Psychologists and child development experts suggest tempering our parental anxieties and excessive attentions, and allowing children to discover for themselves what really interests them.
“Healthy adulthood involves occupying our time with productive activities that make us happy. And this is what we have to teach our children,” says Lyn Fry, child psychologist in London.
According to the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, “the experience of restlessness allows the child to grow” as boredom makes it possible to contemplate life, to look around and discover one’s curiosity about new things, instead of just going from one organized activity to another, without thinking. A child needs to have the free time – empty of schedules and amusements – to discover what proves particularly interesting to him or her. Boredom is crucial to this discovery.
Dr. Cristiana De Ranieri, clinical psychologist of the Bambino Gesù Hospital in Rome, says, “Our children often have a super-occupied life. The very idea that they can experience moments of boredom and emptiness seems to frighten modern parents. Parents think this would be a sign of neglect, a non-fulfillment of children’s lives. But if children have everything, they do not access their own imaginations, desires and curiosities; they become less cognizant of what they truly like.”
She shares these practical tips with Aleteia:
- Say “Yes” to boredom!
Having a chance to get bored will help your child grow. Our “never-a-dull-moment” culture does not allow children to know how to find something that interests them on their own. Often such discoveries greatly impact future educational, career and hobby interests. They also keep the mind in motion.
- Keeping things simple can be good
Help children “recharge” after scheduled, planned out activities. Allow kids time to do nothing, and then, encourage them to do simple, structureless things like playing with grandma; drawing; dancing to music; rediscovering old toys to be used in new ways.
- Do not be afraid of free time
Children have a different sense of time than we do and if parents make sure there are interesting things about (like seashells, empty papers, puzzle books) curiosity and creativity are given room, and time to develop.
- Ask your child, “What do you like to do” as opposed to offering specific activities.
Equally important is to encourage the child to think about what he or she would do with free time. This encourages the sharing of thought, expression of interests unprompted by the parent. It eliminates the temptation for the child to try to please with his or her answer.
- Create something together
Every parent knows what it is like to buy a toy for their kids only to see the box it came in get all of their attention. Embrace it. Encourage your kids to turn a box into a spaceship, or two chairs and a sheet into a hide-out, and then let them do it, even if it musses a room. Help them where needed and then let them control it. This creates opportunities to share pleasant parent-child time in a relaxed, unstructured way during which there is no “right” or “wrong” way to play.
Intelligence and stimulus
Is a child whose mind is allowed free time like this likely to become smarter than another? De Ranieri observes, “It is not the ‘amount’ of intelligence that distinguishes the children, but the activity of a mind, how a child works with time and tools as they are encountered. A mind trained to seek out newness on its own, and that is stimulated by different intellectual and playful activities is one that develops flexibility, and a very observant and ‘active’ intelligence.”
Of course, one cannot simply leave children to their own devices all the time, doing nothing or only what particularly pleases them. Balance is the key. Parents do well to provide for their children a broad access to educational and enriching experiences, including physical activities, group sports, lots of family time, and generous interaction with other children, older people, nature, and spirituality. The point is to encourage curiosity and mental stimulation without suffocating, and also to back off enough to allow their minds the time and space to wonder.