Would you believe me if I told you boredom is an essential requirement to develop our creative muscle? It’s hard to understand that boredom is needed, but something that is drastically on the decline, especially in kids.
“Mom! I’m bored!”
We’ve all heard it before. In the past, my first reaction was always, how?! How can you be bored when you have tons of toys and games, you have two built-in playmates at all times (I have three boys), and you have so much at your disposal?
But much like when little ones are most interested in the cardboard box that toys come in before the actual toy, sometimes, often times, children can have everything at their disposal and act like a deer caught in headlights, unable to make a decision to move forward, and boredom sets in.
I have witnessed it many times with my children, and I have tried many methods to snap them out of boredom. Whether it was taking them out to an activity, prepping the kitchen table with a craft project, or setting up the living room for a family board game, all these actions are really nice, but not always what they need.
In fact, as the years have gone by, I realized these moments of family time were essential for them as they grew, but not the answer to their boredom. For that, there was something very different needed. And it didn’t involve me at all. It was when my helicopter parenting had to take a backseat that I saw the answer emerge. Stepping out of the way, insisting on limiting their go-to favourites (tv, tech, etc.) and making them fend for themselves was all they needed to shine.
Suddenly, they were composing songs, creating their own board games from scratch, having drawing competitions, making marble mazes, planning a garden for the spring…and it just kept going. Their creations were new, fresh and all their own. And of course, they have been prouder of these creations than anything they did in a structured environment.
I’m not the only mother that has noticed this behavior and the need for it. My curiosity led me to research the topic and in Ted talks alone, I found many devoted to the need for boredom, now more than ever. And while it may seem hard to believe, with all the choices and technology at our disposal, that we should need to be bored, what I learned was that without it, we are slowly and consistently losing our creativity.
Boredom and Creativity are Pals
So how are boredom and creativity connected? It comes down to this, when you are “busy” with classes, homework, sports activities, and yes, the ever-loving technology, you are not thinking of your own free will. You are listening to leaders, applying rules, mindlessly viewing, studying facts, and exercising in teams. And even though these are all good, what children are not doing, is discovering. Their curiosity is not the focus of any of these moments, so their curiosity is not evolving daily. It is only when children are left with nothing to do, that they start to have that spark of curiosity which leads to creativity!
In order to ignite that spark of creativity in kids, it is so important to give them space and unstructured time. If you look around, it might seem completely impossible! Some schools, like the one my twins go to, have adopted the new technique of less homework, with in-school study periods to help children get help from their teachers. But then, as homework is less, many families are jacking up extracurricular activities and sports. It has come to the point that birthday parties are missed, weekends are too busy for playdates, and that is just the children’s schedule. Add other engagements and appointments and you will be swamped as a family.
Think of it, when was the last time you as a parent were not busy? If you are not participating in all the things, not trying to hustle harder in your work, and not checking your phone for emails, texts and social media notifications, are you really part of this modern world?
Boredom vs The Mindless Scroll
This is most definitely the hardest thing to change for us as adults and to instill in our children. My teens are having, I would say, I difficult time putting their phones down when boredom strikes. With summer break being unstructured, it is probably the hardest time to justify putting the phone away. We offer different alternatives, and we do things together as a family, but as I have said in many of my workshops about online safety, for teens, their phones are everything. While we had teen magazines, scheduled programming on TV, phones attached to the walls, and music from our boomboxes, they have their phone for all of those things. In our home, it is a struggle, I’m not going to lie. However, we are still very much on top of their time online, and we are trying to limit our time online as parents as well. We have downtime for scrolling funny videos and texting friends, but we pay attention to the amount of time. Walking away from the addiction of the phone is hard but so beneficial. Some rules in place that are non-negotiable are no phones in the bedroom, no phones at the dinner table. And guess what? We have meaningful conversations over meals, and the boys have been reading or drawing instead of scrolling before bed.
Boredom Is Courageous
There was a time that boredom was a dangerous thing you let your kids be. Staying busy keeps kids out of trouble, right? If they are busy, they can’t try bad things. Sure, I get that. But I also know bad things are available everywhere and, in the end, if they want to get into trouble, they will, if they are busy or not. What’s more important, is having a dialogue about what is good and bad for them, so they can make decisions better when they are faced with difficult ones (and we are not beside them).
With that in mind, trusting that you are building a strong relationship with your children, we need to give them more freedom to get out there and explore, be curious, take chances, make mistakes (thanks, Ms. Frizzle!). Is it hard? Yes! Remember, I am innately a helicopter parent. This has been real hard for me, but it gets easier. Lack of structure and their independent choices changes and grows. I’ve seen a big shift lately, but it’s working.
But just like we as parents need to be courageous and put our phones down, we also need to help our children be courageous in being bored. It is easier to stay on the busy or entertained path, but as studies have shown, there is a decline in creative thinking, and that is the very thing we need to solve many of the world problems that children will be facing. Helping our children develop that muscle will help them enjoy being bored more.
Doing Nothing Can Lead to Something Great
Unstructured time is vital to learn who you are and what is truly enjoyable to you. Remember that being bored is not bad. It’s going to lead to something good. Giving children a chance to enjoy being bored, will lead to creative thinking. And what happens in creative thinking? They develop ideas, experiment, problem-solve, work together and none of this happens if we are over their shoulder, helping them all along the way. These independent moments also load them with a sense of self-pride.
Creations made in a moment of boredom are all their own. No teacher told them how to do it, and no parent helped them out. Some of my favourite memories to date have been the creations my boys have made when they were bored! Now, parents, if you can manage to let your kids be bored, the next step is to be bored yourself. Because guess what? My blog was created, while I was bored. True story!
To read more about the scientific facts on boredom and why we need it, please visit this episode of the Curious Neuron Podcast. Cindy is a neuroscientist and mom of two. Her podcast is a valuable source for understanding our behaviours and the behaviours of our children, backed by science.
A version of this post was originally written for MomResource.ca . Their fantastic site was a wonderful hub of information for parents in all areas for over 20 years. I was truly honoured to contribute to the site with each and every post I wrote. MomResource.ca has recently shut down, so I will be sharing my posts here over time, with some slight alterations.