I’m Teaching My Kids (and Myself) to Be Bored Again

It won't be easy. But I’ve decided to lean into being truly bored and to show my kids how to handle it.

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The harumph comes first. Then the flopping around. A groan. Finally, the words I dread, the ones that drive me up a wall, the ones that hit like an ice pick to the ear.

“I’m bored!”

How? How?! How can you be bored when you have trucks and plastic dinosaurs and LEGOs and superhero costumes and train sets and markers and finger paint and books and a karaoke machine? It’s impossible for you to be bored!

And yet he is. I have no idea what to tell him. I’ve forgotten how to be bored. But I’m going to change that.

I hold in my hand a faucet that pours forth an unending torrent of dumb opinions, funny cat videos, Jimmy Garoppolo highlights, more dumb opinions, unfathomable scientific facts, conspiracy theories, directions to the pizza place across town, messages from long lost friends, birthday greetings, and even more dumb opinions. Tap and load, see new Tweets, see new Tweets, see new Tweets.

As much as I feel the need to save myself from the mind-numbing buzz of always being not-bored, the real reason I’ve decided to lean into being truly bored is to show my kids how to handle it. 

Very little of what my phone shows me is interesting, but all of it saves me from being bored. Like James Woods following a candy trail, I never know hunger even if the meal is never quite satisfying. And now I’m trapped.

You ever close the Twitter app on your phone, set it down on the couch for 1.2 seconds, then pick it up to see what’s new on Twitter? You’re trapped, too, buddy.

It’s an uneasy purgatory, this state of not-bored without actually doing anything interesting. After I scroll through Reddit for an hour, I feel horrible. My eyes burn. My neck hurts. The inside of my skull feels like the inside of my mouth after too many cups of coffee. But, maybe there’s something new on Reddit. I should check!

In 2018, I’ve decided to spend more time being bored. It’s going to suck — at least at first. To retrain my instincts, I’m going to start with a weekly Tech Sabbath. It’s not a religious thing. It’s a livability thing. It’s deciding that for 24 hours a week, my mind will be off limits to digital inputs.

As much as I feel the need to save myself from the mind-numbing buzz of always being not-bored, the real reason I’ve decided to lean into being truly bored is to show my kids how to handle it. They look at their parents, sitting around the house and staring at their phones, and they learn to do as we do. It feels like I’m doing them as much harm as if I was lighting up Kools in the den. If I were sucking Trump Tweets into my lungs, I’d deserve to get lung cancer. Instead, I’m sucking Trump Tweets into my brain. And I’m teaching my kids to do it also.

Back when I was a kid, you had to fight your way out of being bored. Every. Single. Day. You had to build a pillow fort or splash through the creek or throw rocks at the abandoned factory. You couldn’t catch Pokémon. You couldn’t take a photo of your dog and add a digital mustache to it. You couldn’t watch drivers in Russia threaten each other over fender benders. We were meme-less. And so we played tag or built go-karts or read the encyclopedia.

My kids look at their parents, sitting around the house and staring at their phones, and they learn to do as we do. It feels like I’m doing them as much harm as if I was lighting up Kools in the den.

Before the world was digital, boredom was your constant companion. There’s a Winnie-the-Pooh story about being bored. It’s the chapter “In Which Piglet Does A Very Grand Thing,” but that’s not how the story begins. It begins with Pooh and Piglet sitting together in a favorite spot in the forest, having nothing to do. Eventually they decide to have a walkabout, visiting their friends for no reason. At each house, they pop in for a while and talk about nothing at all. This goes on for seven pages. Seven pages about nothing! In a story for kids!

But when A. A. Milne wrote it, that would have been unremarkable. Nothing happened most of the time.

Boredom is denying the gratification of whim. It’s desire unmet. Moreover, boredom is good for you. Sitting still, letting the quiet drag out, staring at a tree — in these moments, your brain is not entertained, but it is working. You are alone with your thoughts, and you’re letting your thoughts be in charge for once. Instead of drowning ideas in a pool of dopamine earned through likes and faves, you’re giving those ideas a chance to swim.

Consider the invention of basketball. It was December in western Massachusetts. You could work in a factory, or you could go ice fishing, or you could sit inside and get drunk. I don’t know, take a sleigh ride, maybe? Anyhow, there was enough not to do that a guy decided to nail peach baskets to the rafters of a gym and get some dudes to try to throw a soccer ball into them. Would Dr. James Naismith have invented basketball if he had been trying to catch a Charizard? LeBron James owes his fame and fortune to the immeasurable tedium of a cold New England winter. Spending my cold Seattle winter deciphering his Instagram feed is thumbing my nose at the example set by the guy who invented the game.

In the empty space of my weekly Tech Sabbath, I will welcome inspiration. Perhaps I will teach myself how to sew or perhaps I will take yet another crack at learning to play bass. Maybe I will create a new role-playing game. Maybe I’ll just stare at the puddles on the street, watching drizzle scramble their surfaces. I doubt I’ll have much time to consider my options because I won’t be bored alone. My kids will be bored too.

I know this because they already complain of boredom when a house full of distractions surrounds them. It’s my attitude, my reception of their complaints, that will be different. Instead of shooing them away so that I can stare at my phone, I’ll say, “I’m bored too! What should we do together?”

More than likely, we won’t hit pay dirt. But if your grandkids are getting rich playing Balloony Ball (airborne four-square using a balloon) 50 years from now, you’ll have to thank my kids and their boredom.

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