As adults who were formerly children, we know the magic of childhood lies in its minimal responsibilities and abundance of free time. No doubt our youthful minds did not always know how to fill all that glorious free time. This trend continues today as children seek out their responsibility-laden parents with the time-honored declaration of, "I'm bored!" or “There’s nothing to do!”
In my household, the I-Don’t-Know-What-To-Dos usually erupt from two reasons. My son or daughter has either a). Just turned off whatever screen they were looking at or b). Just bid farewell to a playmate. They then aimlessly wander the house or sit, staring out into space, for approximately 30 seconds before the cringe-worthy, “I’m bored!” falls from their lips.
I used to snap into action, pulling out toys and rattling off ideas until my kids were appeased. But then I realized my knee-jerk reaction to entertain them came from a deep desire to stop their whining. If I wanted to break the cycle of a child whining about boredom and then me fixing it, then I had to reboot our system. So I changed my strategy, offering minimal help and then stepping away, asking my kids to quell the boredom inferno with their own ideas. Or at the very least (and very best), leave me out of it.
While this approach hasn’t spared me from hearing, "I’m bored!" ever again, it’s definitely reduced the number of times I hear the phrase and the expectations my kids have of me when saying it.
Here’s my three-step guide to a hands-off approach to boredom.
Become a master of boredom tolerance.
I knew that in order to succeed, I was the one that had to be okay with my kids being bored. I adopted the mindset that it wasn’t my job to solve this problem for them, and I focused on the benefit of them finding their own solutions. This meant they would have to navigate through the uncomfortable space of not knowing what to do. But this also meant they'd find new means of entertainment, eventually reaping the rewards of becoming their own problem solvers.
I often had to remind myself that it was okay for them to feel bored and to struggle with feeling this way. It’s okay for us, as parents, to battle as we watch them struggling. Yes, we might feel irritated and annoyed as they whine their way past frustration and towards a solution, but it would be worth it. At least that's what I kept telling myself. There's also lots of research that supports boredom, which can help.
I also admit to reading the entire Internet’s offerings on the search phrase, “Why it's okay for kids to be bored,” as a coping mechanism. Articles like this one about boredom from The Guardian gave me renewed strength when times got tough.
Give them a few suggestions, several of which are chores.
Initially, I offered my children zero suggestions of what to do, but then I saw more success with a different approach. I would give them a few minutes of undivided attention to discuss several options before putting the responsibility back on them and going about my business. It went something like this:
Me: Use your new paint set?
Me: Fold the laundry? Scrub the toilet?
Me: Give me 100 hugs and 20 kisses?
Me: Okay. Well, I know you’ll eventually figure it out. Love you! (Mom exits)
Sometimes I do have a great idea for them, but usually I’m not actually trying to help them. I’m just engaging with them to see if a little time connecting can change their mindset into one that’s more open to finding solutions. I was also hoping that my uninspired suggestions would encourage them not to come to me during fits of boredom, because “Ugh, Mom has such lame ideas, don’t even bother asking her.” Success!
Stop engaging in the ‘I’m bored’ battle altogether.
Have you acknowledged your child expressing their feeling of boredom? Did you give them a few suggestions of what to do? Have you given them a moment of your undivided attention? If you can answer yes to all of these, then your work is done. Even if you can't say yes to all of them, remember that it's not really your responsibility.
Stop engaging in the conversation. By continuing to participate and keep the conversation going, you’re giving your child something to do. It's not productive or enjoyable for either of you, though, so it's time to put a stop to it.
Does any of this actually help?
It took a few (hard) weeks, but putting this into practice did actually make a difference in my house. My children still complain to me that they’re bored, but they no longer wait for me to fix it. I would love to tell you that letting my children work through boredom independently leads to them inventing imaginative games or brilliant moments of creativity. While that does occasionally happen, my minimal engagement typically leads to them sulking on the couch. They'll do this for 10 minutes before stalking off to toss a football or read a book.
However, I find that as I continue to refrain from solving their boredom problems, I’m left out of the boredom rant completely. And this is exactly what my sanity requires. I also trust the process is growing their confidence in their problem-solving abilities and helping them learn to be okay in those moments that are filled with only themselves and wherever their minds choose to wander. And as this former child can tell you, that’s another really great part of childhood.