When my oldest son (now seven) was a toddler, I found myself turning into the stereotypical overly ambitious stay-at-home mom. I basically became the cruise director of my child’s day. I’m kind of embarrassed to admit it now, but I was the mom who looked up all sorts of activities on Pinterest to keep my son (and admittedly myself) busy. I had lofty intentions of trying to keep his mind and hands active. We tried crafts of all sorts and sizes – sensory bins, painting, and so on. Guess what? With a few exceptions, he did not engage with most of it. There is nothing inherently wrong with these ambitious projects. I’m sure many parents have had hours of fun, educational time with their kids doing them. But for me, this was one of many lessons in my growing understanding of my son’s temperament. Like many boys, he was (and still is) super active. He engages with activities on a much more physical level. Activities like trains or role-playing were a hit, but crafts...not so much.It was also my first lesson in the art of simplicity. Perhaps like many of you, this lesson has continually been re-taught to me by my children over the years. Fast forward a few years and now boy number two is a toddler, the lesson of simplicity still rattling around in my head. This time, I skip Pinterest and instead give him a large bowl of dry uncooked beans and some spoons and bowls to play with while I make dinner. He’s entertained for a good 20 minutes (hours in toddler time). The art of simplicity wins again. Last summer I almost forgot simplicity again. As the season approached, I panicked that my elementary-age son would not have enough activities to keep him busy. I scoured local parent magazines and websites for camps, classes, and activities. What I realized, however, was that many of these camps were an explosion of overstimulation. Some of them offered trips to zoos, aquariums, play centers, and swimming pools – all in one week! We don’t usually do that many activities in a whole summer. Understanding my son better, I knew this type of constant stimulation would probably result in numerous meltdowns.With this in mind, I relied on that lesson of simplicity and only signed him up for a handful of activities spread over the whole summer. This strategy was not fool-proof – meltdowns happen. But they were limited.All this is to say that I have learned that boredom might be the best gift I can give my children. Research now shows this to be true, but I have felt it to be true in my heart for a long time. The benefits of boredom for kids (and adults, for that matter) are numerous: creativity, emotional attunement, and overall mental health. Equally important, it gives us a chance to understand ourselves. Adults rarely have the opportunity to be bored and need to create time for reflection, but children are well poised to relish their downtime.
If you had the chance to “be bored” again, how would you spend this time? I would read, write, and cook to my heart’s content. That reveals something about the essence of who I am. What about our children? Do they understand something about the essence of who they are? What would they do if they had free time to “do nothing?” That is the only way they will ultimately learn to understand the essence of themselves. Does your son or daughter like to tinker and build new creations? Does he or she like to read and daydream about imaginary lands? May he or she enjoys drawing and doodling? These tendencies all emerge during times of boredom.But if kids are not used to downtime, that first few minutes of unscheduled, free time can be an uncomfortable feeling. We and our kids have to find a way to push through that feeling of needing some sort of stimulation (e.g., TV, phone, iPad) and learn to enjoy the quietness.One of the primary benefits of boredom: reconnection between people. Once we get past the “Mom, I’m bored,” or “Mom, do you have something for us to do?” phase, then we eventually get to the point of tinkering with Legos or building something out of a cardboard box. True, these are activities. But in essence they are place-markers for reconnection, especially for boys. You’d be surprised how many good conversations come out of an extended Lego-building session or just tinkering around the house or backyard. The main point of boredom is this: there’s no agenda. We don’t have to be anywhere at a certain time, and there’s no “goal” behind our tinkering. We’re just spending time together hanging out.After this period of reconnection, however, I think it’s also valuable for kids to spend time on their own (if appropriate for their age). Most weekends, we have quiet time in the afternoon for at least an hour, while my toddler naps. My elementary-age son has now learned, through years of practice, that this is his quiet time, too. He tinkers in his room, plays with Legos, or reads a book. You would be amazed at all the “treasures” he finds in his room during that time – old drawings and countless toys he hasn’t played with in months. We all end this time feeling refreshed and ready for another week ahead.