Is Boredom Good For Children?

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An interview with Dr. Laura Markham

“I’m bored, Mommy.” The first time I heard my four-year old utter these dreadful words, I sprang into action, signing her up for what seemed like every ballet, tumbling, art, swim and karate class within a 20-mile radius. But was this knee-jerk reaction to make my child as busy as possible the best way to end her boredom? Is boredom even a problem? And if it is, whose responsibility is it to solve? For help understanding these issues, we asked child psychologist Dr. Laura Markham to explain the revolutionary notion that a little boredom might just do children a whole lot of good. —Jacqueline, TMC Producer

In my case, you indicated that my daughter saying “I’m bored” might actually be a sign that she needs more time for unstructured play, rather than the slew of structured activities I signed her up for. Why is unstructured time for children so important?

Unstructured time gives children the opportunity to explore their inner and outer worlds, which is the beginning of creativity. This is how they learn to engage with themselves and the world, to imagine and invent and create. Unstructured time also challenges children to explore and discover their own passions. If we keep them too busy with lessons and structured activities, or they constantly “fill” their time with screen entertainment, children never learn to respond to the stirrings of their own hearts, which might lead them to study the bugs on the sidewalk (as Einstein did for hours), build a fort in the back yard, make a monster from clay, write a short story or song, or organize the neighborhood kids into making a movie. These passions are what make life meaningful, but we can only tap into them when we are given free rein to explore and pursue where our interests lead us.

On a more practical note, it is also essential for children to have the experience of deciding for themselves how to use periods of unstructured time, or they’ll never learn to manage it.  One of our biggest challenges as adults, and even as teenagers, is learning to manage our time well.

Why does “I’m bored” become a constant refrain for so many kids?

Most children, when given unstructured time, rise to the occasion (after some minor complaining) and find something interesting to do with it. Kids are always happiest in self-directed play. That’s because play is children’s work. It’s how they work out emotions and experiences they’ve had. Watch any group of children playing outside and they will organize themselves into an activity of some sort, whether that’s making a dam at the creek, playing “pretend” or seeing who can jump farthest.

When kids can’t find something to do and say “I’m bored”, it can be because their time is always so structured with lessons and activities that they aren’t used to finding fun things to do with their own “free time.” For older children, it’s usually because they’re so accustomed to screen entertainment that they aren’t practiced at looking inside themselves for direction. Unfortunately, our society is raising a whole generation of children who are addicted to screens.  That’s because electronics (Ipads, phones, computers, video games) are designed to produce little “dopamine” rewards in our brains as we interact with them. This “screen time” can be so enjoyable that other experiences pale in comparison.

When children say they are bored, how should we respond?

First, stop what you’re doing and really focus on your child for five minutes. If you use this time to connect, just chat and snuggle, your child will probably get the refueling he needs and be on his way fairly quickly.

If he doesn’t pull away from you, and you need to get back to work after a few minutes of fully connecting, consider that maybe he needs a little more time with you. Most of the time when children are whiny and unable to focus, it’s because they need more deep connection time with us. Offer to involve him in what you’re doing, or take a break from your work and do something together.

Once you’re confident that your child has a full “love tank,” you can revisit the “what to do” question.  By now, he probably has some ideas for something he’d like to go do.  If not, tell him that figuring out how to enjoy his own time is his job, but you’d be happy to help him brainstorm about possible activities.

What about when kids really do need help coming up with a boredom-busting activity? How can we help…while still making them responsible for staying busy and engaged?

Most of the time, kids left to their own devices end up finding something interesting to do, but sometimes they really do need our help, especially if she suddenly has more time on her hands than usual, or if you’re newly limiting TV and electronics. (Once kids get used to limitations on TV and electronics, they become good at entertaining themselves, and more creative at play.)

Even if you need to help your child come up with ideas for “what to do,” shift the responsibility to her by creating a Boredom Jar stuffed with ideas written on pieces of paper. Whenever a child says she’s bored, she picks three pieces of paper from the jar and chooses one of the activities. Some activity suggestions to put in the jar include:

-Put on some music and dance

-Write down ten things you love about each person in your family

– Create a play with costumes

-Find shapes in the clouds

-See how many times you can dribble the basketball

-Paint or draw a picture

-Wash the car

-Plan a treasure hunt, with clues

-Ride your bike

-Make a scene in a cardboard box

-See if you can draw a picture with your foot

If it really does seem like there is nothing to do, is using electronics and TV ever an acceptable solution?

The problem with using TV or electronic games to alleviate boredom is that it is one of those temporary solutions that just digs children into a deeper hole. Studies show that kids who regularly use electronics are more likely to feel bored than other kids.  Even after eliminating the habit, it can take months for them to find other activities about which they’re passionate.  But don’t give up–you’re doing their creativity an enormous favor!

If your child can read, there is never “nothing” to do. There is a whole world of books just waiting to be discovered! If your child cannot yet read, but you are available, you can always read to him–and there are thousands of other wonderful things you can do to engage your young child. You are likely to draw a blank in that moment when your child is whining, so it’s worth making a list in advance. I highly recommend games that are designed to bring you closer to your child, because these will fill his cup, after which he will be more able to figure out what else to do on his own. Here are some of my favorite ideas.

But let’s assume you are doing something where they can’t be involved, such as nursing the baby to sleep, and your toddler or preschooler needs to be kept busy and quiet. In this case, is it so terrible to put your two or three year old in front of a screen for half an hour? Of course not.  Choose a tape that is limited in length so there’s a natural ending to eliminate fights when you turn it off, and to keep your child from seeing commercials.  Give your child something to look forward to afterwards (“Once the baby is asleep, you and I will spend some special time together”).  And just be sure you turn off the screen once you’re available, rather than taking advantage of it to finish “just one more thing” before giving your child attention.

Laura Markham, Ph.D., is the author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start ConnectingShe’s worked as a parenting coach with countless parents across the English-speaking world and runs, the website of Aha! Moments for parents of kids from birth through the teen years.

The Mother Company aims to support parents and their children, providing thought-provoking web content and products based in social and emotional learning for children ages 3-6. Check out the first episode of our children’s series, Ruby’s Studio: The Feelings Show,” which helps kids identify, express, and move through their feelings. We want to be a parenting tool…  For you!

Posted in: Expert Advice, Learn, Modern Parenting

Comments (9)

  1. Manoj Chauhan

    Its a very helpful article not only for kids but for adults too, I guess this is one reason why adults are boring because as kids they were never paid much attention too but thanbks for the awareness so many tips are shared and people know how to deal with kids. Nice post

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  5. Angela

    Well this has been useful information, having my second child at 42 years old was a surprise so now having a 21 year old and a 4 year old at the age of 46 years is still a shocker. My 4 year old is bright loves to read and is striving and progressing daily. Lately she complains that she is bored, but I’m thinking but you’ve been to school we played read books and done some painting, sticking and went to the park. So now I’m thinking I need to give my child extra things to do. But I love the idea of the jar of activities and her own choices chosen will be my new MUST DO’S. So big thanks keep you posted

  6. Lian

    You know what my mom would say if I told her I was bored? She would tell me to wipe the windows or do some house chores. Hahaha. Of course that was not what I was looking for. Now I tend to respond the same way when my kids tell me they are bored 🙂 Thanks for your suggestions and insight. The next time my kids say they are bored, I will interpret it as “Mom, I want you to spend some time with me”.

  7. Annie

    I love the suggestion of taking 5 minutes to snuggle and connect with your bored child before helping them to figure out what they can do. I had never though of boredom being a cry for attention.

  8. Old School Parent

    Yikes! Please correct my error. I wrote “are bored or are they boring” it should read “are you bored or are you boring?”

  9. Old School Parent

    I am a firm believer in having bored kids. It is good for them. I refuse to buy them DVD players for road trips. They can count cows like I did. We have no hand held gaming devices, their time on tv or computer is restricted and I toss them outside to go find something to do all the time.

    When either of them mutters the words “I’m bored” (which is rare) I ask them “are you bored or are you boring?” Then I add “have you noticed that interesting people are never bored?”

    Sometimes I will even toss in “Remember that when you point to something and say “that’s boring” Only one finger is pointing at that thing and three are pointing back at you.”

    Thanks for the post. It was a good’n