Let the Kids Be Bored

Boredom is an excellent teacher, and parents shouldn't work so hard to banish it.

CC BY 2.0. bsrdn

When I was a kid, there was one phrase I wasn't allowed to utter: "I'm bored." It was forbidden because, as my parents explained, it meant that I wasn't doing anything about something that was clearly my own problem.

Now, as a parent myself, I marvel at the lack of responsibility that my parents took for my entertainment. They weren't hands-off in other ways, taking a very active approach to my schooling and music practice, but when it came to unscheduled time – and there was plenty of it in our rural, TV-free home – they were completely indifferent as to what I did.

Thinking back on it, there was plenty that I did. I explored the forest around our home, building forts and blazing trails with a hatchet. I dug out snowbanks and built extravagant networks of tunnels. I played house in a variety of blanket forts, napped in the hammock, and fought with my sister over Monopoly.

There were many hours of nothing, too. I'd lie on my bed, reading books voraciously and writing in my journal. In a way, that was the start of my writing career. I filled dozens of notebooks with detailed observations about the world and all the passions, dreams, and indignities of a young life.

While boredom seemed irritating at the time, I now look back on it as a blessing. This is exactly what New York Times editor Pamela Paul believes more parents should be striving to give their kids.

In an excellent article called "Let Children Get Bored Again," Paul argues that boredom allows space for creativity: "When you’re held captive to a mundane activity... you let your mind wander and follow it where it goes."

Boredom also fosters self-sufficiency, forcing a kid to learn how to cope without relying on a parent or handheld device. Paul writes,

"It’s not really the boredom itself that’s important; it’s what we do with it. When you reach your breaking point, boredom teaches you to respond constructively, to make something happen for yourself. But unless we are faced with a steady diet of stultifying boredom, we never learn how."

And that is one of the most valuable things a kid can learn before reaching adulthood, because – let's face it – the real world is full of boring tasks. There's no point in setting kids up for failure by making them think everything's a fun game, as schools are wont to do these days. In Paul's words,

"Surely teaching children to endure boredom rather than ratcheting up the entertainment will prepare them for a more realistic future, one that doesn’t raise false expectations of what work or life itself actually entails. One day, even in a job they otherwise love, our kids may have to spend an entire day answering Friday’s leftover email."

In order to do this, however, parents need to back off. They need to become more comfortable with letting kids discover their own fun – and that process happens faster if kids are not directly supervised. Parents need to toughen up, answer "Go outside" when asked what to do, or send kids to clean their rooms if they mention the "b" word. They have to understand that keeping kids entertained is not their job.

It's all for the greater good – raising resilient, creative, self-sufficient children who are prepared for the world when the time comes for them to leave the nest. So, let them be bored. You will be amazed at what they come up with – and you may gain some free time for yourself in the process.