My mother had a consistent and clear response to me and my two siblings when we complained of being bored: “If you’re bored, I’ll give you something better to do.” We quickly figured out we were better off finding something to do ourselves than ending up with chores.
I didn’t necessarily repeat this strategy verbatim when I became a parent many years later. I came to understand that sometimes the wail of “I’m bored!” was code for another need including loneliness or sadness – feelings that beg a different response than the job jar.
But the lesson that my mother modeled for me – don’t rush to entertain your children in the face of boredom – was a powerful one.
It turns out that in our haste to find boredom busters for our children, we actually rob the brain of essential downtime and opportunities for creative thinking associated with the wandering mind. While we connect boredom with inactivity, the brain is often far from quiet.
Instead of being afraid of boredom, embrace its many brain benefits, such as…
Being constantly barraged with external stimulation is exhausting for the brain. Downtime allows our children to recover from this “cognitive overload” and to recharge executive functioning skills. This isn’t to say that our children should sit on the couch and stare at the wall all day, but 10 minutes of daydreaming and doing nothing is sometimes just what they need to be ready for what comes next. Heck, your brain could benefit from a little boredom too. Next time you are tempted to scroll through your social media feed in line at the grocery store, give yourself permission to just stare at the wall and let your mind wander.
Imagination and creativity.
The latest research shows that our brain doesn’t go into low gear when we aren’t actively engaged. Instead, the activity shifts to the imagination and creativity parts of the brain. Have you ever come up with a great idea in the shower? Thank your brain for wandering towards a creative solution.
It might seem counterintuitive that while your mind is wandering, your brain is busily considering future directions and goals. It turns out though that mind wandering is generally quite future focused and can actually help children with choices about what to do next.
Some researchers believe that when we are bored, we work to seek out meaning elsewhere. A group in Ireland found that people were more likely to seek out prosocial behaviors to help regain a sense of meaning in their lives. So, an occasional dose of boredom might be just what your child needs.
Of course, organized activities like sports, theater, arts, and music provide great benefits to kids, and chronic boredom can lead to a host of other challenges. But every once in a while, consider letting your child sit with nothing to do – it may be just what their brain needs to be more inspired by what comes next.
How To Respond to Calls of ‘I’m bored!’
- Avoid rushing in with a prepackaged solution, organized activity, or app.
- Ask questions to get to the bottom of the feeling. Try “What do you mean when you say that?” Parenting coach Christine Carter reminds us that sometimes children use “bored” as code for lonely or sad. This is all the more reason not to rush in with a solution. Instead, you might pivot to a conversation about those feelings or simply invite your child to work alongside you for a bit.
- Create space and time for children to come up with their own ideas for what to do next. This may mean having some materials around to prime the creative pump (for little kids this could be as simple as paint and cardboard). What they do next is up to them.
- Prompt a dialogue if your child seems truly stuck in coming up with their own ideas after a while. For example, “Who is your favorite Pokemon again? What is their power?”
- And remember, nurturing free play throughout the year will help your child learn how to make their own fun.
About the Authors
Erin Walsh, M.A., is a dynamic, knowledgeable speaker who has addressed a wide range of audiences on topics related to brain development and raising resilient young people in the digital age. Erin was instrumental to the development of the MediaWise movement and enjoyed working with her father, Dr. David Walsh, for 10 years at the National Institute on Media and the Family before creating Mind Positive Parenting together in 2010 and then Spark & Stitch Institute in 2019.
David Walsh, Ph.D., is an award winning psychologist, best-selling author, and international speaker. In 1995, he founded the internationally renowned National Institute on Media and the Family, which he led until 2010. In 2011 he founded Mind Positive Parenting to translate cutting edge brain science to everyday practice for parents, teachers and other professionals.