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Melissa’s Playbook: Why Boredom Isn’t a Bad Word

2016-08-17 by Melissa

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We recently partnered with Gallup for a study on parents’ perspectives on childhood play. You can see what we learned here. This blog is part of our “Time to Play” series, with advice and tips on how you can make time for play in your child’s life!


This blog is part of our “Time to Play” series, with advice and tips on how you can make time for play in your child’s life!

“Free play and exploration are, historically, the means by which children learn to solve their own problems, control their own lives, develop their own interests, and become competent in pursuit of their own interests.”

—Peter Gray, Research Professor, Department of Psychology, Boston College

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Boredom has been my greatest gift. Sounds funny to say it, but it’s the honest truth. However, if I am to be totally transparent, it took me quite a long time to realize this. Throughout my childhood, although boredom was my constant and often only companion, we had a terribly tumultuous relationship. I despised the fact that it infused me with a sense of urgency and desperation … to such an extent that my number one mission was to fill the void it created and pack my days with activity so it disappeared.

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But as I fought to overcome boredom’s wrath, I ultimately came to realize that it was not my enemy but a mentor to be cherished. Because boredom forced me to look myself in the mirror each and every day and dig deep to discover who I was and what made me happy. Every single morning as I pondered the day ahead, I had no choice but to depend on my own brain to populate the blank canvas and determine how to fill each day with magic and meaning. And that helped me form a supreme sense of self-awareness, develop the ability to create something out of nothing, and propel me toward a career and path to self-fulfillment.

Sadly, among today’s parents boredom has become a bad word. Boredom is now synonymous with “doing nothing productive and wasting time.” And that is a tragic mistake, because boredom is actually the key ingredient to a fulfilling childhood, and should be treasured throughout life like nothing else.

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Think of boredom as kindling. At first glance, it’s just a pile of dry twigs. Yawn. But add a flicker of imagination, a spark of creativity, and before long the boredom is transformed into something new . . . light, warmth, knowledge. It’s when we’re bored and have to dig deep to find ways to fill our time that imagination is born. We must learn to embrace the boredom — grownups and kids alike. Who knows? We just might set the world on fire. But first, we need to dispel a few myths:

The 5 Biggest Myths About Boredom

MYTH #1: “If my kid is bored, I’m a bad parent.”

Not true! Too many parents fear hearing “I’m bored” from their kids because they think it means, “I haven’t done a good enough job of filling the void, keeping my kid busy, and getting him/her on the path to success.” Your effectiveness as a parent is not measured by how many activities you can line up for your child — it is about preparing your child to be comfortable with the discomfort and enabling him or her to discover a passion. Resist the urge to beat yourself up about those complaints of boredom. They are temporary and if you stay the course, they will pass. And your children will ONE HUNDRED PERCENT be better for it. Don’t deprive your kids of the gift of feeling bored, pushing past that feeling, and finding something magical on the other side.

MYTH #2: Boredom means my kid isn’t busy enough.

False! Today we have a tendency to schedule our kids’ lives to the minute. The thinking is that if kids aren’t involved in some sort of adult-led, academic, athletic, or enrichment activity, it’s time wasted and they’re not building a skill that can get them ahead. I get it — the pressure on parents is immense to ensure our kids are keeping up with the other kids. I’ve felt it myself. It’s a challenge to remember that empty pockets of time are actually full of possibilities. And I believe the benefits of downtime well exceed the benefits of an afterschool activity. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I think the solution must be to aim for a sense of balance and moderation — some scheduled activities, sure, but also some downtime mixed in where kids can come up with their own ways to pass the time and discover what pastimes make them truly happy.

MYTH #3: Boredom leads to trouble.

OK, I’ll grant that perhaps unsupervised boredom — especially for older kids and teens — might potentially lead to misbehavior. But I would also argue that giving our younger children opportunities to experience and deal with their boredom will enable them to develop decision making abilities and maturity in spending their time appropriately which will help them avoid reckless behavior and poor decision-making later in life.

MYTH #4: Boredom is for uninteresting, unpopular people.

There’s a stereotype that popular, well-adjusted people are “so busy,” always “running somewhere,” claiming to be “crazy” with this activity or that. The so-called cool people always have someone to see or some place to be. On the flipside, bored people just stay home alone with nothing to do but mope around while everyone else in the world is having fun. Like I said, that’s the stereotype. And we parents, who perhaps grew up concerned about being labeled a loser, are determined that our kids never have that fear of missing out. It’s high time for us to recognize that boredom is a totally normal feeling. It’s not a personality defect. There’s a difference between boredom and boring. A child who learns to use her imagination to transport her from her feelings of boredom will never, ever be boring. I promise you that.

MYTH #5: Boredom is a dead-end.

Just the opposite! Boredom can be the beginning. It’s the incubator of good ideas. The beginning of using one’s imagination to build something out of nothing. Studies show that boredom has the power to boost creativity. I’m a firm believer that feats of innovation and entrepreneurship are often hatched during a period of boredom and daydreaming about “what ifs” and “why nots.” It’s critical that we ensure future generations have the tools to think big and imagine the possibilities. And it starts with giving them the time and space to occasionally be bored.

So I’ve laid out the myths about boredom. Now what? Here are some concrete ideas for how to deal with boredom.

5 Ways to Beat Boredom

  1. Game It.
    Encourage kids to turn their boredom into a game. The object? To use their own brainpower and whatever screen-free items they can find in the physical world around them to outwit the boredom. In fact, kids may even enjoy inventing their own games with their own rules to help keep the boredom at bay.
  1. Attack It.
    Encourage your child to create a long, master list (that can continually be augmented) of any and all ways he/she can come up with to fill their blank canvas. Have it be the list to pull out whenever you hear the words, “I’m bored.”
  1. Team Up on It.
    Be bored together. Show solidarity and face the empty time as a pair. Lay on the grass side-by-side and look up at the boring clouds. On a boring stormy summer day, watch the boring raindrops race down the window pane. Model for your child how to quietly reflect on one’s own thoughts and the world around you.
  1. Bust It.
    Create a boredom buster box of a handful of special items that only come out when there is one of those days with nothing to do. Maybe it includes a special joke book. Or an extra special set of colorful markers. Or a stamp collecting book with stamps. And then once that period is over, the items go back into the box so they retain their specialness.
  1. Ignore It.
    This is the hardest one. But it’s probably the most powerful and will have the most impact. Our instinct as parents is to want to solve our kids’ problems with a quick fix. Fight that instinct. Do nothing. Don’t swoop in with an activity idea. Don’t hand them a phone or the remote. Sit on your hands, bite your tongue, and let your kids … be. You might be surprised to see just where their boredom takes them.

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Here’s to a season filled with just the right amount of boredom! Not too much. Not too little. The kind that brings a little creative magic and wonder to you and your child’s lives. Enjoy!

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Melissa

Melissa is the co-founder of Melissa & Doug. She credits her creativity to a childhood of boredom, relying on only her imagination to fill the blank canvas — with magic. Concerned this generation of children is missing out on the kind of unstructured downtime that enables them to find their passions and purpose through exploration, Melissa is leading a movement to Take Back Childhood. She dreams of a day when kids are free from over-scheduling, undue pressure, and digital distractions so they may discover themselves, develop into free thinkers, and realize their full potential.

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