What is boredom and how can we help support our children through it? Let’s unpack, shift, and live better, together.
We’ve all seen the negative stereotype of the schooled child on summer break, sitting at home surrounded by stuff and whining, “I’m bored!” while the disengaged parent hides and scours Pinterest for new pretty toys to distract them and Google for day camps to busy them.
But quickly filling in the space is not the solution. It’s an empty calorie, like eating a cheese puff when you’re hungry. It’s not good for you, it fills the space where something nutritive could have gone, and you’re hungry again in no time.
As with most of the good gems you read here, the solution is not a simple plugin but a shift in your relationship and lifestyle. But you can do it, and it will yield benefits across the board.
Presence, engagement, and support over leadership, instruction, and entertainment.
“I see you’re playing with stickers today. I’ll sit beside you and write.”
“Can I put this dinosaur sticker on your story? He wants to eat your words. Look out.”
“Yes. Over here in the margin so I can protect all my words. Do you know which words he thinks are yummy?”
We’re in shared space, engaging with each other, and I’m supporting his needs and play but I’m not creating the play myself and instructing him on what to do and how to do it. The most I offer is an invitation.
“I remembered how you were having me write down a dinosaur story you told me and I saw these dinosaur stickers that I thought you might enjoy. I’ll set them here on the table.”
In this case, “I’m bored” might really be, “I’m awaiting your instructions to follow.”
Freedom and trust over control
“Mommy, I’m taking my lion (puppy) and we’re going to patrol the jungle (yard). Have you seen my bucket in case we find treasure?”
“Okay. Yes, it’s right here on the shelf near the door. I’ll come outside and finish my lunch on the deck.”
He knows he has the freedom to explore the world and is confident using materials because we have honored and trusted his reaching toward independence from the beginning. In toddlerhood, they have a fiery passion for this and if you honor it then, it will grow into competent independence.
Here “I’m bored” might actually be, “You have closed all my doors to creativity and independence.”
Empathetic connection over fixing
“I slipped into the water and now my sock and shoe and pants are wet! I’m going to be cold and uncomfortable!”
“Aw, I hear you. You got wet and you didn’t anticipate that. Now you’re feeling uncomfortable. Let me know if you would like me to sit with you or if I can be of any help. I’ll be right here looking for seashells with your brother.”
He feels heard, he knows I’m there for him, and trusts in me as a helpful resource but I don’t rush in to make it all better. We can’t make life perfectly pleasurable every minute for our children because life is full of a wide and valuable range and depth of experiences and feelings. The ability to tolerate imperfection is a gift you can give your children simply by tolerating imperfection. It’s okay to feel uncomfortable. It’s often even good (and leads to tremendous growth), if you can tolerate it.
“Mommy, I can’t remember my starting note and is this the right chord for that bar and do I look okay?”
“I’m noticing a wave of anxiety. Let’s sit together and feel it and breathe through it for a few minutes.”
“Will you hold my hand?”
“Yes.” (breathing slowly and quietly)
“Okay, will you give me my starting note and then I think I’m good. I’m going to wait over with my friends.”
I’m not trying to make the anxiety go away or solve all the problems. I’m just connecting.
An “I’m bored” from this space might be, “I’m following your formula and this is the part where you fix the discomfort.”
Open space over busyness
“The man who was working on the roof crushed some of our sand dollars and moon snail shells that were decorating the walkway. Can we walk down to the beach and collect some more?”
“Yes.” (You can read more about Finding the Quality Yes right here).
Since my kids know our every day is not packed with agenda items, they feel no pressure to be in a constant state of high speed processing and are empowered to get to know and trust themselves enough to have ownership of their time. Productivity and busyness are not more valuable (as unschoolers, we live this value fully). If you own their time, they will have to wait for you to manage it. If your children really did own their time, what do you fear your children will do/not do? Peel that back and dissect it. This is a big source of sabotage on the parenting front that creates boredom in children. If you deem their pursuits unworthy and do not see the value in them, neither will they.
And so, “I’m bored” might really be, “I don’t know how to do what you want me to do right now.”
Materials over Toys that do the playing
“Mommy I need some duct tape and PVC.”
“Write it on the list and we’ll pick it up the next time we’re at a store.”
Boxes, packing tape, scissors, markers, string, magnets, etc. These are the types of materials that children can use endlessly. A toy that sings when you push a button is a one trick pony (maybe literally), cluttering up your space and not allowing for passion, discovery, and creation to rise when inspired. One key here is to choose things that are of interest to your specific child. Your daughter might want a bench full of tools instead of a toy crib full of dolls. I’m not recommending more (I actually recommend less), but different.
“I’m bored” here might actually be, “I don’t have what I need to follow my interests.”
Adventures and Experiences over Structured Activities
“What would you like to learn or experience?” (More on how to harness the potential of this question in the Bucket System right here.)
“I want to feel a snake.”
A few weeks later, we were at a hands-on reptile zoo with friends, where he was free to explore, read, listen, touch, and interact with a variety of reptilian life and habitats . . . or stand back and observe from a distance. It’s self-directed, natural learning at it’s finest. And one wonderful byproduct of self-directed learning is your child directs themselves.
In this case, “I’m bored” might really be, “I’m not allowed to direct myself.”
Honestly, I don’t think my kids have ever said they were bored. We’re sometimes off on adventures with a pack of friends and other times we’re laying in a hammock looking at clouds. Yesterday we took a ferry to an island with friends where we tapped into some mentorship from an Alpaca farmer on a farm and explored an abandoned military base, lighthouse, and driftwood beach. Today we are leisurely at home. As I type this, 2 kids are playing Minecraft together and 1 kid is learning to play the guitar through You Tube (read more about screen time limits right here) (I believe I hear Rip Tide at the moment). My puppy is napping on my feet, the fresh breeze is blowing in through the open windows, and the bald eagles are noisily chatting. Oh Sky just walked into the great room and said, “You know what my intentions are for the day today? To finish my Maximum Ride book and write some fan fiction as a script.” Right on buddy. Do you.