Music to my ears. But this wasn’t always so. As parents, we have been brainwashed to be afraid of hearing those dreaded words: “I’m bored.” The same thing happened in healthcare around pain when, in the late 1990’s, pain was dubbed the fifth vital sign. Providers were instructed to eliminate it swiftly and aggressively, sowing the seeds for today’s opioid epidemic.
We have been told that we are failing as parents if our kids are bored. The result is that summer vacation and family holidays are now filled with camp, extra tutoring, sports programs, and music lessons. And even the smaller breaks throughout the day — time between appointments, on the school bus, waiting for a friend to arrive at the playground or restaurant, etc. — are now filled with checking email, news updates, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, really anything to keep us from being unoccupied. But the truth is that feeling bored can be a good thing. Maybe even essential.
The biological basis of boredom. When we are not stimulated, our brains do not produce dopamine – the neurochemical that makes us feel excited, motivated, and concentrated. Children, especially adolescents, are sensitive to dopamine. This leads us to feel what we describe as being bored. Boredom also includes a psychological state. We are not bored until we are dissatisfied, frustrated, or disinterested by our lack of stimulation. We don’t want to stay in this state indefinitely, but getting to a state of boredom is a great catalyst to change our current situation.
Boredom nurtures imagination and creativity. When my first two kids were little and I was heading back to work, I was worried about keeping them stimulated. I filled a closet with arts and crafts, games, and puzzles. Everything recommended by “best parents ever” kinds of authorities. I instructed our babysitter, Sonia, to selectively pull them out of hiding when they got bored. But it was the strangest thing. After many months, I noticed the cello wrap was still on all the boxes. Perturbed, I asked Sonia what was going on. “Kathy,” she said, “the kids need time to just be with themselves to really discover what they think and like and feel. They don’t need more from outside.” She was right. Countless studies have shown that people are more creative when they allow themselves to know boredom. It’s how our minds work: when we are bored, we daydream, and when we daydream, we are more creative. This creativity helps us remain flexible, adapt to new situations, and be happier.
Boredom motivates children to pursue new goals. How many of us have decided to develop a new hobby because we were bored, even just for a few minutes? No one likes the feeling of being bored, but it is a signal with great positive potential. When children are bored, they are motivated to try new things and pursue new goals. Without boredom, children may not have that “push” that motivates them to change what they are doing and develop projects that interest them. These skills are critical for development. And the best part, without being over-scheduled, kids can actually choose which things they want to try and what ambitions they want to pursue.
Boredom helps us find meaning in our lives. Like the old adage, we don’t know what we have until it is gone. Boredom not only encourages us to try new things, but it creates the context that allows us space to find pleasure and satisfaction. We each find excitement and boredom from different activities. Used effectively, boredom can spur us to find joy and purpose in our lives. In the article Let Children Get Bored Again, New York Times columnist Pamela Paul argues that boredom has the potential to stimulate self-sufficiency amongst children, contributing to a life of meaning and discovery.
Boredom encourages kids to be independent. Parents need to be ready for this! When we spend all of our time entertaining our children, they never learn how to entertain themselves. Yes, we need to be attentive to our kids, but sometimes that means actually leaving time and space for them to get bored. This means not filling our kids’ time to the brim with activities and not jumping in to tend to every need. Instead, allowing children to feel bored and giving them space to develop skills in response is critical to growing up and finding joy and purpose in their lives.
My kids are young adults now. They are in charge of their own calendars. Two are working. Two are at university. But when I still occasionally hear, “Mom, I’m bored,” I now smile and know that good things are happening.