When it comes to summer vacation, Victoria Lau works hard to keep her 6-year-old’s days interesting and full. The South San Francisco, Calif., stay-at-home mom sets a weekly activity plan, which includes regular swimming and karate lessons and everything from exploring the local library to crafting origami butterflies and mucking around with Play-Doh.
Still, she says, Carter has already voiced the dreaded summer lament. “My son does get bored,” she says. “And I do get frustrated.”
As summer begins, those two little words—”I’m bored”—can touch a raw nerve in parents, many of whom often chide their child for laziness, or blame themselves for failing to provide enough fun and stimulation.
- Take a breath. Resist the urge to get angry or punish the child for being ‘lazy.’
- Don’t jump right in: Make the child responsible for finding a solution.
- Limit screen time: including computer, video games, and TV.
- Avoid the toy box: Guide the child toward imaginative or active play instead.
- Fill a jar with paper slips with the child’s ideas for things to do.
- Suggest chores that will make other options seem more appealing.
New research suggests both conclusions are off-base. Kids who complain of boredom aren’t necessarily lazy or slacking off, but are actually in a tense, negative state, says a 2012 study in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science. Frustrated and struggling to engage, they often find themselves unable to focus their attention or get started on satisfying activities.
“We assign a lot of social meaning to boredom,” says John D. Eastwood, an associate professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, and lead author of the study. “When children complain of being bored, parents sometimes are threatened, thinking, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ Or they judge themselves as parents, thinking they failed to bring up their child to have the proper character or skills,” he says.
Instead, parents should “take a deep breath, step back” and help children explore solutions for themselves, he says.
Many youngsters in the grips of boredom show physiological symptoms of stress, such as an accelerated heart rate and elevated levels of the hormone cortisol, according to research co-written by James Danckert, a psychology professor specializing in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. Other studies link boredom to nail-biting and emotional eating.
Time drags on endlessly for bored kids. Asked in a 2005 study to estimate how long it took to complete moving patterns of varying lengths on a computer screen, subjects who were prone to boredom were twice as likely to overestimate the time needed, according to the study, co-authored by Dr. Danckert.
Wes Hall says his 6-year-old son Maddox complains of boredom when what he’s really feeling is frustration—when his older sister Ainslie, 9, won’t play with him and he’s tired of playing with his 3-year-old brother Walker. When Mr. Hall, of Cary, N.C., points him to his toys, Maddox replies, “I don’t have any toys”—despite an abundant supply.
What breaks the spell for Maddox: imaginative play outdoors. Mr. Hall sometimes sends him to play in a cavelike hollowed-out tree near their house, and he’s soon acting out Star Wars scenes from his imagination.
Boredom also can be a face-saving excuse for kids, says Lisa Jacobson, chief executive of Inspirica, a New York tutoring and test-prep company. If they aren’t sure what to do with unstructured time, or how to start an unfamiliar task, they may avoid it by claiming boredom.
Anxious parents and other caregivers often overcompensate by providing exciting activities sure to grab kids’ attention, such as an action movie. This is only a short-term fix, Dr. Eastwood says. “One thing you don’t want to do is mask the state of boredom with excessive stimulation,” he says. “In the long term, it makes us more ripe for boredom,” he says, by dulling the ability to focus in quiet surroundings.
Kids left to their own devices often default to videogames. Many of the 92% of middle schoolers who play them cite boredom as one reason, according to a 2013 study of 1,254 students in the journal Motivation and Emotion.
A better route is to use boredom as an opportunity to encourage children to be self-starters, says Judy Willis, a Santa Barbara, Calif., neurologist and author. “Children need to figure out, ‘OK, this is uncomfortable. I need to do something about it,’ ” she says.
Dr. Willis recommends parents help bored kids via “active listening.” Stop what you’re doing and sit down to talk face-to-face, she suggests. Ask questions about what triggered the feelings, and listen closely without interrupting or making judgments, allowing moments of silence for the child to think about a solution.
Physical contact, such as cuddling while talking to a younger child, or ruffling the hair of an older one, can help ease frustration, says Laura Markham, a New York clinical psychologist who specializes in coaching parents. Empathize, but don’t take responsibility for the child’s boredom even if he becomes angry, says Dr. Markham, author of “Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids.”
Small children who cling to their parents may need what psychologists call parental “scaffolding,” to learn to play independently. When one child’s parents complained that she refused to play on her own, Dr. Markham advised them to sit down and act out stories with her in her dollhouse. “After a while, they’d say, ‘OK, sweetheart, I have to go make dinner,’ ” and step away. In time, the child learned to stage her own stories.
Planning in advance can help kids get through the mental paralysis that comes with boredom. Dr. Markham recommends helping a child make a “Boredom Buster Jar,” a bottle of paper slips with the child’s ideas for things to do. Such a tool can also help guide nannies or sitters who need ideas.
Suggesting a little drudgery can spur a child’s imagination, too. Try saying, “I could use a little help cleaning the closet,” Dr. Markham says.
Ben Frank expects his four children, ages 10, 9, 7 and 3, to complain of boredom as the summer wears on, and he’s ready for them. The Neenah, Wis., dad has bought several new board games and stocked up on soft-foam play swords. “We pass them out to complete strangers at the park, so everyone has one, and they have stories to tell for the entire next week,” says Mr. Frank, who cares for the children while his wife Jennifer, a physician, is at work. He also encourages them to play with a sibling or friend or work at an arts-and-crafts table he keeps in the kitchen.
“When the kids really drive me crazy, I’ll get them exercising,” Mr. Frank says. They might organize a mock gymnastics meet on a balance beam in their playroom. Or Mr. Frank lines them up for “boot camp”—calisthenics from the adult aerobics class he teaches, including jogging, jumping jacks and hopping side-to-side.
“After they finish,” Mr. Frank says, “they don’t want to ask me again.”
Courtesy: The Wall Street Journal, June 11, 2013