The Importance of Letting Your Kids Be Bored

Boredom gets a bad rep.

by Chase Scheinbaum
Originally Published: 
A kid bored on the couch

Kids used to complain about being bored. That’s become rarer in an age when there’s no lack of things to do when bored, including apps, podcasts, webisodes, video games, viral videos, e-books, or texting friends “i m bored.” The idea of even being bored is becoming endangered.

RELATED: Plenty of Happy Parents Are Bored by Their Kids

According to Teresa Belton, visiting fellow at the School of Education & Lifelong Learning at the University of East Anglia and a boredom expert, no work and no play doesn’t make Jack a dull boy — it makes his brain work better. She cites research that shows unstructured downtime helps kids become creative, independent thinkers. “Boredom needn’t be feared, and it can be seen as an opportunity.” Here’s why you should resist the urge to keep them entertained:

Boredom Helps Kids Figure Out Who They Are

Want your kid to arrive at their own ideas and opinions? Have them embrace boredom. Belton says the research shows that when they’re not occupied, kids “take initiative and need not be completely dependent on adults or anything ready-made.” Of course, first they may just flop on the floor and whine.

In a piece on The Conversation, Belton discussed how boredom helps cultivate “curiosity, perseverance, playfulness, interest, and confidence.” You like those things. Those are the important traits that, ironically, help them grow into smart, non-boring people.

Don’t Feel Guilty About Boring Your Kids

Here’s the fun part about helping your kids tap into boredom: You don’t have to feel guilty when they don’t have anything to do. In fact, you should probably plan “no plans” few times a week. “Try not to feel like it’s your responsibility to fill every moment of your child’s time,” she says. Done and done.

Wait — there’s more. She also says it’s important to understand that discomfort. Remember: Boredom equals opportunity. Brains that aren’t occupied with tablet-swiping, puzzle-completing, or anything else are more likely to try new things, experiment, and partake in something they wouldn’t normally do or learn. Besides, if you take the long view on parenting, there will be plenty of things to feel guilty about. Save up for those.

MORE: Dads Get Bored With Their Kids. That’s Okay. Here’s How to Cope.

Boredom Doesn’t Let Parents Off the Hook

Kids can occupy themselves — for a while. According to Belton, eventually you’ll need to help nudge them in the direction of finding something interesting to do when spaced out. Give them prompts. Ask them what they should do with that wrapping paper tube. What snack would they think their stuffed animal might like to munch on (hopefully wrapping paper tubes)? This type of nudging is more difficult for little kids because they have less to draw from than pre-adolescents and older ones. But it’s necessary for them to flex those creative muscles and tap into those yet-do-be-discovered personality traits.

Boredom Is Also Good for Parents

Just because your day doesn’t allow you to be bored, doesn’t mean you can’t benefit, too. “It’s now being discovered that letting the mind wander when awake has very important functions,” says Belton. Easier said than done, considering your head is swirling with everything from Slack notifications at work to infant medication schedules at home.

But, find some time. A mind that has a bit of time to breathe is better at coming up with unexpected ideas and creative solutions to tricky situations. “We need time just to reflect on our immediate experience, past experience, and maybe think about the future,” says Belton. After all, your best, unsolicited ideas arrive in the shower. (Which are the only things you’d ever want unsolicited in a shower.)

Be Bored Better

Before you do nothing, you have to do something. To assist, Belton has some prompts so you can help your kids occupy themselves.

  • Lay on the grass and watch the clouds go by. Classic and self-explanatory. If you don’t know what this is, you had a weirdly structured childhood. “Just lying around thinking creates a new relationship with the self,” Belton says. Not the same kind of self-relationship you were thinking of.
  • Make up some shadowplay. Ah, the pacifist’s shadowboxing. Yeah, grab a flashlight and see who makes the best triceratops. It’s harder than it looks.
  • Plan a real (or imagined) feast. Might as well imagine something to eat while you’re at it. “Simple playthings are more versatile and inspire resourcefulness and imaginativeness in a way that tightly designed, specially-intended toys and games don’t,” Belton says. It’s the reason Play-Doh can be an appetizer, entree, and dessert in one container.

The most important takeaway is that wasting time isn’t time wasted. The brain gets to recover from an overstimulated world and kids get to become less reliant on you as their source of fun and excitement. So, the next time you’re about to bust out all the toys on a rainy Sunday, why not step away and let boredom get this one?

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