In America’s culture of busy-ness, boredom has become a four-letter word. Not only is boredom regarded as a negative emotional state, it is generally viewed as a problem to be treated, a hole to be filled. Our culture of busy-ness is a brilliant distraction from our anxiety, our feelings, and our “selves.” But it also makes us feel like total losers when we have idle time. It creates pressure or guilt when our schedules are not full. There is unspoken competition to see how busy one can be, this frenetic impulse to flee from any hint of unfilled time that might lead to actually feeling something. Just think of the last time you picked up your phone, went online, sent a text message, or stuffed something in your mouth when you felt bored, or felt some deeper feelings that emerged when you had a moment of spare time.
The comedian Louis CK poignantly points out that we would rather kill one another texting in our cars than to actually feel alone or sad while driving. Happiness is on the other side of boredom. If we wade through our negative feelings, we end up on the shore of happier, more creative ones. We need this process in order to experience who we really are, separate from our relationships, jobs, affiliations and communities. Suppressing or avoiding our emotions only makes them stronger.
As adults, we control the level of busy-ness in our lives and thus, our feelings, through this web of “stuff” we have to and electively choose to do. If boredom brings up anxiety in you, you may want to explore how it is impacting the amount of busy-ness in the lives of your children. Are they scheduled for multiple sports or classes, going on play dates every week, watching shows or plugged in at the slightest hint of boredom?
When my son was two, my husband and I got rid of our television. We ultimately decided that we wanted to teach our children, as opposed to Elmo or Barney doing it, and worried about our kid’s exposure to adult content and consumer messages. When we first made this transition, I felt this enormous pressure to entertain my son and an impending anxiety when it seemed we weren’t doing much of anything but puttering around the garden. To be quite honest, there were plenty of times that I got bored after the TV disappeared. And being my children’s primary playmate (meaning their source of entertainment) meant that when mommy has jobs to do around the house, chaos sometimes ensues. My son has been known to decorate the furniture with crayons and wallpaper the living room walls with glue sticks and construction paper when I am too busy for him. My daughter has taken to decorating her body with marker and sticking her head in the toilet to get my attention. So believe me, I’ve given a lot of thought to getting a television to plunk my kids down in front of. But I won’t. And here is why. Their boredom may be messy, but it is healthy.
This may seem like a radical concept, but boredom, especially in this day and age, is actually a gift. Creativity is born from idle time. All of the made up games and putzing around that happens with unscheduled time builds social and developmental skills in a way that scheduled activities or Apps on a smart phone cannot. Overscheduled kids simply don’t have the opportunity or energy to delve as fully into what they are doing. They are often playing by the rules of coaches and teachers and being told what to do, as opposed to making up their own games. Creating their own games helps children build social skills as they negotiate the ever-changing rules of those games. Dr. Kim John Payne, founder of the Simplicity Parenting movement, has written about the gift of boredom. Payne’s standard initial intervention for kids with issues like attention deficit, defiance, and anxiety is not to prescribe medication, but to actually create physical and emotional space by helping parents throw away their children’s toys. This may sound cruel, but the results of purging toys to a minimal and manageable level are incredible. Kids calm down, become more creative in their play, and the psychological symptoms start to quell.
Payne reminds us all that there is value in having and doing less, and having less choice. Our culture of busyness informs Payne’s point that “we’re accustomed to seeing our children’s boredom as a personal failure.” If you can reframe this for yourself, parent or not, you will come to notice the ways that boredom is a gift.