Kids learn invaluable lessons about life and virtue when we let them be bored. Here's how to embrace that as parents!
Ah, summer. That time of year that lives in our imaginations as an idyllic, sun-bathed, relaxing break from the daily grind … accompanied by an endless soundtrack loop of “Mom, I’m bored.”
Every summer, I’ve responded to this in different ways. Several years ago, I decided to take every expression of boredom as an opportunity to do some activity or other with my kids. That lasted about four days before the craft-and-baking mess became too overwhelming to handle.
Once year I stocked up on books and education puzzles to hand my kids when they complained of boredom. For all except one, this accomplished nothing except giving them new fodder to complain about. Last year, I decided to try the mean mom strategy: I had a ready-made list of chores for them to choose from every time they complained of boredom. As you parents can probably imagine, this was more trouble than it was worth.
This year, though, I’m trying something new. Every time my kids tell me they’re bored I say, “Good! Being bored is good for you. It’s an important part of growing up.” I decided on this tactic when I read a recent article at Quartz about the growing advice from psychologists to let kids be bored during the summer:
“Your role as a parent is to prepare children to take their place in society. Being an adult means occupying yourself and filling up your leisure time in a way that will make you happy,” says Lyn Fry, a child psychologist in London with a focus on education. “If parents spend all their time filling up their child’s spare time, then the child’s never going to learn to do this for themselves.” “There’s no problem with being bored,” says Fry. “It’s not a sin, is it? I think children need to learn how to be bored in order to motivate themselves to get things done. Being bored is a way to make children self-reliant.”
Granted, Dr. Fry didn’t actually advise that parents respond to their children’s expressions of boredom with enthusiasm. Her advice was to come up with a list of activities at the beginning of the summer that kids could choose from when they’re bored. But to be honest, I don’t see how that’s much different than tossing out entertainment suggestions.
Here’s the thing: it’s not actually my job to entertain my kids so they never have to suffer the least moment of boredom. It’s my job to make sure they’re fed, clothed, educated, loved, and prepared as fully as possible to live a good, virtuous life. If I get sidetracked by the impulse to entertain them, what kind of life is that actually preparing them for?
You guessed it — a life of instant gratification. A life of wanting, needing, and expecting to be entertained or to have uncomfortable feelings solved for them. That’s not conducive to living a virtuous life — it’s not even conducive to living a mediocre life. In fact, we’re already seeing how detrimental it is for kids to grow up this way.
It seems like a small, even petty thing to tell your children that being bored is good for them. At first I felt guilty doing it. But then something amazing started to happen. The second day of summer break, my teenager, Sienna, asked to help my mom pack up and move her office. On their way home my mom said, “Oh, shoot! I meant to get my car washed.” Sienna responded, “Oh, let’s just go home and I’ll wash it for you!” Which she did. Enthusiastically.
My 10- and 8-year-olds followed suit. They pulled weeds, watered flowers, took the dog for walks, and even assembled a hammock that’s been sitting in my parents’ garage for three years. And they’ve done all these things cheerfully, with no coercion. They did them because they were bored, and they’ve taken great pride in their accomplishments.
Don’t get me wrong — embracing boredom hasn’t resulted in my kids being body-snatched or anything. They’ve still spent plenty of time complaining about being bored and begging for snacks and electronics. But once they realize I’m not going to solve their boredom for them (a lesson that’s repeated every day, sometimes more than once), they wander away and solve it for themselves.
My kids are learning a lot more than self-reliance during “boredom summer.” They’re learning about the satisfaction of hard work, the joy in doing something for others, and invaluable truth that other people don’t exist to keep us entertained. I can’t think of a better way to set them up for developing virtue than that.