One morning, my 4-year-old son woke up and asked for his iPad — before he even gave me a proper greeting. I was floored and quickly told him no. Once he finished his meltdown over my refusal to allow him to stick his face in a screen fresh out of bed, he looked up at me and complained, "I'm bored."
I smiled and responded, "It's perfectly OK to be bored sometimes." In fact, I think that kids should be bored every once in a while. In today's fast-paced, technology-driven world, boredom is a foreign feeling to most kids because us parents seem to be under constant pressure to keep them entertained. But the beauty of boredom is that it teaches kids to entertain themselves. And learning how to banish the "nothing to do" feeling is a necessary life skill that sets children up for the reality of adulthood.
Alice Ann Holland, Ph.D., ABPP is a clinical neuropsychologist at Children's Health and assistant professor at UT Southwestern, in Dallas, said boredom is an essential part of brain development. "Dealing with boredom helps children learn to tolerate frustration and regulate their emotions," she said. "As any adult knows, those are huge factors for success in life." It's especially important for kids who are starting school. For most kids, school is not naturally exciting, so they need to learn to cope with boredom in order to reach their academic potential. "You don't want a child to be trying to learn how to tolerate boredom while also trying to learn multiplication," said Dr. Holland.
When I think back on my own childhood, I can remember sitting in my house and feeling bored. If I complained to my parents, they never jumped up and found ways to entertain me. Instead, they encouraged me to find something to do. Read a book. Clean my room. Go play in the yard. Some of my favorite childhood memories arose from the quest to entertain myself. Being bored also helped me develop communication skills as I learned to interact with my peers. Some of my oldest friendships developed from meeting other kids in the neighborhood who were just as bored as I was. We bonded over the need to make our own fun.
These days, when my son says he's bored, I don't drop everything I'm doing. Even if he whines and complains, I know that before long he'll find a way to navigate the feeling. I'm often surprised by how creative he gets. He'll construct a whole city of superheroes or grab his doctor gear and work on imaginary patients, right on our living room floor. If I stuck him in front of a screen or whipped up an exciting craft for us to do together, these moments of creativity would never happen.
Dealing with boredom is not only important for my son, but it's also important for me and my husband. Parenting in the information age is filled with pressure, stress, and anxiety. It's completely exhausting. As we try to juggle work, household responsibilities, and all our family's activities, there are days when we're just too tired to entertain. And, let's face it, sometimes our ideas of fun just aren't the coolest. It's important that our kids know how to occupy themselves when mom and dad are running on empty.
I think it's so important to teach our kids how to cope with emotions. Allowing them to be bored and help themselves through it is just one way to set them up to handle the tougher feelings and emotions they'll experience as they grow up. "Children need freedom to relax and have time to themselves just like adults do. This supports normal brain development, and, in particular, emotional functioning," said Dr. Holland. When it comes to being bored, I would rather listen to my kids whine and complain than rescue them from the feeling any day. At least I know I'm setting them up to handle all the emotional ups and downs of life when they're on their own as adults.