The Blessings of Boredom



“I’m bored.”

Ask any parent and they’re sure to tell you that these are the two most irritating words you can hear come out of a child’s mouth. More annoying than “Are we there yet?” and more ubiquitous than “five more minutes,” when a child says he’s bored it’s enough to drive any over-scheduled, multi-tasking adult crazy-especially since most of us would sell our souls for a day of guilt-free, free time.

Even though he’s rolling his eyes like he’s bored, I try to explain to my son that the concept of labeling a huge part of human experience as “boring” is a relatively new phenomenon. “Think about how hard people used to have to work simply to survive. Taking care of the cows and the pigs and fields required rising at the crack of dawn, while preparing meals without microwaves and running water and mending clothes so they would survive another winter kept people busy well into the night,” I tell him. He fake snores in response to my diatribe.

Hmmm, that went well. What’s even more surprising to me is that it’s my kid who has a problem with this, as my husband is a master of playing with himself.

“Why can’t we play on the computer or watch TV?” he asks for what feels like the 900th time.

“You’ve got friends over. You’re supposed to entertain each other. Go outside and climb a tree, run around, make up a game.”

Finally, blessedly, they do.

And they’re happy and they’re stimulating their minds and tiring out their bodies just like kids were meant to do.

But we have this “I’m bored” conversation more often than we should, primarily when other kids come over to play and I refuse to let them plug in to the television or the computer. So far we’ve resisted the Nintendo marketing cry in our house, but if we ever do give in (who am I kidding – when we do), I can guarantee I’ll be that mean old mom who won’t allow plugged in play dates.

There’s a huge upside to downtime and I worry that today’s kids are so overscheduled and over stimulated that they have no idea how to entertain themselves.

A survey by the University of Michigan found that in 1997 children between the ages of 3 and 12 had nearly eight hours less free time each week than they did in 1981. And I’m sure it’s only gotten worse. It’s no surprise that in a recent study approximately half of adolescents surveyed said they feel stressed out at least once a week. They’ve got too much on their plates. They need a little time to be bored.

But they also need some guidance from their parents so they can carve out the free time to explore, create, connect, contemplate or just be. Even a bit of intentional boredom stimulates creativity and can help children become more relaxed more self-sufficient and, ultimately, happier.

Instead of letting the phrase “I’m bored” send us scrambling for ways to stimulate, entertain or occupy our kids, I think we should try to embrace it. Children are like nature, they abhor a vacuum. Give them some do-nothing time and the odds are pretty good they’ll find an interesting way to fill it. Hopefully they’ll learn something, and even more hopefully very little property will be damaged.

The next time my son says, “I’m bored,” I’m going to try my best not to be annoyed. “That’s great,” I’ll say instead. “Have fun.”

When Leslie’s not fantasizing about having some guilt-free, free time of her own, she can be reached at email . Originally published in the Santa Barbara Daily Sound on April 17, 2009. For more columns visit