Next Time Your Kid Says, 'I'm Bored,' Be Grateful

Photo: Getty Images/David De LossyIn an age when adults can barely stand a second alone without texting or tweeting or checking stocks on their smartphones, it’s no wonder that kids are often pushed into lives of constantly structured activities — anything to help them sidestep boredom. But this week a leading UK educator made a case for the latter in her essay, “It’s Time to Be Bored.” 

More on Shine: Kids of Tiger Moms Are Worse Off

“It’s all too easy for parents to be sucked into a competitive busy-ness, ensuring that children are constantly occupied and stimulated,” writes Julie Robinson, education and training director for the UK-based Independent Association of Prep Schools, in the association’s magazine, Attain. “We should not fear boredom however. Quiet, reflective time is just as important as purposeful activity…youngsters are not well served by being forced into an exhausting stream of clubs and extracurricular activities.” 

More on Yahoo: Pediatricians: Recess 'Crucial' for Kids

Robinson, whose organization oversees 600 leading prep schools worldwide, stresses the benefits of mindfulness, tactile play, physical movement and “providing [children] with the space to grow and discover for themselves.”  Those points, she notes, are particularly vital in the age of both “running oneself ragged with an exhausting program of endless after-school activities” and parents’ frequent reliance on “the hypnotic lure of the screen.”

Her sentiments echo those of many past child psychologists and educators but are well worth repeating, some U.S. child experts note.

“The key is allowing the intrinsic, self-organizing forces that are part of every child’s playful nature to be given free reign to emerge,” notes psychiatrist Stuart Brown, president of the National Institute for Play and coauthor of “Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul.” He tells Yahoo Shine that downtime gives way to that intrinsic play, which is “a natural phenomenon that’s there for good reason.”

Steven Yussen, PhD, professor and director of graduate studies at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development, tells Yahoo Shine that Robinson’s “focus on mindfulness and learning to focus attention are major themes in contemporary child development.” He points to a body of evidence that, in particular, shows that “children's ability to focus attention is associated with a variety of positive outcomes.” Yussen does note that the title of Robinson’s article can be confusing, as there is a “real difference” between boredom and reflection.

But Brooklyn-based psychologist and parenting coach Laura Markham, author of “Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting,” notes that when it comes to unstructured, restful time, “Children experience it as boredom because they don’t know what else to call it.” And she agrees that it’s a vital part of being a kid.

“What is life, except the time that we’re living? If children think life is something that needs to be structured every minute, they will end up missing the best parts of it throughout their lives,” she tells Yahoo Shine. “We do a disservice when we keep them so busy that they can’t reflect or feel their own feelings.”

But because that’s what adults do, she admits, it can make encouraging downtime for kids especially challenging for parents. “For all of us it can be hard. We have such good ways in modern culture of keeping things at a distance — that glass of wine, the Internet, shopping,” she says. “What if you just sat and looked out at the night for a few minutes?”

If your child complains with the classic “I’m bored!” whine, Markham suggests, responding calmly with, “I wonder what you could do about it?” Your kid might come up with an idea or even express an emotion — or, most likely, try negotiating for screen time. Either way, a good response would include a hug or follow-up question, or even a spontaneous pillow fight to get them laughing, “whether your child is 4 or 14,” she notes. “That way you’ve shifted out of boredom to awareness, and you’re making it clear you’re not the entertainer. But you’re still supporting them.”

Related:
Pediatricians Want Kids to Stop Texting So Much
Why Jamie Oliver's Kids Can't Have a Cell Phone