At what age do kids learn to be bored? I find it fascinating that my two-year-old is never bored, while his older siblings very often are. Toddlers are so enthralled by the world around them that boredom isn’t even in their vocabulary. As kids get older, they become less excited about their surroundings and realize life isn’t always thrilling. But do they develop this “ability” to be bored on their own, or do we–gulp–teach it to them inadvertently? What if we, by signing them up for too many activities, giving too many toys, and allowing too much screen time, are teaching them that they deserve to be entertained? Could we be giving them the impression that everyday life is dull?
Kids and adults alike are often on sensory overload. Screens of every type constantly bombard us with their images. We can listen to music or podcasts or talk radio every waking moment if we so choose. In order for anything to grab our attention, it has to be catchy or loud and flashy. Our senses aren’t designed to field all this, though. It’s like constantly watching fireworks. After a while, the noise and sound just get to you and you need some down time to regroup. Unfortunately, in our fast-paced society, people tend not to get such quiet time, and kids are the ones suffering for it.
Busy-ness is a fact of life, even for children. We want our kids to be well-rounded, so we sign them up for sports, piano, dance, and chess club from an early age. We taxi them around from school to activities to errands to dinner and then hustle them into bed. But in our zeal to keep them occupied and expose them to various activities, a growing number of children don’t get the down time they need, and the effects are startling. Dr. Kim John Payne, author of books Simplicity Parenting and The Soul of Discipline, strongly urges parents not to overschedule their kids. He encourages parents instead to take away unnecessary things. That includes toys, clothes, activities, screen time, and even adult conversation that could worry them (think politics, finances, or family concerns). Children’s minds aren’t built to handle the stress of adult life, and Payne can prove it. In Simplicity Parenting, he relates his account of working with children in refugee camps in Africa, most of whom had post-traumatic stress disorder. This is to be expected, given all they’d gone through. What he didn’t anticipate, however, was to find the same post-traumatic symptoms present when he worked with children in England as a private and school counselor. They had fallen victim to what he calls the “undeclared war on childhood.” Scary thought, isn’t it? These were children from an affluent country, living typically busy, fast-paced lives. And they couldn’t handle it.
Something wonderful happens when children are allowed unstructured playtime. The frontal lobes of their brains are engaged, which is the area that fosters empathy, sustains alertness, thinks ahead, and more. Kids need to be allowed time to create, to escape the frenetic schedule so common today, to just be kids, and yes, even to get bored. Summer is the perfect time for this. Parents, resist the urge to bail your kids out when they complain about boredom. Don’t automatically pop in a movie or let them turn to their iPhones or iPads. Allow them to figure out what to do, and you just might be pleasantly surprised at the results. When my kids whine that they’re bored, my stock response is, “Well, you’re an intelligent kid. I’m sure you’ll figure out something to do.” They hate that. They huff and roll their eyes and stomp away. But inevitably a few minutes later I’ll hear them amusing themselves in one way or another–my oldest will practice his trumpet, my girls will pull out the costume box and play dress-up, or my middle schooler will build a Lego city. I’ve caught them playing with Little People (even my older boys!), dressing up their bears, playing school, and playing superheroes all together, complete with capes. It’s amazing and beautiful to see what their imaginations can do given a little room to blossom.
Perhaps you’re reading this with a twinge of guilt. Maybe you sense that you’ve been overscheduling your kids or allowing too much screen time just to keep them occupied. I’ve been there too, even still this week. Summer is a challenge when all the kids are home all day, every day, and sometimes it’s a whole lot easier to just let them watch a movie or play video games so you can have time to yourself. Don’t worry–you aren’t ruining your kids if you do this on occasion. And even if you know your kids are developing poor habits or are completely overscheduled, it’s not too late to change things. Before school starts back up, see if you can cut back on the number of commitments and activities your kids have. Consider a one-activity-at-a-time policy, so each child is only allowed one extracurricular activity at any given time. Go screen-free for an entire day (or more). Give your kids the opportunity to engage in creative play. Let them be kids, using their imaginations rather than expecting to be entertained.
In other words, give your kids the gift of boredom.