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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Let kids get bored. It’s good for them.

A child outside in Albany, N.Y., Oct. 2, 2021. A reminder to parents soldiering through the summer: Boredom has its virtues.

By Catherine Pearson

I have a few particularly vivid memories of my childhood summers: the smell of the grill, the rattle of cicadas — and the feeling of being bored out of my mind.

While I had a relatively regimented schedule and spent long stretches of every summer at camp, there were weeks when my parents, who both worked, hadn’t filled my schedule with much of anything, and they didn’t give a hoot about whether I felt sufficiently engaged or amused.

That has been on my mind as my own sons make their way through the summer with a hodgepodge of camps, babysitters and grandparent time that is breathtakingly expensive and yet feels insufficient in terms of actual child care or stimulation.

I am hardly alone in feeling like it is my parental duty to stuff their days full of activities and learning opportunities. A study cited in a 2018 New York Times article that lamented the relentlessness of modern parenting found that regardless of education, income or race, parents believed children who are bored should be enrolled in extracurricular activities. As Erin Westgate, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Florida, explained it to me, there is a kind of cultural stigma attached to boredom, particularly in the United States.

Only boring people get bored, the saying goes.

But the reality is that boredom is “normal, natural and healthy,” said Westgate, whose research focuses on what boredom is, why people experience it and what happens when they do. Though she cautioned that there has been little empirical research exploring boredom in kids, Westgate believes that in moderate doses, boredom can offer a valuable learning opportunity, spurring creativity and problem solving and motivating children to seek out activities that feel meaningful to them.

“Guarding kids from ever feeling bored is misguided in the same way that guarding kids from ever feeling sad, or ever feeling frustrated, or ever feeling angry is misguided,” she said.

Here’s what you and your children can learn from feelings of boredom.

Boredom is informative.

Boredom is an emotion, said Westgate, who likened it to an indicator light on a car’s dashboard: “Boredom is telling you that what you’re doing right now isn’t working.” Usually that means the task you are doing is too easy or too difficult, she said, or that it lacks meaning.

One way parents can help children, particularly younger ones, learn to manage boredom is to work with them on developing what Westgate called greater emotional granularity. For instance, you can help them to distinguish between feeling sad or bored. “Name it to tame it,” a phrase coined by psychiatrist Dan Siegel, is a technique many child development experts use to help children identify their feelings.

Kids will often say “I’m bored” when they are lonely or want attention, said Katie Hurley, who holds a doctorate in social work and is the author of “The Happy Kid Handbook.” So it can help to ask if they are looking for comfort or companionship, she said.

Also, do what you can to normalize the feeling. “We have a tendency to treat boredom as a sign of distress, or a sort of call for help,” Hurley said. “It is uncomfortable, but it’s not necessarily negative.”

Boredom can lead to fulfillment.

Boredom offers children an opportunity to experiment with the kinds of pursuits that feel fulfilling and interesting to them, Westgate said.

For example, if you let your kids loose in the backyard, they may feel bored initially, she said. But they can learn to prevent that feeling, or resolve it, by finding activities that feel meaningful to them, whether that’s counting bugs, playing with a ball or drawing with sidewalk chalk. If parents don’t allow for free, imaginative play, children may never discover their innate love of nature, sports or art, or even the pleasure they can find in simply relaxing or playing.

“Being able to identify and develop those sources of meaning is a really critical skill to have lifelong,” Westgate said.

‘Boredom busters’ can break the spell.

Parents sometimes fear boredom, and the havoc it can wreak around the house, Hurley said. But free time carves out room for discovery. Hurley recommends looking at your child’s weekly schedule and asking: “Is there something we can take away, and just call it ‘quiet downtime’?”

But parents should not expect kids to instinctively know what might feel meaningful to them. Instead, parents should remind their children of things they are interested in or care about, Westgate said.

“It’s the difference between leaving the child in a room with absolutely nothing to do,” she said, versus “bringing them into a room that you know has books and puzzles — things that would be meaningful to your kid — and that would be a good fit for them.” (She also noted that research has shown that without positive outlets, people can be more inclined to engage in harmful behaviors.)

Hurley said that kids aged 5 and under need a specific menu of “boredom busters,” or questions such as: Do you want to play with Legos? Do you want to play with Play-Doh? Do you want to go outside? Parents often feel pressure to get down on the floor and play with young children every time the children are feeling bored, she said, but that can keep children from learning how capable they are of stepping into their imaginations.

With slightly older children, Hurley said she might say something like, “Take a walk around the house and come up with three ideas, and get back to me.” Once kids shift from a state of boredom to positive action, “it opens up creativity, problem solving and all kinds of academic learning skills.”

Phones and devices require little effort, Westgate noted, so children and adults often turn to them as a way to soothe feelings of boredom.

“With kids, it makes complete sense that they ask for screens when they’re bored, but that doesn’t mean, obviously, that is what’s best for them in that situation,” she said.

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