Like most parents on the planet, Kathy W. has heard the complaint, "I'm bored. I want to watch TV." Unlike many moms and dads, this New Hampshire mom tells her three sons, ages ten, seven and four, "That's good! Now you have a chance to explore new possibilities." Kathy thinks kids have to get bored to get creative.
Summer is a season ripe for boredom. For many children, the transition from a rigorously scheduled day of school, enrichment classes and homework to a lazy, hazy day at home can be very unsettling. Parents, who mourn the loss of free time for themselves, may have difficulty understanding a child's frustration. Some may look back at their own childhoods and recall idyllic days spent barefoot, catching frogs and spitting watermelon seeds from the back porch. But the scene in the rear view mirror is likely to have grown somewhat blurry with the passage of time. Chances are that frog-catching and seed-spitting moments were few and far between in the summer of '69, with far more time spent watching Andy Griffith reruns in a dark, cool basement!
Still, many of our parents did what Kathy W. does today: tell kids to go off and find something to do on their own. That's what researchers who study boredom say more of us should do: refuse to step into the role of cruise ship director, offering myriad activity choices to satisfy a child's every whim.
"Finding things to do when bored is the way kids learn to be on their own, to find out what interests them and what isn't boring," says Jonathan Plucker, associate professor of educational psychology at Indiana University. "That's the problem we see with college students. The ones who have a hard time adjusting are those whose parents never transitioned into giving them more responsibility. In the end, we want kids who can entertain themselves, pick up a book or find something they want to volunteer for."
Plucker, who has conducted studies of boredom among schoolchildren, advises parents to use a "scaffolding" approach, to "slowly build up" a child's own sense of resourcefulness, rather than suddenly announce "you're on your own" when a lull hits. One approach is to help kids write a list of "boredom buster" activities. Eventually, Plucker says, they'll write the list on their own or not even need one.