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Why Your Take on Kids' Boredom Is All Wrong

We just had a perfectly magical spring break in my house. From the outside looking in, it probably wouldn't appear that way. The house was a mess. My husband was out of town. My kindergartener got croup two days in. Three days later, my second-grader got sick. So did I. We hardly left the house and didn't go on a single adventure as planned. We coughed our way through Easter morning and didn't even think to eat a jellybean.

A fly on the wall might fail to see the magic, but I saw it.

For 10 days, my coughing, sneezing children engaged in hours and hours of free play. They took a trip to Africa to see animals in their natural habitat. They opened a restaurant. They built a summer cottage by the beach. Many times, I found them cuddled up together reading. They played until their eyelids drooped, and they never once uttered the most feared words in parenting, "I'm bored."

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It's not that they're perfect (although they're perfect for me) or that they never experience things like frustration—they are kids, after all. It's that they know how to do downtime and quiet time and hang-around-the-house time. They also know that they can come to me when they're not sure what to do and that, when they ask me to play, I will always accept that invitation.

A couple of times a year, and usually just prior to a school vacation of some kind, an article about kids and boredom makes the rounds. "It's not my job to entertain" is usually the theme, sometimes an author uses the past to make a point.

"That's what my mom would do," they say. Parents chime in with their favorite retorts for "I'm bored." "I'm not a cruise director" and "You have toys, figure something out" seem to be common phrases in parenting these days. Every time this happens, I cringe just a little bit.

Childhood is short and kids have ups and downs. Boredom happens sometimes. Is it the job of the parent to entertain children every minute of every day? Of course not. But it is the job of the parent to guide the children. It is the job of the parent to provide unconditional love and support. And it is the job of the parent to teach kindness by being kind. Responses laced with sarcasm are not kind.

We view the past through rose-colored lenses. We think our parents had it made: throw them out the door, call them in for food, repeat as necessary. That's what we seem to remember when we recall parenting of generations past.

But we leave out a lot of details when we rely on childhood memories as a parenting tool. Our mothers, for instance, weren't connected to screens. They didn't carry mini-computers in their pockets and check Facebook all day long. Baking from scratch was just called "baking." Soccer tots for 3-year-olds would have been laughed right off the field. Times have changed, and so has parenting. While looking to the past might give us some answers on some levels, we need to parent our children in the present day.

And we need to rethink boredom.

"I'm bored" can have hidden meanings. This comes up in my psychotherapy office more than you might imagine. It can be hard for some kids to connect, and "I'm bored" is an attention-grabbing phrase that rolls off the tongue. "I'm bored" might very well have more to it than you think. Before you respond with some potentially hurtful phrase, consider these possible hidden meanings:

"I want to be with you."

Sometimes "I'm bored" is actually an attempt to connect and score some 1:1 time with a parent. If a child fears that the parent will say no to play, the child leans on boredom as a conversational starting point. Consider engaging in a conversation about what it feels like to be bored (lonely, quiet, disconnected) before you turn your back.

"I don't know what to do."

Kids begin preschool earlier than ever these days. From the toddler years on, kids are enrolled in endless classes, activities and other enrichment programs. They are overscheduled and lack adequate free time. If you never have the chance to figure out how you want to spend your time, how can you possibly know what to do when it all comes to a grinding halt?

Instead of sending your child off in search of answers alone, try providing a little guidance. Talk about what you like to do when you have downtime. Consider how other family members fill their quiet time. Chances are, talking about others will inspire your child to come up with a plan of his own.

"I'm sad/scared/anxious."

Kids are the masters of masking their feelings. When kids haven't been taught how to identify, verbalize and cope with their emotions, they almost always say things like, "I'm bored" or "I'm tired" to mask the true feeling. Quiet time is a very good thing for young children, but it can also lead to big feelings. Kids busy their brains with play and activities and school and play dates all week. Only when they have time to do nothing do they have time to allow those emotions to come to light.

You know how your long to-do list stresses you out the most when the kids are finally asleep and you just want to get some rest? Kids function in a similar way. They internalize the hard stuff to make room for the fun stuff, but the hard stuff always comes back—usually when they have time to think.

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Try to start a conversation about feelings and how things are going at school, baseball, etc., before you get caught up in the frustration of the phrase "I'm bored."

When parents choose to shift their thinking and remain positive, kids thrive. Sure, kids can benefit from hours of "boredom." They learn to tap into their imaginations, they daydream, they get lost in thought. But this generation of plugged-in, overscheduled kids might need a little guidance to get there.

And that is the job of the parent.

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Image by Katie Hurley

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