My wife and I are both licensed marriage and family therapists and so we are privileged to have meaningful conversations with parents on a regular basis. One concern that parents commonly voice this time of year is how tired they are of hearing their kids say, “I’m bored. There is nothing to do around here!” Parents easily become exasperated by their children’s complaints of boredom because they often have worked to get their children involved in fun summer activities. It seems that the moment there is not a structured activity, their children complain of boredom.
When we talk with parents they often wonder if the very fact that they structure so many activities for their children actually has an unintended side effect of creating the, “I’m bored” response by their children. They wonder if their children struggle to come up with their own ideas because they seldom have to do so. What we tell parents is that this is not an “either, or,” but a “both, and” choice. Structured activities are important for children, and unstructured free time where children need to create their own fun and activities are both essential for a child’s growth and development. Structured activities help children to learn how to socialize and collaborate with others, while unstructured time, especially if it is alone time, helps a child to become comfortable with solitude and with their inner thoughts and feelings.
Children are not the only ones I hear saying, “I’m bored.” I talk with adults who often share, “I’m bored in my work,” or “I’m bored in my marriage,” or “Overall I’m just bored with my life.” The parallel between expressions of boredom by both children and adults, is the perceived helplessness to do anything about their boredom. “I’m bored and I don’t have any idea of what I can do to change this feeling,” is what they seem to be complaining about.
An important dynamic that keeps a person stuck in a state of boredom is that they often just try to find an external solution to their boredom. They want someone or something else to interrupt their boredom, distract them from their boredom, or fill up the emptiness that often accompanies such a feeling. What is essential to teach our children, and to remind ourselves as adults, is that boredom is best resolved by a two step process.
The first step is to be patient and accept it. Boredom is a natural state of mind and not something we need to frantically avoid feeling. The second step is to turn inward and look deeper within ourselves for creative ways to revitalize our time, our work, our marriages, and our lives. A deeper resolution of boredom is an “inside, out” job, not an “outside, in” job.
When a child says, “I’m bored” the parent is wise to resist the urge to find a solution for the child. A good response would be something like, “I understand, that’s a natural feeling that we all feel sometimes. I guess it means you haven’t yet figured out something fun that you want to do or create. Be patient and I’m sure something will come to you, and I’d be happy to talk with you to help you figure something out.” Providing children with opportunities to grow a sense of agency in their lives, a clear sense that they can create and recreate meaning and purpose in their lives is one of the most important skills to develop in our children. Come to think of it, it’s a pretty important skill to develop in ourselves as well.