Most adults would gladly welcome the opportunity to be bored. With our crazy-busy lives, many of us don't have the luxury of enough downtime to experience true boredom. But how do you react when you hear your child say he's bored? Does your kid always wonder what that next awesome activity is going to be? It's hard to imagine, but you may have unintentionally created this situation.
Playing has changed
Barely a generation ago, kids spent most of their spare time involved in some sort of free-play — indoors or out. Summer days might be spent outside with neighborhood friends playing a game of hide and seek, catching a few tadpoles or chasing the ice cream truck for a late-afternoon treat. Games were invented and the rules were made up as you went along. Cries of boredom were most likely met with assignment of a chore from a parent, so kids did their best to entertain themselves.
Today's kids love some of the same activities, but often experience them in a completely different way than their parents did. Hide and seek is more likely to take place in a Minecraft battle on the internet, and instead of catching tadpoles, your kid is likely to be tossing Angry Birds at a few pigs. The ice cream truck is still a summertime staple, but many parents prefer to drive their kids to the frozen yogurt shop for a cool treat and pay by the pound for all the toppings and syrups they add. Many of our kids are so used to constantly doing something that they truly feel that need to be entertained 24/7. Without meaning to, we have encouraged — and contributed to — our kids' inability to find something to occupy themselves.
So, it's my fault?
"I agree with the observations about moms complaining that their children are bored," says Dr. Fran Walfish, child and family psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent. "I also agree that the moms are clueless to the fact that they participated in raising kids who expect to be entertained and occupied at all times." Many of these moms got themselves into the habit of constantly providing entertainment or stimulating activities for their children as they grew. Child development experts are constantly touting new ways to stretch kids' brains, or recommending activities that always involve a level of learning beyond simple playing for the sake of play. All of these things led to children who never learned to entertain themselves, and are now lacking this skill.
Technology doesn't help
Walfish attributes some of the problem to our obsession with technology. "Kids no longer rely on their own imagination, creativity and curiosity to develop interest in activities outside of electronics," she says. "Electronics have added to kids feeling bored. If an activity does not offer the same immediate response as the computer, video games or iPad offers, then the kid isn't motivated to hang in and wait for a delayed response," Walfish adds. But technology has a place in all of our lives, so finding a balance — for the adults in the house, too — is key.
From the trenches
Laura Willard, editor of AllParenting, feels strongly about kids finding ways to entertain themselves — starting at a young age. Her growing-up experience laid the foundation for how she parents her own children. "Growing up, my parents owned a business and they were busy," she says. "My mom was the best — she juggled that and motherhood like a pro, and she often stayed up all night dealing with work so she could 'mom' during the day and evening." Willard remembers times when her mom had work to do, and she and her brother needed to play nicely and on their own. "She didn't ignore us or make us feel unimportant," she recalls. "She gave us the tools to be content with ourselves, to learn to find activities we like and to actually complete them. As an adult, I really appreciate the way we were raised and I hope to do the same with my own kids," she adds.
How to turn it around
Ready for your kids to learn how to entertain themselves? Here are some age-by-age tips for breaking the cycle of constant stimulation.
Toddlers^ Walfish recommends beginning at age 13-15 months, moms should set their toddler safely on the floor surrounded by toys. "Sit with your toddler and play with him," she says. "Then, tell your child, 'Mommy is going to the kitchen to make a cup of tea and Mommy will be back in two minutes to watch you play.' Be sure to return in two minutes, as promised, so he learns to trust your word," she adds. Extend the amount of time you are gone, and eventually he will be entertaining himself for a longer period of time. "This lays the foundational bricks and mortar for separation and independent play," says Walfish.
School-aged kids^ "When your 7- or 8-year-old whines, 'I'm bored!' you can respond with genuine empathy and compassion," advises Walfish, "and say, 'Great, it's good practice for you to be bored and find something to occupy yourself with.' Parents need to understand that each experience of boredom is you giving your child a chance to grow emotionally," she adds.
"In my house, my almost-5-year-old and my 6-year-old never say, 'I'm bored' because that's met with extra chores to keep them busy!" says Willard. "My kids have an entire play room filled with toys, educational activities, books, puzzles and more. They can also choose from many crafts projects and I'm always happy to help them, but the activities are for them, not me," she says.
Tweens and teens^ By the time your kids are this age, they have developed free-time habits that are very ingrained. Depending on your child's obsession with electronics, you may have to set limits on their use. Look at your own behavior as well. If you tend to fill every free minute you have scrolling through your iPhone or watching TV shows on your iPad, you may be inadvertently setting a bad example. Pick up a book, go for a run or work on your gardening to show your kids what free-time should look like. Introduce a hobby that she can work on independently — like knitting, baking, writing or photography — and encourage this as a time filler.
By helping your kids break the cycle of constantly needing to be entertained, you are paving the way for them to learn the simple — and important — skill of entertaining themselves. And saving your sanity in the process.