"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.”
But what about the bright child who’s bored in the classroom? The bright kindergartener, for example, who reads Harry Potter at home but has to sit quietly at school while his classmates sound out Hop on Pop—is it realistic to expect that he should be motivated to listen quietly? Or is it more realistic to expect that this child should be secretly building a spitball empire?
Spevak explains that he begins working with children at age 8 because this is the age when most children can really comprehend the concept of self-motivation. For kindergarteners who are bored with the baby-ish centers and low-reading level books, it’s going to be up to the parent, Spevak says, to help create the right environment for the child—both at home and at school.
“In the classroom it’s a little more difficult because I believe strongly that you can’t force interest, and a classroom teacher doesn’t have the direct impact that a parent can have,” Spevak says.
What about the concept of bringing in more stimulating curriculum—curriculum that can engage all students and be adapted to match the developmental level of the students?
Even parents of those bright but bored children can recognize the complexity and difficulty of keeping 25 or 30 kindergarteners stimulated and engaged. There are always the handful of children who fall above or below the continuum, and a teacher only has so many hours in the day.
Jenifer Fox, former elementary and high school principal and author of Your Child’s Strengths, says children today are growing up with higher expectations in terms of stimulation, mostly because of the new technologies that they have ready access to at home. “Kids need to be stimulated in the classroom as much as they are outside of the classroom in order to be engaged, and any time we spend arguing that is wasted time,” Fox says.
Fox suggests that parents make an effort at the beginning of the school year to engage their child’s teacher in a dialogue. Parents should let the teacher know that they want to be partners in their child’s education, and that they want to help and serve as a resource for the teacher in any way they can. This will set the stage, Fox says, for parents to later bring in exciting Web-based or other curriculum ideas that they believe will be stimulating for their child. “Parents have to establish some sort of rapport with the teacher so the teacher sees that they’re teaming with them in order to help the child,” Fox says.
Boredom in school, Fox says, can lead to stress. “If you’re bored and you’re a kid in school, you’re going to have to engage your mind somewhere else. But the minute that you start to feel like you want to engage somewhere else, you’re also aware that you’re going to get in trouble for it.” Fox explains that this is a lot of pressure on school-age children who simply need more interesting and stimulating curriculum.
It’s unlikely that the solution to boredom in school will be either/or. Most parents have to model living engaged and active lives, and they also have to partner with their children’s teachers.
At home, as Belton says, parents can support their children’s creativity and exploration by providing them time, space, basic materials (blankets, flashlights, magnifying glasses, paper and pencils, dress-up clothes, etc), and the opportunity to make a mess. “Bored children need parents who know how to be playful!” Belton says.