"Mommy, I'm bored." That seemingly innocent complaint attacks like a well-aimed artillery barrage. The tone is demanding: "I need something to do." It's accusatory: "You're not doing anything about it." And defiant, "Just try one of your useless suggestions." Now we start feeling irritated. What we wouldn't give for a little of that unstructured time they seem to be frittering away in all that boredom.
What Do Children Actually Mean....?
What do you do with a kid dying of boredom? Before we can think about what to do, we need to look more closely at what children might actually mean when they say, "I'm bored."
They might be saying, "I haven't been getting enough sleep," in which case high stimulus entertainment is not in order. A more complex message behind boredom might be: "I now have time to dwell on anxieties or fears that are usually pushed aside in the flurry of activity and structure. This is uncomfortable." Here too it would seem that more flurry and activity would only postpone the opportunity for kids to work things out the way kids do.
It may be that children need time to submerge themselves in nothingness in order to unlock their imaginations. We know that one way kids work out inner problems is through imaginative play. They actually re-create themselves through fantasy, make believe games or artistic expression. They can play out emotions that might otherwise be too overwhelming, e.g. by pretending to be their favorite superhero and fighting their worst fear. They develop resourcefulness by replaying difficult real life scenarios and generating solutions to problems. Or they might just play in a way that enables them to recognize and accept their feelings.
Dwelling in the imagination engages a part of the brain that may not be used in school. Research on brain activity shows that what we know as imagination is generated in the right side of the brain where "open-ended ideation" takes place (see Writing the Natural Way, by Gabriele Lusser Rico). In contrast, the left side of the brain is thought to be "linear and logical." Performance in school, for example, tends to require intensive left side activity. Thus, the right brain provides a refuge from life in the "fast lane" left side, and a rest from the barrage of external stimuli children are constantly processing in the more structured areas of their lives.
The imagination provides infinite possibilities for play, and some children just seem to be born blessed with good imaginations. However, "Use your imagination" is not a realistic command. How do we encourage and nurture this way of being?
Imagination Needs Boredom
Rachel Carson tells us in her book, A Sense of Wonder, that each child needs at least one adult who "can share in rediscovering the excitement and mystery of the (natural) world we live in. "Look at the stars," I told my five-year-old daughter, the other night driving along a dark country road. She answered: "The stars are bowing down to us, like they did to Joseph in the Bible." Carson instructs us to ask ourselves: "What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I'd never see it again?"
Here, I've been influenced by another great thinker: the spider heroine, Charlotte, in the children's classic, Charlotte's Web, by E.B. White. When Charlotte is determined to save the life of her dear friend Wilbur, the pig, she develops a plan of non-action. As she waits to trap flies she will hang "head-down at the top of her web....letting the blood (and hopefully some ideas) flow to her head...."
We learn from Charlotte that good ideas demand a certain amount of inactivity in order to develop. Imagination needs boredom. Some of my best writing ideas come to me while washing the dishes or walking the dog.
Treat Boredom as Your Best Friend
Indian meditation master Swami Shyam, has been known to tell his students, "Treat boredom as your best friend." Ordinarily, we greet boredom with discomfort to which we reflexively respond with a novel activity. Yet in doing so, we lapse into the habit of allowing the left-sided brain to take control. Awareness of boredom brings us to a border crossing from the last frontier of our conscious mind into unconscious and imaginative regions. And if we can manage to stay with, even welcome, that feeling of boredom, other ways of thinking and being will naturally emerge.
It is not easy to be "inactive" in a society that so highly values "productivity" and being "goal oriented." So when we expect our children to deal with boredom we must ask ourselves: How capable are we of getting a little "bored" before rushing on to a new activity?
I'd always considered patience a dull virtue, until a psychotherapist I knew pointed out that patience is not a mindless-kind-of-waiting-for-the-bus-nothingness. It is, in fact, an interesting process of observing reality. We have the opportunity to watch how life situations unfold before deciding how or whether to act.
Despite everything I've said, I know you're still waiting to hear what to do with your kids when they're bored. So here are a few suggestions.
- Lie around on the beach
- Take a walk through your tree-lined neighborhood.
- Read books like Charlotte's Web or Dandelion Wine, by Ray Bradbury about children who have mastered the fine art of doing nothing.
- Hang upside down (figuratively of course) and wait for some ideas to come.
- Don't look for the stars. They will bow down.