The Science of Boredom: Why Your Kid Needs It

144286224My son flops on the couch with a sigh. I’m bored, mama. I don’t know anything to do.

This is a scenario that used to incite me to action. It stirred an impulse in me to fix the problem and find something to occupy him: Maybe he’s outgrown his toys. Should I invite a friend over? Maybe we should enroll him in guitar or water polo!

But my view of boredom has changed dramatically; I now think of it as a good sign. And as it turns out, it’s a state that — if we respond in the right way — can really be an opportunity to support the growth of our little ones’ brains.

I welcome boredom for a few reasons, the simplest being that as a busy family with two little kids, the sheer opportunity for it is rare and special. We don’t have much unstructured time, and when my son has the chance to be bored, by definition it means we’ve slowed down.

How I respond when he professes boredom is another story — this is the make-or-break moment for growth. The first step for me in figuring out what to say is to think about what boredom actually is: psychology researchers have defined it as, “The aversive experience of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity.” Boredom is like a holding pattern, in which our kids feel the desire to be into something, but they’re stuck. It’s not the boredom itself that’s good for them — it’s what comes from it that counts. Boredom is an opportunity for self-direction, which is one of the most important skills our kids need for success in life. Kids who are overscheduled or plugged into electronics often say they’re bored when these sources of external direction are gone, because they don’t know what to do.

The challenge in a down moment is to find internal direction — to let something happen from the child’s own curiosity or interest. So when my son is bored, I might say,

Feeling bored, huh? Like you don’t know what to do? I know that feeling — like you’re not sure what step to take next. I can’t wait to see what you come up with!

The more practice he has with this, the stronger the self-directed pathways in his brain become. And the stronger his self-direction in this setting, the more it transfers to other areas of life.

In fact psychologists have defined one of the best paths to learning and happiness — known as “flow” — and it often unfolds from moments of boredom. Flow is intense concentration and absorption in an activity, when you’re barely aware of the world around you and you have the sense that time flies. It’s nothing fancy, it’s just raw engagement, but one hallmark of flow is that it’s usually self-directed and performed for sheer experience itself. For our kids it might be building a block tower, wrapping tons of objects in tape, playing restaurant — wherever their unfolding ideas take them. Early research on children, learning, and happiness has shown that the most meaningful and satisfying moments in life (not necessarily the most entertaining, as in when the iPad goes on) — come from experiences of flow. Not surprisingly, psychologists suggest that the more a child feels flow, the better learning, creativity, and school performance.

Thankfully, when they’re not coming and going, or distracted by electronics, kids go into a state of flow quite naturally. But sometimes getting started is bumpy.

For example, if I tell my son I’m looking forward to seeing what he comes up with when he’s bored, he might continue to flop around and grunt that there’s nothing to do. If I flip on the television, it would cure his boredom in the short term, but it wouldn’t be flexing his muscle of self-direction. At that point, I have to really think about his inner state of mind. How is he feeling, and does he need to talk about something — I might take a stab at reflecting on that. Or maybe it seems like he’s craving my company. If we’ve been busy and haven’t had much quality time together, then his boredom might really be loneliness or disconnection. He needs me to put my computer away, get down on the floor and play, or take him on a trip to the carwash so we can do a job together. A lot of times if I help him get started in an activity, he takes over and I can step away.

I take my cues from the Reggio or Montessori preschool environment, and try to keep his toys and materials clear, uncluttered, and available for him to choose. One of the keys to the flow process is that the child is challenged at a level just above his skill, so activities and projects are hard enough to stretch abilities, but not so hard that they cause frustration and giving up. My go-to for this is simple drawing materials like a set of colored pencils, a stack of paper, tape, and scissors; or simple building materials like Magna tiles, a set of straws and connecters, or wood blocks, since they’re raw materials that grow with his skill level.

If everything else is put away and the environment is free of clutter, with these simple activities out, it almost always ends well. In fact, not too long after a very convincing episode of bored couch flopping — with a little reflection and support for what he needs to be able to look inward — I usually come back to find a book of drawings or a super-sized tile robot. All of that comes from his mind, the chance to not know what to do next, and his incredibly important brain muscle for self-direction.

Heather Turgeon, MFT is co-author of the upcoming book The Happy Sleeper: The science-backed guide to helping your baby get a good night’s sleep — newborn to school age (Penguin Random House, December 26, 2014). She writes the long-running “Science of Kids” column for Babble.


Image: Thinkstock.

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