Don’t hand your child a gadget the next time they’re bored; boredom encourages kids to develop valuable character traits. It’s okay to let your child be bored!
Parents often cringe when they hear their kids say those two dreaded words – “I’m bored!” The common reaction is to panic and figure out what activity you can rustle up to keep your child entertained. Or give in to a few more minutes on their favourite gadget, even though they’ve already used up their allotted time for the day. Believe it or not, the most appropriate thing to do here is actually to let your child be bored!
Let Them Be Bored?
Parents need to change their mindset first and foremost from feeling guilty or responsible for their child being bored to seeing boredom as an wonderful opportunity for their child.
− Dr Natalie Games, Psychologist
Absolutely! Most of us grew up without 24/7 television or gadgets to keep us busy. We often spent hours on end doing nothing and grew up just fine, didn’t we? On the contrary, kids these days have constant external stimulation. As a result, they often don’t know what to do with themselves when they’re bored. Parents should encourage kids to spend some time doing nothing and not constantly feel the need to keep them occupied.
Psychologist Dr Natalie Games of Alliance Professional Counselling says, “Ensuring that your child’s home environment is one which focuses less on external stimulus, material possessions or stimulation and more on creativity and self-reliance will enable those unstructured times to be more fulfilling as your child’s mind starts to wander and they take initiative to think for themselves.”
Being bored is an essential part of childhood and there are actually many benefits that come out of boredom. We list a few below.
It Encourages Self-awareness
It’s the inner quiet that children experience in boredom that helps them to develop self-awareness. Allowing our mind to wander from time to time is important for everybody’s mental well-being and functioning.
“Children need time to themselves so they can tune out from overstimulation of the outside world,” says Dr Games. “They need time to daydream and allow their own thoughts and occupations to follow pathways as they discover their own personal interests and gifts.”
This applies to all children. They do not need to have a specific talent or intellectual inclination to benefit from boredom.
It Builds Time-management and Decision-making Skills
It is when children have unstructured time that they have to learn how to manage it.
“Our children learn how long things take and develop decision-making skills to organise their time and plan well,” says Dr Games. “When we gain greater control of our time, we gain greater control and a greater sense of satisfaction with all areas of our life. In fact, studies show that people who manage their time well report feeling happier.”
It Promotes Creativity
Boredom stimulates a child’s imagination, leading them to develop creativity and problem-solving strategies. Children who enjoy just pottering around will not grow up with the expectation that they should be constantly stimulated, busy or entertained.
“As electronics are designed to produce a little ‘dopamine’ reward in our brains when we interact with them, this means that children receive instant enjoyment/gratification so other experiences or the time taken to engage and enjoy them may pale in comparison,” Dr Games explains. “It’s important to limit screen time for numerous reasons and one being to allow their mind to wander into creative pursuits.”
It Fuels Imagination
When kids aren’t engaged in planned activities, it puts them at the door of their inner world of imagination. This allows them to develop it in various directions.
“Leave them alone to deal with their own boredom and they’ll soon create new lyrics for a familiar tune. They might imagine themselves managing a soccer team or invent a new riddle or joke. This is the beginning of creativity, a world beyond imagination,” says Mdm Jean XM Chen, director and psychotherapist at Relationship Matters.
It Fosters Independence and Autonomy
When kids learn how to circumvent their boredom, they learn to self-engage and aren’t afraid of being alone. It can also build a quiet assurance of being able to rely on oneself, which fosters a sense of independence.
“Of course, you need to balance this with sufficient companionship and engagement with others. Otherwise it may lead to a sense of neglect, abandonment or isolation,” says Mdm Chen.
Allowing children to decide what to do with their own boredom may also give a sense of autonomy. Now they can have control over their environment and activity, rather than passively attend structured routines.
It Prevents Overstimulation
It can get stressful if we live our lives following the train of thought that having downtime, staring into space or being alone with nothing to do are bad things. In fact, having these ‘blanks’ as part of our everyday lives reduces overstimulation. This actually lowers stress levels. And this is especially relevant for children in the 21st century, who often lead overly stimulated lives thanks to the plethora of gadgets they use.
“If we can allow our kids to experience downtime as part and parcel of their daily lives, it can put the brakes on having an over-simulated lifestyle in adulthood. That overwhelming sense of having to be productive every moment and not wasting time can be stressful,” Mdm Chen explains.
(See also: Grow Your Child’s Sense of Grit)
It Improves Powers of Observation
When kids are left to be bored and not expected to be focused on a particular learning point, they are free to use all their senses to observe and engage with the external world.
Picture this – you’re driving, on your way to a fun-filled family trip, and your kids are busy on their devices. They could lose themselves in the latest games or tunes, not paying much attention to their surroundings. But imagine how much more they could be exposed to and learn if they were instead just sitting in the car, looking out of the window.
Mdm Chen elaborates: “A child plugged into music is directed to learning the melody or the content of the song. They are limited to learning just these two things. If the child is left alone to stare and space out in the car, the possibilities are endless. They could be observing the scenes outside the window, making sense of how cars work, wondering how rain forms puddles along the road, how Daddy and Mummy drive differently, discovering how the clouds in the sky look like shapes of animals and so on. Now they have the chance to explore and discover their environment. They get to observe and make their own interpretations of anything under the sun.”
It Benefits Parents Too
Helping your child learn how to self-engage allows you to attend to your own space. Mdm Chen says that taking a vacant hour can be that stress-buster and space you need. You’re also better equipped to respond to the needs of your child simultaneously.
Being able to take some time away from constantly occupying your kids can also mean some crucial couple time. Maintaining a healthy marriage is vital to the family’s level of happiness and children’s sense of security.
At the end of the day, these unstructured times allow your child to develop important qualities such as curiosity, perseverance, playfulness, confidence, resilience, observation, focus and concentration, grit, determination, problem-solving, self-reliance, independence and competence. And all these make for easier parenting!
No Time Like the Present
The upcoming school holidays is a good time to start practising this theory. If your kids often find it difficult to entertain themselves, Dr Games suggests writing up a list together of ideas in advance. Suggest activities that can be done inside and outside, activities that are creative, artistic, physical, etc.
These include writing a card, letter or postcard to a relative or friend, building a fort or castle, dancing to music, writing in a diary or journal, starting a collection, learning a magic trick or card game, or just lying somewhere and watching the shapes clouds make. Oh, and…
“If your child can read, read and read… then there is never ‘nothing’ to do!” says Dr Games.