Right now, my kids are happily playing a card game they invented together.
Laughter and encouragement effortlessly flow between them like a scene in slow motion with swelling music. Just thirty minutes ago, this was not the case. They loudly protested the had nothing to do — to say "screamed" wouldn't be an over statement. They still don't know this, but I think boredom is exactly what they needed. It's becoming a predictable pattern.
For many of us parents, our kids are surrounded by things (toys, activities, digital resources, etc.) to keep them from being bored, yet boredom still comes. According to British research, the average 10 year-old has 238 toys but plays with only 12. Clearly more ways to escape boredom isn't the solution.
I wonder if the solution to boredom isn't found in avoiding it, but developing a more holistic relationship with it.
Genuine boredom is in short supply in our modern world. Most of us (as parents or children) can delude our own boredom with mindless mobile entertainment, youtube rabbit holes, endless social media feeds, distracting advertising messages, and more. Boredom is a scarce resource in our hyper connected world and thus, perhaps, more valuable than ever today. When is the last time you or your kids have sat with boredom for a prolonged period of time and listened to what it might have to say?
What happens when we embrace it? Just sit. Do nothing. Try to listen. And keep doing nothing for a little while past comfortable. Sounds painful, right? It is. But I don't think that's all it is. Doing nothing is the path that most often leads to doing something new.
Something happens when we surrender to our boredom rather than just trying to escape or avoid it. We become better at moving through it — we listen to it and allow it to change us somehow. Doing nothing doesn't change our circumstances, but it can change how we interact with our circumstances. And that's powerful. Our perception of what is possible changes.
Boredom is the birthplace of creativity.
When we hear kids complain about having nothing to do, I think it means they need more access to boredom rather than less of it. I don't mean that as vindictive or judgmental, but as an opportunity to face difficulty head on. Boredom is the unassuming catalyst for fresh energy, drive and purpose we wouldn't otherwise have without it. It forces us to stop, face ourselves honesty and recalibrate. By doing so, it opens up rarely noticed or considered possibilities. I think that's exactly what kids need when they are stuck in a rut. I think we as parents need it too.
These ideas are obviously too big, complex, and difficult for our kids to navigate alone. Children need our help to walk through and develop a rewarding relationship with boredom. We can start small with lots of hands on guidance.
In the beginning, maybe we don't call it boredom. Maybe we call it quiet time. Or relaxing time (I like that one!). Some might call it meditation. Or mindfulness. Boredom acquiesced is the mind disengaging from the noise of over-stimulation and redirecting energy into finding a way to emotionally and physiologically regulate our own inner resources.
What could a practice of boredom look like in your family?
I remember Mr. Rogers once asking his audience if they wanted to see what a minute is like. He set a timer and eagerly watched it slowly tick by on TV. I think whatever practice we come up with, it could feel like that. Perhaps painful and awkward. But also playful and refreshing. Hopeful and revitalizing.
Maybe this looks like seeing if you can sit in one spot for 10 minutes. Maybe it's slowing your breath down as far as you can. Maybe it's unplugging technology for a day of the week. Maybe it's taking a silent walk around the block together. Maybe it's sitting on the sidewalk and watching ants march by carrying crumbs that look far too big for them. It could be any set of parameters that help our families come to term with our natural limits.
If I go back to just before my kids created their game and could watch their thoughts in slow motion, the sequence might break down something like this: They stopped fighting the wall of boredom they experienced. The finally accepted it as a real limitation. And in that acceptance, they looked around, took account of what resources and possibilities were in front of them, and found a thread they could pull to it tie all together in a brand new way.
This seems to be the path to turn anxious longing for distraction into contentment and creative potential.
The next time I hear my kids say they're bored, I might ask to join in. Let's see if we can't develop a new and transformative relationship with boredom together.