Is Boredom Good For Children?

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An interview with Dr. Laura Markham

“I’m bored, Mommy.” The first time I heard my four-year old utter these dreadful words, I sprang into action, signing her up for what seemed like every ballet, tumbling, art, swim and karate class within a 20-mile radius. But was this knee-jerk reaction to make my child as busy as possible the best way to end her boredom? Is boredom even a problem? And if it is, whose responsibility is it to solve? For help understanding these issues, we asked child psychologist Dr. Laura Markham to explain the revolutionary notion that a little boredom might just do children a whole lot of good. —Jacqueline, TMC Producer

In my case, you indicated that my daughter saying “I’m bored” might actually be a sign that she needs more time for unstructured play, rather than the slew of structured activities I signed her up for. Why is unstructured time for children so important?

Unstructured time gives children the opportunity to explore their inner and outer worlds, which is the beginning of creativity. This is how they learn to engage with themselves and the world, to imagine and invent and create. Unstructured time also challenges children to explore and discover their own passions. If we keep them too busy with lessons and structured activities, or they constantly “fill” their time with screen entertainment, children never learn to respond to the stirrings of their own hearts, which might lead them to study the bugs on the sidewalk (as Einstein did for hours), build a fort in the back yard, make a monster from clay, write a short story or song, or organize the neighborhood kids into making a movie. These passions are what make life meaningful, but we can only tap into them when we are given free rein to explore and pursue where our interests lead us.

On a more practical note, it is also essential for children to have the experience of deciding for themselves how to use periods of unstructured time, or they’ll never learn to manage it.  One of our biggest challenges as adults, and even as teenagers, is learning to manage our time well.

Why does “I’m bored” become a constant refrain for so many kids?

Most children, when given unstructured time, rise to the occasion (after some minor complaining) and find something interesting to do with it. Kids are always happiest in self-directed play. That’s because play is children’s work. It’s how they work out emotions and experiences they’ve had. Watch any group of children playing outside and they will organize themselves into an activity of some sort, whether that’s making a dam at the creek, playing “pretend” or seeing who can jump farthest.

When kids can’t find something to do and say “I’m bored”, it can be because their time is always so structured with lessons and activities that they aren’t used to finding fun things to do with their own “free time.” For older children, it’s usually because they’re so accustomed to screen entertainment that they aren’t practiced at looking inside themselves for direction. Unfortunately, our society is raising a whole generation of children who are addicted to screens.  That’s because electronics (Ipads, phones, computers, video games) are designed to produce little “dopamine” rewards in our brains as we interact with them. This “screen time” can be so enjoyable that other experiences pale in comparison.

When children say they are bored, how should we respond?

First, stop what you’re doing and really focus on your child for five minutes. If you use this time to connect, just chat and snuggle, your child will probably get the refueling he needs and be on his way fairly quickly.

If he doesn’t pull away from you, and you need to get back to work after a few minutes of fully connecting, consider that maybe he needs a little more time with you. Most of the time when children are whiny and unable to focus, it’s because they need more deep connection time with us. Offer to involve him in what you’re doing, or take a break from your work and do something together.

Once you’re confident that your child has a full “love tank,” you can revisit the “what to do” question.  By now, he probably has some ideas for something he’d like to go do.  If not, tell him that figuring out how to enjoy his own time is his job, but you’d be happy to help him brainstorm about possible activities.

What about when kids really do need help coming up with a boredom-busting activity? How can we help…while still making them responsible for staying busy and engaged?

Most of the time, kids left to their own devices end up finding something interesting to do, but sometimes they really do need our help, especially if she suddenly has more time on her hands than usual, or if you’re newly limiting TV and electronics. (Once kids get used to limitations on TV and electronics, they become good at entertaining themselves, and more creative at play.)

Even if you need to help your child come up with ideas for “what to do,” shift the responsibility to her by creating a Boredom Jar stuffed with ideas written on pieces of paper. Whenever a child says she’s bored, she picks three pieces of paper from the jar and chooses one of the activities. Some activity suggestions to put in the jar include:

-Put on some music and dance

-Write down ten things you love about each person in your family

– Create a play with costumes

-Find shapes in the clouds

-See how many times you can dribble the basketball

-Paint or draw a picture

-Wash the car

-Plan a treasure hunt, with clues

-Ride your bike

-Make a scene in a cardboard box

-See if you can draw a picture with your foot

If it really does seem like there is nothing to do, is using electronics and TV ever an acceptable solution?

The problem with using TV or electronic games to alleviate boredom is that it is one of those temporary solutions that just digs children into a deeper hole. Studies show that kids who regularly use electronics are more likely to feel bored than other kids.  Even after eliminating the habit, it can take months for them to find other activities about which they’re passionate.  But don’t give up–you’re doing their creativity an enormous favor!

If your child can read, there is never “nothing” to do. There is a whole world of books just waiting to be discovered! If your child cannot yet read, but you are available, you can always read to him–and there are thousands of other wonderful things you can do to engage your young child. You are likely to draw a blank in that moment when your child is whining, so it’s worth making a list in advance. I highly recommend games that are designed to bring you closer to your child, because these will fill his cup, after which he will be more able to figure out what else to do on his own. Here are some of my favorite ideas.

But let’s assume you are doing something where they can’t be involved, such as nursing the baby to sleep, and your toddler or preschooler needs to be kept busy and quiet. In this case, is it so terrible to put your two or three year old in front of a screen for half an hour? Of course not.  Choose a tape that is limited in length so there’s a natural ending to eliminate fights when you turn it off, and to keep your child from seeing commercials.  Give your child something to look forward to afterwards (“Once the baby is asleep, you and I will spend some special time together”).  And just be sure you turn off the screen once you’re available, rather than taking advantage of it to finish “just one more thing” before giving your child attention.

Laura Markham, Ph.D., is the author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start ConnectingShe’s worked as a parenting coach with countless parents across the English-speaking world and runs, the website of Aha! Moments for parents of kids from birth through the teen years.

The Mother Company aims to support parents and their children, providing thought-provoking web content and products based in social and emotional learning for children ages 3-6. Check out the first episode of our children’s series, Ruby’s Studio: The Feelings Show,” which helps kids identify, express, and move through their feelings. We want to be a parenting tool…  For you!

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