In praise of being bored.

In praise of being bored.

Lately my kids and I have been spending a lot of time in the waiting room.

It hasn’t been easy.

Last week, halfway through yet another 90-minute waiting room session, my eight-year-old looked up at me and said I’m bored. Lucy’s a spunky kid (if we’re being polite about it) and she didn’t say it so much as a statement of fact but as a challenge: a what are you gonna do about it, Mom?

Poor girl. She wanted sympathy, or some ideas on how to occupy her time, or at the very least, yet another snack. I feel bad about our accumulating waiting room hours, which, though temporary, are taxing.

A big part of me wanted to jump in and fix it for her. But I’m reading Sherry Turkle’s book Reclaiming Conversation, which is all about the value of real-time human interaction in a digital age. So instead of a Honey, how can I help? she got a swift You’ll be fine. And when she protested that she hated being bored, I told her everyone needs to be bored sometimes. Boredom is good for you.

Lucy looked up, clearly surprised, but I put my head back down and kept reading my book.

(There probably was a better strategy, but oh well.)

It’s not just my 8-year-old who’s complaining about boredom. According to Turkle, it’s the greatest fear of 18-24 year-olds, who are accustomed to a constant stream of stimulation from their digital devices that keeps their frontal lobes occupied and eliminates any need for them to be alone with their thoughts.

Technology makes it easy to avoid boredom and anxiety, but that’s not actually a good thing. Kids need to be bored. Grown-ups need to to experience boredom, too.

Lucy doesn’t know or care why I want her to be bored; she just thinks I’m being unsympathetic. She’s still learning to appreciate the value of quiet moments. She hasn’t heard Erickson’s theory that children need “stillness” to find their identity. She doesn’t know that boredom is directly linked to creativity.

And yet when I look at my child, I see the good things that happen when she takes some time to herself, with just her own thoughts for company. The fruits of those hours are obvious.

Lucy doesn’t yet know that solitude lets you hear your own thoughts, or that the ability to sit with one’s thoughts is a gift, and a skill that needs cultivating. She’s still learning how boredom is not a curse, but a cue—a sign that you need to recharge, or that you’re learning something, or that it’s time to turn to your own imagination for comfort, for a change.

She can’t yet articulate that these things are important, but I see what happens when she spends time alone—and what happens when she doesn’t escape her 3 siblings for a bit—and I see its value.

And so I let Lucy to be bored, and I kept reading my book.

When I looked up a little while later, Lucy was sitting in the chair, staring at the ceiling.

You still bored? I said.

I’m not exactly bored, she said. I’m thinking.

I didn’t say anything. I just nodded, and returned to my book, silently thanking Sherry Turkle.

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32 comments

  1. Many thanks for the reminder. My kids are still young enough that they haven’t complained about being bored, but it is definitely something I’d like to cultivate. For now, I try to model boredom myself, sometimes more successfully than others.

  2. Michelle says:

    This is absolutely true. It took me a long time to appreciate being “bored” and realizing that it’s not so bad to be at times to be alone with my thoughts. But it’s something that takes practice. It’s been a while for me.

  3. Karen says:

    My grandmother always said that “smart people don’t get bored”…trying to challenge us to use that creative side or at the very least find a different word to describe how we were feeling at the time. I find myself saying that to my own children now.

    • I frequently say to my kids after hearing the B word (which is a swear word in my home!), “Bored people are boring”.

      Anne have you read Room by Emma Donoghue? Tough subject matter, but one thing it reminds me of is the fact that the more kids have access to, the MORE boredom is a problem. Little Jack in Room had a tiny catalog of items to access, but he was never bored.

  4. Such a good reminder. I find myself feeling so “chaotic” without quiet and time to myself. It’s just a habit to always has some kind of stimuli on (music playing, tv on, screen to look at), it takes a conscious effort to have quiet and possibly even boredom.

  5. Tracy Tobias says:

    You and your followers might also enjoy Parenting in the Age of the Attention Snatchers by Lucy Jo Palladino. Lots of strategies for managing technology in our kids’ lives as well as how it’s changing their (and our brains).

  6. Betty says:

    As a teacher, I always tell my students that boredom is a choice. The circumstances that cause some to complain are the very ones that can stimulate someone else . . . Therefore, each of us can choose to be bored (that’s okay sometimes!) or not. Watching grass grow can be fascinating to some people! So I say, choose. My now adult daughter says she is never bored because she chooses to keep her mind engaged!

  7. Anna says:

    I’m also unsympathetic to the “I’m bored” complaint. When we are at home, stating you are bored means I will find you something to do- which is usually chores or schoolwork. We’ve also done lots of traveling with wait times- hours/days in the car, long airplane travel with waits at airports. Those along with living in the third world for years have taught the kids to be comfortable with unstructured time without entertainment.

  8. Dana says:

    My mother’s cure for ” I’m bored” was to allow me to scrub the grout in the kitchen floor with a toothbrush. I think I only said it once! ; ).

    Children left to their own devices, especially if they are outside, can usually find a cure for boredom pretty quickly.
    When I was a teacher and child came up to me outside and announced they were bored I would tell them. ” I am not the entertainment committee. It is up to you to find something to do.” Then I would walk away. Soon the child would be joining in with the group acting out The Wizard of Oz or making a Secret Garden ( both after the books were read -alouds in my class) or making fairy houses or creating new games to play with the soccer balls. One year the boys invented a game that was a called Da Ball and was a mash-up of soccer, dodge ball, tag and kick ball. The rules were elaborate and changed often but they had great fun with it. I provided balls, jump ropes, and endless supplies if sidewalk chalk and stood back. I enjoyed watching all of the projects they immersed themselves in, from using plants and dirt to make ink, to digging up “fossils”, to making a secret hideout in the tree line along the edge of the playground.

    Boredom, or more accurately time to let my mine wander, is how I come up with new story ideas. I sat on my patio yesterday and just watched the trees and clouds and let my head wander for a long while. Last night in writing group I “found” the seed for a whole new story that really had some energy. I was not actively seeking a story idea yesterday ( I am working on several already)but my mind was in a receptive state and here it came.
    Hooray for boredom!

  9. This isn’t what my kids want to hear, I’m sure, but when they say that to me I usually respond with, “What a luxury. You’re blessed. Enjoy exploring your mind.” They roll their eyes, but they can see the flint in mine. Haha!

  10. Kelly in CA says:

    I read this post to my 8 yr old son. It’s a far better explanation of why I don’t help him when he says he’s bored than I’ve ever come up with! For me, that quiet time is essential or else I feel jumbled up inside. Thanks, Anne!

  11. Being bored was something that I found hard to do when I was younger and it has carried with me throughout life, for the better and the worst. There are times when I can’t slow down and constantly need thing done at this moment. Slowly but surely, my boyfriend is teaching me to enjoy the quiet moments, taking naps and overall appreciating life in the quiet moments.

  12. Lindsay says:

    Our family gave up tv for Lent. Even though we don’t watch a ton of tv, it was a bold move. Most days my kids were allowed to watch a show while I cooked dinner or the toddler napped. It has also been used as an incentive to finish math work on particularly trying days.
    On morning 1, I frequently heard about their boredom mixed with pleading for a show. But by afternoon, my 7 year old had discovered he liked the Beatles while my younger two played with toys not seen in months and completed at least 50 pieces of art for me. As a home educator, I’m no stranger to the benefits of unstructured time in nurturing the mind. But it still blew me away in my own house just how much a difference it is making. We are all reading more, talking more, and complaints of boredom are pretty few and far between. We have even decided to keep the little experiment going.
    I’ll definitely add this book to my TBR list.
    Boredom leads to beautiful things!

  13. Eve says:

    Just listened to Simplicity Parenting on Audible and he reiterates much of this. It was a great encouragement to not feel guilty when my kiddos utter those words.

  14. Katie Roper says:

    I need more bored in my life! It’s a little too easy to be constantly entertained, and some of my best ideas definitely come from boredom. Maybe that is why I think of things in the shower?
    I am not anti technology, but it kind of worries me to see someone not even be able to watch TV without pulling out their phones for additional distraction. Does anyone else witness this?! Im trying to put my phone away in another room more often so I don’t fall into this craziness.

  15. Kristina Mullen says:

    I think boredom is actually restorative. This would explain why after a busy vacation, going non-stop and being endlessly entertained, I don’t feel rested. Instead, I feel like I need another vacation, one where I can be bored. I don’t have children of my own, but I wonder if this is why so many kids feel restless instead of rested, because they want entertainment but they need boredom?

  16. Sue Iverson says:

    As a child I had asthma and spent a great deal of time ill or resting. When I complained about being bored, my mother told me “Only boring people are bored”. It was wonderful to know at a very young age that I was in control of my happiness. I became a reader and a dreamer. My mother’s quote gave me power over my illness and happiness in the midst of fear.

  17. Heather Lima says:

    Amen! So well stated. Simplicity Parenting first introduced me to this concept of productive boredom and it made so much sense to my former teacher self. It has really helped take the pressure off me as a mom! I love seeing my toddler rolling around on the floor, kicking the wall, mumbling and singing to himself.

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