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"I'm bored!" It’s a statement that grates on parents’ nerves. What’s to be bored about? Do something! Read a book; play outside; clean your room! Why sit around being bored?
Maybe on some level it’s bothersome to hear this exclamation because parents feel guilty. They feel they are responsible for keeping their children entertained. The fact that the child is bored must mean that the parent is being neglectful on some level, right?
According to Teresa Belton, Research Associate and Visiting Fellow in the School of Education and Lifelong Learning at the University of East Anglia in the U.K., parents need not feel guilty about their children’s occasional boredom. Belton, who published a 2007 literature review entitled, “Boredom and School: A Cross-disciplinary Exploration,” says parents should understand that a certain amount of boredom is inevitable. “It is a common human experience,” she says, “and in reasonable doses, and with a constructive response, it can help a child to develop self-reliance, creativity, imagination, thoughtfulness, and observational skills.”
Belton explains that boredom can also lead to destructive behavior (making spitballs) or passive behavior (zoning out in front of the television), but its tendency to spur creativity and to lead children to make new discoveries can be a very constructive outcome.
What can parents do to encourage the constructive behaviors (and discourage the destructive)?
Peter Spevak, founder of the Washington DC-based Applied Motivation and author of Empowering Underachievers: New Strategies to Guide Kids (8-18) to Personal Excellence, says the most important thing parents can do for their children is to model appropriate behaviors. “Model being excited about things,” he says. “When I find something that’s interesting to me, I print it off and show it to the kids.”
Trying to stimulate children in response to their boredom, Spevak says, is not as effective as modeling self-stimulation. Parents should show excitement from learning, model escaping boredom with reading and other hobbies—a variety of hobbies. Children should see that their parents have no shortage of things around the home to keep them interested and busy.
“I want kids to see that emotions are a cue,” Spevak says. “If I have boredom creeping in, that’s a cue that I need to get active. It’s my perspective that you can just exist or you can truly live and be active.”
Spevak has spent most of his adult life working with children ages 8 to 18 for whom boredom is a significant struggle. Their boredom has not led to self-reliance or creativity, as Belton discusses; for them boredom has become a justification for detaching.
“In my practice, I mostly see very bright kids with highly educated parents. Boredom can be used as a convenient excuse and allows them to blame others,” he says. “I think people can choose to have a different perspective. They have a choice to not be bored.”
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