Those two simple words are among the most annoying words you will ever hear, especially if your kids repeat them—as kids will do to perfection—over and over again, in a dragged-out, sing-song whine. Being compassionate human beings who love our kids, we will do almost anything to put an end to the incessant and progressively more irritating complaining. It is our natural inclination to suggest activities that might alleviate boredom. Perhaps we are moved to even take the lead and organize a game or outing for our kids.
I’m here to tell you: Fight the urge.
Our kids are over-programmed. When the school day ends, after-school programs begin, followed by homework, studying, and required reading, followed by dinner, baths, and whatever else we expect our kids to do. During the summer, the details are different, but substitute camp for school and kids still can be busy every waking hour, especially once you factor in summer-break school assignments.
In our efforts to give our kids the best in life, to encourage their creative and athletic passions, to ensure they are academically enriched and prepared to ace whatever life throws at them, we’ve taken away downtime, which is essential to any human’s existence. Kids need it, too.
Far from being useless (or merely a time for them to rhythmically practice the refrain “I’m bored”), unstructured time forces kids to make their own fun, and that is priceless in its own way. Once they realize those chants will not lead you to magically create an amusement park in the backyard—or allow them extra or even unlimited screen time just to get them to stop—it’s amazing what kids will do. Suddenly, pillows become castles or forts, blocks or toy bricks are assembled into skyscrapers or rocket ships, trees are climbed, balls get tossed and caught, skits get created and performed, marker or paint gets applied to paper, and so on, and so on, and so on. In short, boredom forces kids to be creative, use their imaginations, and have fun in ways that are stimulating, empowering, and memorable.
About that screen time, though. Just don’t do it. To be clear, I am no enemy of TV or tablet use. But if kids’ screen-time limits are set in stone, a schedule-free day is not a reason to double or triple that amount. Allowing kids to use their downtime lost in video games or TV shows misses the point and productivity of downtime. The value in unstructured time is the creativity it unleashes and the improvisation it demands.
On the other hand, let’s remember the importance of balance. To any of you who think the boredom’s benefits free you from ever having to plan a child’s activities, think again. My kids go to summer camp, and we try to do family activities or day trips as much as possible on the weekends. Yet while downtime is invaluable for kids, unlimited free time is, well, kind of sad and it robs our children of invaluable experiences with the family. Besides, at some point, kids’ ability to fill the time creatively will run its course—and that’s when frustration mounts and fights begin.
Finding that balance between unscheduled and programmed time is a personal choice. Tilting too much in either direction, though, is a disservice to kids. So yes, plan that museum visit, go out together for a bike ride, and, by all means sign kids up for ballet lessons, Little League, or camp. Just make sure all of that happens along with plenty of time for them to be bored enough to turn to their imaginations and ideas to make their own fun.