By Sarah Hamaker, Crosswalk.com
Ever hear the cry of “I’m boooorrrreeeeddd” from your children? In my house growing up, my mom banned the use of the phrase, “I’m bored.” As a mom myself, I followed in her footsteps and did the same. My four children knew better than to say they had nothing to do because I’d find them something to do of the chore variety.
Before I give you seven ways to combat boredom from kids, let’s first discuss what it means to be bored and why it’s okay for children and teens to experience boredom. Merriam-Webster defines boredom as “the state of being weary and restless through lack of interest.” When your children say they’re bored, what they’re really saying is nothing sounds interesting to them at this moment. So they whine and want someone else—usually mom or dad—to provide sufficient entertainment to capture their attention.
But being able to figure out how to re-engage with the world on their own is an important life skill. Being bored helps children build tolerance for less-than-fun things. As Dr. Stephanie Lee, director of the ADHD and Behavior Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute, put it in an online article on the topic, “Life requires us to manage our frustrations and regulate our emotions when things aren’t going our way, and boredom is a great way to teach that skill.”
Boredom also gives children opportunities to devise planning strategies, practice flexibility, develop organizational skills, and problem-solve on their own. These are key skills many children with highly structured schedules don’t have. But it’s not the boredom itself that pushes kids to acquire these essential skills—it’s what they do when they find themselves at loose ends.
“Typically, kids don’t plan their days, but when they work on a project to fill their time, they have to create a plan, organize their materials and solve problems,” said Jodi Musoff, an educational specialist at the Child Mind Institute, in an online article on boredom. “Developing these skills helps children better manage a variety of academic tasks, such as planning for long-term assignments and flexibility when working on group projects and social skills.”
Boredom also gives kids the perfect scenario to think originally, be creative and boost their self-confidence. “The key is to help kids learn how to manage their boredom so they can develop independence and feel agency over their own happiness and wellbeing,” Dr. Lee said in the article.
So why aren’t more kids allowed to be bored? One major reason is that parents can’t stand the whining. To combat “I’m bored,” you need a magic box of techniques that encourages kids to entertain themselves and discourages them from bothering you with their boredom.
Discourage Whining About Being Bored
First, my fool-proof way to discourage kids from whining about being bored. Note: this will work only if you follow through when your kids say they’re bored.
Write down a list of chores not on your usual daily or weekly list, such as dusting the baseboards, cleaning windows, wiping down door frames and light switch plates, etc. The ones that a kid could do but are very, well, boring. Then put each chore on a slip of paper or a popsicle stick. Dump sticks or slips into a jar labeled “I’m Bored.”
Tell your kids when they say “I’m bored” or whine about having nothing to do, you’ll direct them to pick a chore slip/stick from the jar. Then they have to do the chore to your satisfaction. Don’t let them peek at the chores ahead of time.
When my kids were younger, I did this one summer. All four wanted to know what the “bored” chores were, but I said they couldn’t find out unless they said they were bored. So they said in unison, “I’m bored” to satisfy their curiosity. Once they’d drawn a chore slip and discovered what it said, they wanted to put it back without doing the chore; naturally, I made them do the task. I never had a problem with boredom that summer—or subsequent summers—again.
Now, here are seven ways to cure boredom in your children.
Box up the electronics. While tablets, computers, handheld gaming devices, and the like appear to provide hours of whine-free entertainment, your child’s imagination is stifled using such passive devices. If you want to avoid boredom in your kids, severely limit their time with electronics. For older kids (middle school and up), restrict their electronics time to an hour or two a day. Use a kitchen or phone timer to keep track or schedule their online time each day (such as 1 to 2 p.m.).
Invest in low-tech toys. Think toys that have multiple uses, like building sets (LEGOs, blocks, magnetic tiles, Lincoln Logs), “real” play sets (miniature kitchens, food, telephones, cash registers), dress-up items, things that go (trains, cars, etc.), and dolls or generic action figures (like Fischer Price’s Little People). These toys allow children to play with them using their imaginations and can easily accommodate one child or several at a time.
Bring on the music. Have a selection of musical instruments for your child. These do not have to be “real” instruments. Maraca, drums, harmonicas, triangles, xylophones, and other simple instruments can provide children with hours of enjoyment. Also, consider investing in a portable CD player and a selection of age-appropriate music and audiobook CDs. My children loved listening to stories and music on their own CD players.
Set up an art studio. Devise a corner of the playroom or other area of your home as an art studio and allow your kids to create to their heart’s content. Stock it with coloring books and colored pencils, crayons, or markers; modeling clay or Play-Doh; drawing paper; and watercolor paints and paper. If your child has an interest in a particular art medium, get the materials for that as well. A tarp or painter’s drop cloth can protect your floor from a glitter explosion.
Allow for experimentation. If your kids are interested in bugs, send them outside with a magnifying glass to hunt for insects in the grass. If your preschooler loves mud, let him wallow in an area of your yard after it rains. If you have a budding chef, let him whip up desserts in the kitchen or dinner for the family using recipes he found online. If this sounds a bit messy, then yes, it is. But giving our kids the space to make a mess—and clean it up when they’re done—can unlock their potential to entertain themselves. So don’t let the thought of a mess stop you from giving them leave to experiment.
Kick them outside. Most summers, there were days when I literally locked my kids outside for half an hour at a time using a kitchen timer. When the timer went off, they were usually having a blast and didn’t want to come back in. Don’t be afraid to shoo your children outside even when it’s hot. There’s something restorative and calming about being out in nature, even when that nature is your front lawn or backyard. So incorporate outdoor time into their summer schedule and give them space to enjoy it.
Water them. Most children love water, so let them indulge as much as possible. If your schedule doesn’t permit regular trips to the neighborhood pool, hire one of the teen swimmers or off-duty lifeguards to take your kids. If you don’t have access to a pool, lawn sprinklers are a great substitute. For the littles, wading pools work well too. Create your own water tables with plastic bins if you don’t have yard space for a pool.
The most important thing to remember is that it’s not your job to solve your children’s boredom—it’s their responsibility. Once you understand that, it becomes easier to direct them to one of these ideas or the bored chore jar. It’s incredible what a mundane chore will do to inspire kids to find their own entertainment.
For more suggestions on combating boredom in your kids, my book Boredom Busters has more than 120 ideas for boys and girls to do with minimal adult assistance or supervision.
Sarah Hamaker is a national speaker and award-winning author who loves writing romantic suspense books “where the hero and heroine fall in love while running for their lives.” She’s also a wife, mother of four teenagers, a therapeutic foster mom, a UMFS Foster Parent Ambassador, and podcaster (The Romantic Side of Suspense podcast). She's a biblical parent coach and certified Leadership Parenting Coach™ with a heart for helping parents develop stronger relationships with their children. For more on her encouraging and commonsense approach to raising kids, visit her online at sarahhamaker.com.