When we were growing up, complaints of “I’m bored!” were greeted with “Read a book!” or “Clean your room!”.
That was about the extent of the solution provided. Our parents expected us to amuse ourselves, and we did.
Things are different now. Many parents feel that every moment should be spent doing something constructive, rather than just letting children be.
Today’s children have so much more to ward off boredom – shelves filled with books, countless toys and every entertainment gadget available to mankind – yet they still whine that they are bored.
Child experts believe that children don’t get bored unless they have been conditioned to require constant external stimulation and entertainment.
Boredom is good
Louise Favaro, head of Student Services at Chatsworth International School, agrees. “When a child expresses boredom to the parent, it is viewed as a problem that needs to be fixed. Parents often fall into the trap of trying to appease their child’s every need, so when it comes to boredom, their response is to jump in and try to rescue the child from it.”
These parents, who feel responsible when their children are bored, tend to respond by giving them more structured activities.
But research indicates that this is actually counterproductive.
A never-ending diet of activities is as exhausting for children as it is for parents. Children need downtime to allow them to make sense of what they have learnt and experienced.
The more we don’t allow children to be bored, the more accustomed they get to being entertained, whether it is by a parent, caregiver or technology.
Expecting life to be a roller coaster of constant entertainment is not good preparation for the adult world. It’s only when kids are faced with boredom that they have the incentive to be resourceful and self-reliant.
What kids really need
Unstructured time allows children the opportunity to engage with themselves and the world – to imagine, invent and create. Children need to figure out how to use their free time or they will never learn to manage it.
The key then, is a balanced approach to battling boredom. Says Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist at Gleneagles Medical Centre: “If you provide excessive structure and activities for your child every minute of the day, he will lose the opportunity to explore his inner and outer world by himself.”
“Having downtime or unstructured time gives your child the time to think about his own feelings and to understand himself better. If you refrain from reacting when he says he’s bored, not only will he learn to explore his inner world, he will start to explore the outer world as well.”
“He will notice the things around him more, like observing ants on the ground. He will rely on his own creativity and imagination for play, such as using a ruler as a sword and stacking up books to form towers,” he adds.
Related: 5 ideas for open-ended play
Learn to do nothing
“The best way to help your child with boredom is to do nothing at all!” says Dr Lim. “Tolerating boredom is an important skill for your child to acquire. If you start fretting when your child is bored, this will only reinforce the complaints. Don’t react excessively. This way, the child will learn that boredom is something they can learn to cope with.”
Says Louise: “If you respond with, ‘That’s okay, there’s nothing wrong with being bored, I’m sure you’ll think of something to do’, she will probably go off and find something to do. She is now being encouraged to think in a different way and find something she likes to do.”
Limit screen time
To stimulate their imagination and develop creativity, children need free time to play and observe the world around them. Kids today don’t get much of a chance to entertain themselves, often because they have too much screen time.
Spending too much time on the computer, tablet or TV doesn’t help children learn to sidestep boredom.
“We overuse devices for entertainment and it’s a genuine problem,” says Louise. “If you always hand them a device to alleviate boredom, that’s what they’re always going to need. But parents can set limits on this.”
Still, it takes time for children to learn to keep busy on their own, simply because the concept is new to them.
Our children have been exposed to so much screen time that “they are not used to engaging in unstructured play”, says Dr Lim.
When parents first start putting limitations on screen time, it is common for kids to feel like there is a void, and they can even react with anger, says Louise.
“Tell them you understand they are unhappy, but don’t give in. When you ask them to do something that doesn’t involve a screen, you might need to do it with them at first, whether it’s an art project, science experiment or a game of cards. Once they realise they enjoy it, they are more likely to do something similar on their own, because they have experienced it with you.”
A version of this article first appeared in Simply Her.
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