Hello brave parents and caregivers,
Do you often get the “Mommy (or Daddy), I’m bored!” in your house? As I write this on a Friday, I imagine the weekend ahead: The long school week has passed; I’m off this weekend and ready to kick back with the excited anticipation of NOT making lunches for the next couple days and having some unstructured time to spend with my daughter. I think of how wonderful it’ll be to hang out and, well, just to BE.
Then I snap back to reality. I’m reminded of last weekend when, after spending a good amount of time together crafting, I snuck away to check Facebook only to be regaled with “Mom, I’m bored!” and “What should I do?”. Whatever satisfaction I felt for just having spent connected time with my daughter turned to deflation and, admittedly, frustration.
And so many questions (I ask myself)! Why are you bored when you have so many toys? We just had so much fun together, how is it possible to be bored already?
And what is a parent to do? I love spending quality time with my kid, but I have to do things, too, like laundry and cooking and Facebooking.
Parents, let’s take a closer look at boredom in kids. There may be more than meets the eye.
Types of Boredom in Kids
- One type is pretty straightforward. For one reason or another, sometimes children are not interested in their own ideas for entertaining themselves and feel the need to be entertained by someone or something outside of themselves.
- Another type is less straightforward. Here, children may say they’re bored as a way to seek support for challenging feelings. In this case, reports of boredom may be a way to seek help for feeling sad, frightened, lonely, or ashamed. 1
When Boredom is Really About Feelings
Children have a myriad of ways of coping with inner feelings. As a way to overcome feelings of sadness, one child might engage in his favorite activity to experience joy. Another might work out worries through playing house with her dolls.
However, perhaps due to being tired or to especially intense feelings, sometimes children cannot manage their challenging inner feelings on their own. One way a child may communicate the need for help is to complain that he is bored.
In my case, my daughter’s report of “boredom” may have been related to missing me after having had such a fun time crafting together. After all, her threshold for managing hard feelings was probably low after a busy school week. Also, I was less present last weekend due to work obligations. Wait—was this her way of expressing she needed more mommy time?
Let’s imagine a child who just returned from a playdate at his friend’s house. He returns home with a “Mom, I’m bored” and she’s left scratching her head in disbelief that he is “already bored”. But, the “boredom” might actually be because of the playdate. For instance, maybe he was scared or overstimulated by a video game he played with his friend or perhaps just worn out after playing all afternoon. His way of communicating a need for help or attention may be to report that he’s bored.
If we view boredom as a complex experience in children, how should we respond? The first step is to validate the child’s experience, even when you may not completely understand the feelings behind the “boredom” ( i.e., try to refrain from asking the judgy questions). Something like, “it can be so hard to be bored” is a good place to start. Then, it’s helpful to try to identify the underlying feelings by listening carefully and exploring ideas about what’s behind the “boredom”. In my case, checking in on my daughter’s feelings about Mom working on a weekend revealed that she had been missing me.
While it can be difficult to pinpoint the reason behind “boredom”, making efforts to understand it and validating a child’s emotional experience can go a long way toward helping him work through challenging feelings and promoting his healthy emotional development.
Is Boredom Bad?
On the other hand, sometimes kids who complain they’re bored feel understimulated, uninterested, or dissatisfied with their own ideas about what to do—a more straightforward type of boredom. This can cause discomfort or anxiety that also brings on the “Mommy ( or Daddy) I’m bored!”. I often feel pressure in these moments to engage my daughter in activities so as to relieve the discomfort and, to be honest, to squelch the “mom!” “mom!” “mom!”-ness of it all.
But then I remind myself—barring any concerns for other underlying difficult feelings–being bored is not such a bad thing. In fact, boredom in kids can be beneficial. Counterintuitive, right? Let’s take a look.
6 Reasons Why Boredom in Kids Can Be GOOD
- It is motivating. Boredom signals that something has to be changed. It alerts a child to think through new possibilities for making her situation more satisfactory. 2
- It bolsters imagination. Boredom puts pressure on a child to invent new activities or play experiences to rekindle his interest in his environment.
- It provides insight into a child’s developing sense of self. Boredom invites opportunity for thought and reflection. For a child, this might mean having opportunity to develop a sense of her likes and dislikes as she gravitates toward preferred activities to relieve boredom. This represents a step toward developing a sense of who she is as a person.
- It stimulates creativity. In our children’s overscheduled lives, boredom is truly a lost art form. Unstructured free time stokes creativity: a stuffed panda and monkey sit down for tea, a cardboard box becomes a mobile nail salon, and a pinecone transforms into a piece of art. Now this is the productive work of childhood.
- It enhances learning. Boredom breeds persistence and mind-wandering. Mind-wandering is associated with exploration and attentiveness that improves learning. 3
- It develops autonomy. Allowing a child to be bored creates an environment in which a child is encouraged to pursue his own play and activities choices, which builds his sense of independence. And, conversely, as a child grows, having a strong sense of autonomy may help to ward off feelings of boredom.
Brave parents and caregivers,
When it comes to a child’s boredom, there is more than meets the eye. Boredom is actually a complex emotional experience that deserves a mindful response as any other feeling.
I understand that in reality we cannot always drop what we’re doing to devote our time to a bored child. I certainly cannot. But validating a child’s experience and making efforts to understand what underlies your child’s boredom can help her gain important skills to promote her healthy emotional development.
Until next time,
- The Lucy Daniels Center for Early Childhood (2003). “Mommy, I’m Bored!”. www.lucydanielscenter.org.
- Belton T and Priyadharshini E (2010). Boredom and schooling: A cross-disciplinary exploration. Camb J Educ. 37: 579-595.
- Khalaf S, Kilani H, Razo MB, and Grogorenko E (2022). Bored, Distracted, and Confused: Emotions That Promote Creativity and Learning in a 28-Month-Old Child Using an iPad. J Intell. 10: 118.