The Power of Boredom - Why Letting Your Kids Get Bored Is Sometimes A Great Idea

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I used to never allow myself to get bored. Whether I was exercising, folding laundry, emptying the dishwasher, or even answering nature’s call, I was entertained. This would normally involve playing with my phone, putting on a TV show in the background, or listening to music, a podcast or an audiobook. There was a time when one’s mind was allowed to wander, but now, with a world of entertainment available to us at all times as easily as pulling out a phone, boredom is now exceptional, abnormal. 


How Jogging Taught me the Power of Boredom
I thought this was a good thing—that time spent bored was time wasted. But then I started jogging. I found the act of jogging to be, well, boring and so I would pass the time by listening to music or podcasts or even dictating rough drafts of articles like this one into Voice Memo. Then a friend who is a running coach told me to try jogging without any additional entertainment. Ugh, I thought, that makes the prospect of my 30-minute jog sound like work. She explained to me how beneficial mental downtime is to stimulate the mind. When your mind wanders, she said, it looks for ways to be engaged. The mind doesn’t like to be bored, which is why we’re always turning on external entertainments. But when it is bored, it clicks into a more active mode. You’ll see, she said. 

And so I tried it. And it was just as she said. I’d begin jogging and, for the first ten minutes or so, I would space out, my eyes rolling, thinking about all the other things I’d rather be doing. Then I’d suddenly notice that I had new ideas popping into my mind: a new article, a book concept. I’d up my pace to get home in time to write down all these new ideas that had come to me, magically, while jogging. And then I realized, doing this day after day, that it was the positive effect of allowing my mind to wander, undistracted. I was empowered through boredom.

Why a Bored Child is an Inspired Child
Which brings me to my children, 5- and 7-year-old girls. My liberal parenting conscience does not want to allow them to get bored. I feel, subconsciously, like I’m somehow failing them if I’m not either proactively engaged with them myself or setting them up in some way to be otherwise engaged, teeing up their drive, as it were. Just leaving them to their own devices feels unacceptable. You know what? Doing just that can be a great benefit, and a decent measure of allowing our own kids to get bored does them a favor. There’s a danger to remaining too passive, in childhood and later in life, if everything is handed to you, even entertainment. My instinct tells me to either play with my kids whenever I can, or to suggest what they should play when I cannot. But this requires no imagination on their part. It is boredom that triggers the imagination. We idealize the imagination in children, but how can we stimulate it? One of the ways we can do so, and truly help our children, is by being occasionally more passive than our conscience might first deem acceptable. Perhaps you’ve seen the scene repeated as I have? It goes like this: “Dad, I don’t know what to do.” My daughter means this literally, not existentially. I can immediately think of a dozen things. I could imagine just reminding her that there are dozens of toys and puzzles and books in the playroom. I could set her up with a game or a movie. I could stop what I’m doing to play or to read to her. My liberal parenting instinct, like a legless creature within me, squirms around urging me to do something proactive. But I restrain myself and say, “I hear you, but it’s good to sometimes have to figure out for yourself what you should do or play next. If someone else were to always give you suggestions, you would never try to invent games on your own.” And then I exit the room and go back to whatever I was doing before.


The inevitable result is that my daughter whines for a minute, lies on the couch looking up at the ceiling, moans slightly, exhales deeply…and a minute later she’s come up with her own solution and is off playing. What she and her sister play in these moments is often more engrossing, for longer periods of time, than whatever I might’ve suggested. It’s because they kids figured it out themselves. They dipped into their imaginations and solved a problem (“I’m bored”) and are embracing their solution. They embrace it more energetically because it is theirs. They have ownership of it, it is their solution. This is a professor’s trick—it’s better to lead students to come to a conclusion themselves rather than tell them the conclusion and say, “memorize it.” The act of concluding, of inventing reinforces the solution and empowers. My kids are also more likely to commit to the new game they invented out of boredom, because they took the effort to come up with it, and therefore value it more than something handed to them. It’s the old “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” It’s the same with a hunger to be entertained. Tell your kids what to play, and they’ll play for an hour. Help your kids invent what to play themselves and they’ll be entertained for a lifetime.

My discovery of boredom while jogging, and how it unlocked my own imagination and creativity, has led me to encourage my kids to do the same when it comes to playing. Boredom can lead to the superpower of self-sufficiency and a strengthened imagination in children, too.

Noah Charney is a professor and best-selling, Pulitzer-nominated author of more than a dozen books. This article is an excerpt from his first parenting book, Superpower Your Kids: A Professor’s Guide to Teaching Your Children Everything in Just 15 Minutes a Day, which is available as a limited edition on Kickstarter. Don't forget to check out his Kickstarter here.

1 comment:

  1. Great ideas, all these are really helpful for parents and kids

    ReplyDelete