thing a parent could do for their kid, but what would that same kid have come up with if they’d been allowed to be so utterly bored that they ended up digging through the craft closet on their own, choosing their own supplies, setting up their own work station, inventing their own creation? Would they even limit themselves to the craft closet? Or would they go outside and collect natural materials or root through the mess in the garage for things to use? Or would the garage be their playground rather than the kitchen table? My son, in a fit of boredom, once created a fully functioning knife out of a block of wood, some aluminum foil, and some glue.
2. Boredom is great for daydreaming.
Nighttime dreams, the kind we have when we’re sleeping, are thought to be our brain’s way of processing emotions. Daydreaming can do the same. It’s a way to work through problems in a non-threatening way. We ruminate over conversations we wish we could have approached differently and, without even meaning to, we create a plan to do better next time. We dream up solutions or new ways of thinking of problems that at first seem too big to handle. Kids do the same if given the opportunity.
3. Boredom can boost productivity.
It may seem counterintuitive, but when we’re bored, our minds often wander to tasks we have yet to complete, and without our realizing it, organize and plan more efficient ways to accomplish that task. Not only that, but boredom is a form of rest, and high productivity requires moments of rest.
4. Boredom teaches us to live in the moment.
When a kid reaches the most tedious state of boredom, when their thoughts about past and future have been exhausted, they are left to experience the now. How often do you live right smack in the present moment? How often can you honestly say you’re not either ruminating on something that already happened or planning for something in the future? No wonder we’re so anxious all the time. We would all benefit from learning to live in the moment, but it’s especially important for us to allow our kids to learn this. And it’s not something that can be taught—it has to be experienced.
5. Boredom teaches patience.
We need to allow our kids to know what it feels like to just… wait. At a restaurant waiting to be seated, at the doctor’s office waiting to be called back, in line waiting to buy tickets for a movie, waiting for a friend who is running late… remember when we used to have to just tolerate the wait? We were forced to read a magazine or chat up the person next to us or simply hang out with our thoughts. We didn’t have a device to occupy us.
Not that it’s always a terrible thing to use a device to pass the time—of course, we and our kids will do this. That is the world we live in now, and to suggest we never use screens to pass the time would be unrealistic. But our kids would benefit from learning to wait without the distraction. There are so few opportunities for our kids to experience this very simple, tedious kind of patience. So many desires in today’s world are instantly fulfilled, and our kids have little idea of what it feels like to just… wait. We need to give them this skill.
So how do we break ourselves and our kids of the habit of constant activity and embrace boredom?
Well, we can cut out as many extracurricular activities as we want, but if our kids are constantly glued to screens, they won’t benefit from that extra time. It’s hard to cut this off. My kids are gloriously quiet while on screens so it’s tempting to let them play all day long so I can get stuff done in peace. Plus, they whine when I make them get off.
However, a few years ago, we instituted a time in the middle of the day where the WiFi is cut off. On weekends between the hours of 11 AM and 4 PM, my kids have no access to the internet and are totally unscheduled. Since they’re forced to come up with their own play, these 5 hours have become the time when they’re most creative.
Kids need to experience boredom. They’ll learn patience if nothing else, and they’ll probably have some really cool ideas while they’re at it.