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The Case for Letting Your Kids Get Bored

My iPhone sliced my finger – and, no, it’s not a new “Make Your Thumb Bleed” app. My finger is wounded because my phone screen (digitizer, in tech terms) is shattered like a windshield after a head-on collision. I have my two kids to thank.

Last week, while my 18-month-old was crying in her stroller, my 6-year-old, Jake, grabbed my iPhone out of the diaper bag and launched Balloonimals, an adorable app that transforms balloons into movable creatures. “She’s too young for Fruit Ninja,” he said. “She’ll love this.” But my daughter wasn’t amused by Balloonimals as much as we hoped and tossed the phone to the cement, cracking the glass. Soon enough, the glass split more, and eventually my iPhone transformed into a dangerous weapon – thus the Band-Aid on my thumb.

Once upon a time, I was one of those parents mesmerized by the dynamics of the iPhone. It’s a phone! It’s a television! It’s a video game! And like every other desperate parent, I downloaded Yo Gabba Gabba, Clone Wars and apps like Angry Birds to keep my kids busy while waiting on line, at the airport, in traffic, or in a number of other tedious situations where they actually had to, gasp, be patient.

But now, as I attempted to read email through broken glass, I thought how my father responded to my boredom in my childhood – “Go bang your head against the wall.”

What he meant, I think, is that I needed to create my own entertainment (even if that entertainment was head banging) without being spoken to, told what to do, or if it had been the 2010s, given some mind-numbing app.

From the point of view of a parent, it makes complete sense as to why we’d hand over a $200 iPhone, simply in hopes of distracting them.

But Adam Cox, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, and author of No Mind Left Behind, points out that today’s children don’t have the benefit of the life experience you get when you take a break from technology. “If I ask my son if he wants to take a walk in the woods with my dog tonight, he’ll say ‘No’ if he knows he can play his DS. And I can’t blame him. He doesn’t know the [benefits] of taking a walk in the woods.”

It’s no great shock that removing electronics from kids reaps a positive effect. In his 2006 study, Why Kids Need To Be Bored, James D. Williams of Soka University, who required three middle-school students to give up all technology including games and their phones, found that the one child who completed the study engaged in more pretend play with friends, rode her bike, spent more time talking to her parents, and best yet, had better grades. Two other students dropped out early on because, surprise, surprise, they found it “boring.”

Demonizing technology isn’t my intention here; I simply want to know how to utilize it to our advantage as parents while not depriving our kids of the experience of boredom. As with most things, it’s probably a question of quantity. While a recent study of 1,000 students in China suggested a correlation between very high levels of internet use and depression, even Cox contends that in moderation, technology can be ok. “We can say, ‘What’s the harm in giving a child a chocolate bar?'” he says. “It only becomes a problem when it becomes a habitual response” or, as a New York Post article recently called the iPad, “the city’s hottest new babysitter.”

Any given parent should probably test the waters themselves. Take Jessica Sherman and Neil Corp of Woodside, NY, who recently enjoyed a rare hour-and-a-half long dinner – because they brought a portable DVD player with them and played it for their two-year-old daughter in the restaurant. “It’s was kind of cheating, but totally nice,” says Sherman. But afterward, recalling the offensive looks from other restaurant goers who didn’t seem to enjoy Lilo and Stitch as much as their two-year-old did, they reconsidered their decision. “We’re going to have to eat dinner faster next time.”

I ask her what her parents would have done – she is one of five siblings – to entertain her and her brothers at a restaurant. “My parents wouldn’t take us out to dinner.” (In my case, my parents did take us out, and I distinctly remember making up dramatic plays with the salt and pepper-shakers as we waited for our pizza to arrive.)

Of course, the decision of how often and how long your child will be plugged in is inevitably up to you – but, as every parent knows, there isn’t anything instantly rewarding about taking the tech away. “My son is incredibly annoying when he’s bored at first,” says Selena Butcher of Glen Ridge, NJ, who at an early age carved out regular unstructured playtime for her children. “And then he gives into it once he realizes I’m not going to provide him with anything to do and he has to find something to do.” Butcher’s decision stemmed from the onslaught of playdates and seeing how over-stimulated her children were during the week. “I think I took slight cues from them,” she says. “The more activity they wanted, the less they really needed. Sort of like a drug.”

Just the other day, Jake was persistent and tearful when I told him that if he wanted to play two levels of Indiana Jones Lego Wii, he’d have to entertain himself in his room for a little while first. He marched upstairs in an angry fit, but when I went to check on him 30 minutes later, he had built two Magna-tile skyscrapers (complete with “secret compartments”) and was curled up on his beanbag, studying a picture of the Millennium Falcon constructed entirely from LEGOs. “It’s amazing, Mom! They built it with 5,000 LEGOs,” he said. And then, in the next breath, “Can I play a level now?”

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