Child being left alone to handle feelings of boredom

As parents, we may feel the urge and also pressure to fill our child’s schedule with all sorts of activities like day camps, enrichment lessons and tuition, especially during the school holidays. We may also feel compelled to make sure they are constantly busy, never idle, never bored.

Why is that? Perhaps we believe it is good for them. Perhaps we do it because we’ve seen other parents do it. Maybe we have heard the old-adage that “an idle mind is a devil’s workshop” so we fill their minds continuously with new things to learn. Maybe they’re a handful when they’re bored.

Whatever the reasons, the good news is that we don’t have to make sure our children are doing something constructive all the time. Research shows that it is actually good for your child to have nothing to do at times. And that boredom can actually be good for your child.

#1 Boredom Spurs Your Child to Free Play

When your child has nothing planned and time to kill, she may feel bored and restless. Instead of entertaining her or filling her schedule with activities, try leaving her alone to deal with feeling bored.

She will, after a while, find a way to entertain herself. She may read a book, draw something from her imagination or play pretend with her toys.

When this happens, your child is not only “just playing”, they are leading themselves. They are making all sorts of decisions on their own like what to do, what they like, how long to play with a particular toy, etc.

This is free play or “unstructured play” where children engage in open-ended play with no specific learning objective1. And research shows that this type of play is “not frivolous” and “brain-building”.2

When children are given the space and time to free play on their own, they learn to deal with the emotional challenges they encounter. This sense of self-mastery over their fears, sadness, stress and anxiety helps them deal with stress better as teenagers and, later on, as adults. They are more confident of their own ability to overcome negative emotions.

#2 Boredom Prepares Your Child for the Real World

When our child looks bored or expresses he is bored, we may see this as a problem and attempt to fix it. We turn ourselves into clowns to amuse him, we get an older sibling to play with him or offer him toy after toy until one of them catches his fancy.

When he grows up, he may expect others to entertain him whenever he is bored. He may even be angry at those who refuse to make him feel better and lash out at them.

He will grow up less prepared for the real world - a world that will not provide him with constant entertainment whenever he is bored and a world that has plenty of dull moments. The sooner he learns to expect and deal with boredom, the more equipped he will be to handle the mundane parts of life at home, school and at work.

#3 Boredom Breeds Creativity

When we are bored, our minds wander and make new, creative connections. Research studies have found that people who engaged in mundane, boring tasks just before a creative task were more imaginative.3

In other words, boredom has the potential to put us in a more creative state. When we perform mundane tasks, we enter into a calm and slightly detached state which allows our minds to wander. The bored perform better at creative tasks.

The moral of the study? A little time being bored or doing something boring may actually help your child with tasks that require creativity and imagination like writing, drawing and playing pretend with other children.

The next time your child looks bored or starts to complain about being bored, hard as it may be, do absolutely nothing. Let him or her sit with the feeling of being bored. Let him decide how he will handle his boredom.

Most importantly, resist the urge to give him your mobile, tablet or other screen devices to watch or play with even if he is wailing and insisting on having the device to stay entertained. Children under two should not be exposed to electronic screens at all according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). For children under five, exposure should be limited to one hour a day.

Giving your child the time and space to feel bored or do nothing may feel natural at first. Remind yourself boredom and doing nothing helps with brain-building, prepares him for the real world and puts him in creative states when you feel tempted to “solve the problem”.

Instead of fixating on his boredom, you could clear your schedule and experience the joys of doing nothing together with him.


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References

  1. Riede, F. Joanhannsen, N. N. Högberg, A. Nowell, A, Lombard, M. (2018, February 15). The role of play objects and object play in human cognitive evolution and innovation. Evolutionary Anthropology, 27:1, 46-59.
    Retrieved January 2020 from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/evan.21555
  2. ElHage, A. (2018, August 23). A Simple Prescription for Child Well-Being: More Unstructured Play [Institute for Family Studies].
    Retrieved January 2020 from https://ifstudies.org/blog/a-simple-prescription-for-child-well-being-more-unstructured-play
  3. Mann, S. Cadman, R. (2014). Does Being Bored Make Us More Creative? Creativity Research Journal, 26:2, 165-173, DOI: 10.1080/10400419.2014.901073
    Retrieved January 2020 from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10400419.2014.901073