The Gift of Boredom

By By Carol Barnier

A 10–year–old boy takes a mental survey of his “electronic entertainment” options in a matter of seconds. Uninterested, he snaps the power button to “off” and tosses the gadget onto the couch with an exasperated sigh. He leans forward and flips open a magazine on the coffee table in front of him. No good. Another sigh. He rises and looks out the window at his sled that is leaning against the tree and half–buried in snow. “Too much work,” he thinks.

As he saunters through the kitchen, he grabs a pretzel and moves past the cupboard where the family keeps all the board games. So yesterday. Ever since the computer had gone on the fritz earlier in the morning, this child had become a never–ending stream of sighs.


Wait for it. You knew it was only a matter of time.

“Mo–om …”

He finally catches up with you in the laundry room. He schlumphs himself across the washing machine. “Mom … ,” (here it comes!) “I'm bored.”

Boom. There it is. Those dreaded words: the I'm–bored declaration signifying that your child's brain is losing power, slowly fading, and is in immediate need of a quick injection of mental stimulation. When that happens, what does he do? He turns to you. Why? Because you're the mom. You have ideas. You have solutions. You have an inexhaustible supply of interesting possibilities to save this child from a fate of a vanilla ice cream day in a world of fudge ripple possibilities.

Don't get me wrong. Your child seeking mental stimulation is not a bad thing. I'd even argue that it's good. A mind at rest . . . frankly, should be asleep. So I agree with him. If he's awake, something interesting should be going on in those brain cells. No argument there. But here's the problem. Once a child makes that fearsome pronouncement, it seems to set off alarms in us: “Oh, no! Not the dreaded brain boredom. Whatever shall we do?” And we leap into action, coming up with a litany of possibilities to stem the tide of the rising boredom.

Many of us have bought into the relatively recent and trendy lie that good parenting involves providing an unending stream of interesting activities for our children: museums, craft projects, science experiments, music lessons. These are all good things, and I won't tell you that you should not include such activities in your child's life. But there's another very important activity that you should regularly make sure your child is blessed to experience: boredom.

You heard me. There's a wonderful thing that happens to a child when he is permitted a large window of unplanned time. First, he becomes bored, which he isn't going to see as wonderful at all. Next, he will most likely whine, which you won't see as wonderful at all. But then, after some time passes, if you let the boredom really take hold, the most amazing thing happens: his brain kicks into gear.

You can trust this next universal force: he will not permit himself to be bored forever. He eventually begins to utilize a weak and seldom worked muscle: his imagination. He creates his own interesting activity. Suddenly he's making machines and devising situations and creating new games by using the power of his own mind and hands. That is … he will if you don't jump in and provide them with a mom–created activity.

If you feel compelled to step up and hand him something to do without letting him create his own interesting activity, you rob him of several things:

  • The power of knowing that he need never, ever, ever be bored. It is not something that happens to him. Rather, it is something that he allows. And just as easily, he has the power to stop it.
  • You make him a passive consumer. If he believes that interesting things happen only when other people make them happen, he will never be a do–er, leader, shaker, and mover. Passive is the stuff of followers.
  • You take away the extraordinary delight than can be found only in the world of imaginary play.

Before the days of TV, boredom used to be a natural phenomenon. Two hundred years ago, when a child's homework was done, chores were finished, and other family members were busy, what could he do? He learned to tap into his brain's diversionary ability early and often. But today, the flip of a simple switch can spoon–feed him an endless supply of diversions that, while interesting, are nonetheless passive and completely dependent on someone else's imagination.

When I began to realize we had a problem, I would make lofty pronouncements. If my child told me he was bored, I'd loudly proclaim: “A bored person is actually an indication of a boring person, and I did not give birth to any boring people. So shoo. Go be interesting.”

But it wouldn't be long before the complaining child reluctantly selected a computer game, so I developed a new strategy. If my child uttered the words “I'm bored,” I would instantly declare a BOREDOM DAY. That meant NO computer, NO television, NO electronics of any kind. Let the whining begin. And begin it did. But I stuck to my guns. I wouldn't allow any electronic injection of someone else's creativity, and I wouldn't play the “Here's–an–idea–game” where I would rattle off activity after activity only to have a sullen child reject them one by one until I was exhausted.

Nope. I just let him wallow. And then … it would happen. His own boredom would eventually propel him toward something mildly interesting, then adequately intriguing, then suddenly compelling and fascinating.

What are some things my kids have done when immense boredom gave way to bursts of creativity?

  • Created their own runes–looking type language
  • Learned Elvish (You have to be a Lord of the Rings fan to care or even understand this one.)
  • Created a medieval village with blocks and boxes (complete with stables, blacksmith, prison, convent and gong farmer)
  • Created a cause–and–effect machine that took up the entire bedroom (a marble starts at the beginning and as it proceeds through the contraption, it then taps something, which makes something else move, which taps the first of a set of dominoes, which fall, the last of which makes something else move, etc.)
  • Dug up hundreds of worms to add to my garden
  • Using all the stuffed animals in the house, created an animal rescue center in the basement, complete with triage area, surgical room, and training grounds
  • Wrote a small book
  • Composed a song on the piano
  • Made rubber band guns and created a target range
  • Cooked up his own original dish

You may not be brave enough to go cold turkey like this and remove all electronics, but how about taking some baby steps? Give your child a heads up about what's coming. Let him know that there are now repercussions to uttering the words “I'm bored.”

If he forgets and lets the phrase slip, tell him …

  • You will find some important cleaning task that will occupy his time while his brain finds something better to do. (Stick to your plan. He must complete the chore before he is permitted the luxury of going off on his own and being interesting.)
  • You will provide something for him to do, but the deal is he must do it–none of this providing a long list of things he yawns about and dismisses.
  • That you're not really ready to do a whole non–electronic day, but you'll be happy to have him go an hour or two with no technology–inspired busyness.

We need to let go of the idea that boredom is to be feared. On the contrary, we should seek it out, even orchestrate it if necessary. You could even just declare a boredom day out of the blue. (Feel the parental power.)

Just as you would put together an activity that would use and develop their muscles, so you should also put together activities that will use and develop their imaginations. And amazingly, one of the best vehicles with which to deliver this gift of imaginative play rides in on the wings of an unlikely candidate: utter and profound boredom.

Carol Barnier, author of three books, is a popular conference speaker who is known for mixing serious topics with equally serious humor. Learn more at www.CarolBarnier.com or http://www.sizzlebop.com/.

Copyright, 2012. Used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, January 2012. Read this digital, interactive magazine free by visitingwww.TOSMagazine.com or read on your Kindle Fire or Apple and Android devices by downloading the free TOS apps.