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Should we let our kids be bored?

Should we let our kids be bored?

by Justin Coulson | February 20, 2019

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bored greg westfall / Flickr

Recently, there has been a groundswell of popular opinion extolling the value and importance of letting your kids be bored. A New York Times article argued, 

Boredom teaches us that life isn’t a parade of amusements. More important, it spawns creativity and self-sufficiency.’ The popular arguments are that kids are overscheduled these days; life is too busy; it’s not your job to entertain your children; there’s no downtime anymore.

It’s tempting to jump on the boredom bandwagon and encourage everyone to stop stimulating their kids with so many opportunities, gizmos, and classes. Enough enrichment already!

But I can’t. It’s bad blanket advice, and the research bears that out. Here’s what it tells us.

Boredom Makes Us Feel Bad

While “experts” claim that being bored will teach our kids to figure out how to amuse themselves, be creative, and just get on with it, there isn’t any actual evidence to support that idea. In fact, after a detailed search of PSYCinfo, a leading psychology research paper database, I haven’t found a single study where boredom in our kids was studied at all.

I’m not sure where these experts are getting their data from, but it doesn’t seem to be science.

What data does exist comes from adult or young-adult studies. But even assuming these adult studies should be applied to our kids, there is still another problem: they support the opposite conclusion—that boredom is unpleasant and unsatisfying, and leaves those suffering it with a craving for relief.

In fact, boredom is so powerful that in one study, participants who were forced to spend time alone, only with their thoughts, were willing to self-administer electric shocks rather than deal with the boredom. Pain was preferable to the problem of boredom!

Boredom is Associated with Negative Outcomes

Worse even than how boredom makes us feel is how it affects us over time. Boredom is associated with negative outcomes and well-being and can lead us to make unhealthy and unsafe choices.

Specifically, research indicates that students who are bored perform poorly at school, are at risk for shallow information processing (when we only remember things for a short time), have low attentiveness, and put in less effort. There is even an increased likelihood of quitting school altogether in the later years.

Teens who are often bored are also 50% more likely than their peers to take up smoking, drinking, and illegal drugs. And it is one of the most frequent triggers for binge eating.

Adults who are prone to boredom have an increased risk of depression and anxiety, and a diminished sense of life satisfaction and purpose. They also drive at higher speeds and take longer to respond to unexpected hazards on the road.

Being bored is NOT good for our health.

The Argument: Boredom Leads to Creativity

There has been limited research that indicates how boredom can lead to creativity. And anecdotally, as parents, we know this is true. Think about a bored three-year-old who gets his hands on the permanent markers, or a bored five-year-old who finds a pair of scissors and fancies a mohawk on his little sister, or even a bored 15-year-old who thinks he could probably manage to drive the car up and down the driveway.

Being bored can lead to creative outcomes. But whether they are positive, safe, and healthy creative outcomes is dependent on the personality of the bored person. People with high levels of self-control may motivate themselves to find optimal creative outlets for their boredom. But not everyone responds to boredom wisely. There are clear individual differences that make boredom adaptive for some people and maladaptive for others. Environmental factors almost certainly play a part as well. (As an aside, I got up to more mischief as a teen when I was bored than I ever did when I was occupied. Boredom spurred action that was not enriching, safe, or wise.)

And what about our young kids? A bored preschooler will certainly express his “creativity” differently than an older child or a teen. We cannot expect them to perform well in a situation they are not developmentally ready for.

Should We Let Them Be Bored?

It seems that whenever we have an issue, opinions become polemic. ‘Uber-parents’ that over-stimulate and over-schedule their kids are overdoing it. There is plenty of evidence that this is not helpful for our kids. So now others have created this argument that children need to be bored.

Neither extreme is healthy. Neither extreme is optimal. 

I suggest a more moderate approach. Evidence supports enriching activities for our children. These activities add purpose and meaning to life. They add color and clarity. They build competence, capability, and competence. They offer opportunities to explore and expand relationships. We should encourage a wise level of participation. (And if our child is passionate about participating in an activity, and it leads to genuine recreation, we should continue to encourage them!)

Parents who are intentional about their children’s well-being will recognize the value of “downtime.” But note, this is not boredom. Downtime is a time where activities are not scheduled, and where device usage is reduced. During downtime, children can autonomously choose how to recreate themselves. Recreation comes from the Latin, recreare, and literally means create again, renew. Since it’s not 1983, and we typically no longer let them recreate themselves by riding their bikes around the neighborhood, we can foster their recreation by having playdates, or setting up a table for painting and drawing, pulling out the Lego box, providing a smorgasbord of books, or inviting their creativity in the kitchen. A playhouse, a sandpit, and shovels, or a box of dress-up clothes can be well utilized when we allow things to slow down for our children.  

In short, we can offer them unstructured time where they can recreate themselves. This doesn’t mean that they have an activity every afternoon, but that they have the space, time, and opportunity to develop the emotional and cognitive resources that will enable them to pursue their own creative interests in a safe and beneficial way.

Moreover, we would do well to remember that screen usage degrades the quality of life and relationships. We should set wise limits around screen access, based on what our child wants to do on the screen and what other priorities exist in his or her life, so that life is balanced and whole.  

Easy downtime is certainly not the same as unrelenting boredom, and there are absolutely no benefits to thrusting boredom on them. In contrast, slowing down and being intentional about recreational time is tremendously valuable. And providing our children with the skills to adapt and be resourceful when they have nothing to do is important.

Let’s stop pushing our kids too hard or giving them something to swipe or stare at every time they complain that they lack stimulation. But let’s also stop encouraging boredom. There’s no evidence to support it. And what evidence does exist suggests it’s harmful.

Dr. Justin Coulson is a bestselling author, husband, and father of 6. His new book is 10 Things Every Parent Needs to Know. Republished with permission from the Institute for Family Studies blog

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