Boredom: a melancholy truth

Boredom is a melancholy truth of life. Charles Dickens is credited with the first recorded use of the word boredom in his 1852 novel Bleak House. Now, 158 years later, it’s still with us. Despite our overly busy world, with our senses strained by multimedia and the frenetic pace of life and work, we still experience boredom.

If you’re in any doubt, remember the school holidays are approaching – that might bring back memories of restless children moaning about the emptiness of their lives.

Boredom is an inevitable part of life and a crucial part of childhood. Reed Larson, a psychologist at the University of Illinois, conducted research in which he gave children beepers to indicate when they were bored. Larson concluded that for about a third of time at school and a quarter of time at home, children felt bored.

But what does “boredom” mean? Mostly we think of it as something bad, a lack of stimulation. If only we did more for our kids, or their teachers were more charismatic, or they had better toys or we arranged more exciting outings for them, they would not be bored.

In my view, boredom is not usually the result of a lack of stimulation. More stimulation often makes children feel restless, easily distracted and unable to focus sustained attention. This leaves them feeling there is always something more exciting somewhere else and they haven’t got it.

When a child says, “I’m bored,” you could say something sarcastic like, “If you’re so bored, why don’t you clean your room?” Or you could ask yourself if something else is happening. Boredom can also be a way of your child indicating tiredness. It might also be expression of a need for your attention or affection, even contact with a friend.

British psychologist Dr Richard Ralley believes being bored is “a signal to stop doing other things and to re-engage socially – social activity is best: a beach trip, playing football, having a picnic.”

As a parent, the thing to avoid is always leaping in with more structured and organised play. Many parents think it’s their job to entertain their children continuously or cart them off to numerous sport or cultural activities. The danger is we generate passive children who cannot problem-solve themselves out of boredom. As a sometimes distracted parent, I am struck by how often a “bored” child, receiving short shrift from a harassed mother, soon ends up doing something surprisingly imaginative on his or her own.

Think of boredom as an occasional, naturally occurring emotional state. Sometimes it means the child needs to take stock and rest after a period of stimulation. At other times it signifies the child feels a need, after a period of inactivity, to do something constructive. Left alone, the child will probably think of something.

Dr Jane Nelsen, educator and author of Positive Discipline, says it is reasonable to expect pre-schoolers to amuse themselves while you do a few chores, and for an older child to be able to entertain his or herself for one to two hours. There are risks involved, and for children who are too poorly monitored or who are already unhappy or angry, boredom can become a gateway to trouble.

When bored children blame their parents, or even their teachers, for their lack of stimulation, it might be a sign that the adult can do something differently. But, equally, boredom can be seen as a temporary failure of imagination, a shirking of responsibility. Left to themselves, bored children lose interest in finger-pointing and begins to invent something.

In other words, it is your child’s basic human right to be bored! This state is a stimulus for daydreaming, the kind of relaxed brain state in which creative imagination grows, a space in which self-reflection and self-discovery begins. Don’t chain your children to everyday life all the time – let them break free and discover the huge potential in constructive boredom.

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One thought on “Boredom: a melancholy truth

  1. Pingback: Long summer holidays, constructive boredom and your children | Judith Ancer

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