"I'm bored" is the all-too-common cry that irritates many parents.
Sometimes I need to remind myself that I am not my children's social organizer. I am not their entertainer. I am their parent. As their parent, I am one of their most important teachers, and among the many lessons I give are those designed to help my sons and daughter learn how to socialize with others and how to entertain and regulate themselves.
Those lessons can be thwarted, however, if I am overeager to manage and enrich my chidren's development.
Our kids have more toys, games, books and electronics than we ever dreamed of when we were kids. Given the abundance of things to do and play with, it astonishes and frustrates us that they complain of boredom.
A Plea for Attention
Sometimes the complaint is really a plea for attention. When my youngest would sound the boredom alarm, next thing I knew I was foolishly ticking off a list of things he could do-games, crafts, chores, etc. With each idea, shot down as quickly as I presented it, my irritation grew. He might grudgingly "agree" to play something, as if doing me a favor, but only if I played the game or built block towers with him. A few minutes into it, though, he would announce that this did not interest him anymore, leaving me frustrated and likely to deliver a lecture. Soon doors would be slamming; so much for our "fun."
By acting on a perceived need to step in and solve my son's problem, I ended up entertaining him with lots of attention-mostly negative. What he really needed in these situations was to learn how to entertain himself, to be creative and to contribute to the household and society.
Less Is Key
For the parent who wants to teach those vital life skills, the key is to do less. First, there is no need to "rescue" a child from boredom. We can sincerely empathize ("Sorry to hear that") but in the same breath we should express confidence in the child's ability. "You have such a great imagination. Remember that castle you built with blocks yesterday? That was so creative how you built the moat. I wonder what you are going to do today!" He might then get motivated to go off and entertain himself, and that is great. It is also perfectly fine if he doesn't. Being bored is okay. Adult life is full of boring meetings, waits at airports, etc. Allowing a child to experience boredom gives him a chance to develop the skills of dealing with and enriching such times on his own.
The bored child begins to learn how to adapt and use his imagination. Hara Estroff Marano, author of A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting, wrote in the American Journal of Play (Spring 2011), "Oversupervised kids become unable to think of anything to do on their own. Boredom becomes a state from which they expect someone or something . . . to relieve them." However, we must understand that "boredom is a perfectly natural aversive state, meant to stimulate you to find something to do that is interesting, something that clicks with you and excites your curiosity."
Activities not orchestrated and carefully planned by a parent or a caregiver might be messier, but the growth and accomplishments gained by the child far exceed the mess in importance and impact. If mom, dad or a caregiver is always pulling out the games, Nintendo or iPad, the child has little opportunity to find and explore his own interests.
If you feel you must get involved, encourage your child to make a list of fun activities. This will be productive if the list is generated mostly by the child and if you do not step in to make such a list in response to complaints of boredom. He can hang the list on his door or another place he (not you) chooses, as a reference for future unstructured downtime or playtime.
Our Goals for Our Children
We cherish our children, but we need to remember that our goal is for them to become independent and selfsufficient-that is, not dependent on us. As Hal Runkel, author of ScreamFree Parenting, recently stated, "A parent's job is not to protect children from reality; it is to prepare them for reality." Whenever we do for a child what he can and should do for himself, we give him an implicit vote of noconfidence. By taking on the role of entertainer and by micromanaging our children's days, filling them with one structured activity after another, we deprive them of vital learning opportunities and undermine the growth of their independence.
Too much of children's time is structured by us and filled with manufactured experiences. The Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics last year issued a report (published online Jan. 4, 2012) on how, even in day care centers and preschools, little time is provided for unstructured play. The focus on enriched and safe environments can sometimes deprive children of the physical activities they need, as well as the time and freedom, for active and imaginative play. In The American Journal of Play (Summer 2008) David Elkind, professor emeritus of child development at Tufts University, warned that "children are left with little time to indulge their natural predisposition for fantasy, imagination and creativity. . . . When we provide opportunities for and allow time for children's selfinitiated play, we are ensuring the full development of their curiosity, their imagination and their creativity."
So, limit the number of structured activities and sports leagues you sign your children up for, and make sure they have time for unstructured play and freedom to explore creatively on their own and with their siblings and friends, without your direct involvement. The next time you hear, "I'm bored," just smile and recall that sometimes being a good parent means not doing anything at all.