If you’ve got kids, you’ve been there—those times when the wait at the doctor’s office drags on longer than planned, or the chicken tenders your kids ordered take forever to arrive, or that longed-for Spring Break turns into day after day of rain.
Your toddler is whining, your third-grader is ready to climb the walls, your teen is rolling her eyes (again), thinking your suggestion of a crossword puzzle is so 2012.
They’re coming, you know it—those dreaded words… “I’m bored!”
But these days, many kids and their parents have a ready solution. It’s a LeapPad, a Nintendo, an Xbox, an iPad or the ever-useful smartphone, loaded with a few apps for those crisis moments. Is there any reason, really, not to let the kids power up?
The importance of boredom
The truth may be surprising, but many professionals who work daily with children agree—when parents resist allowing electronics and, instead, require their kids to be “bored,” it can be enormously beneficial, building imagination, social skills and self-reliance.
Elsa Beck, a licensed professional counselor and a registered play therapist with Williamsburg’s Family Living Institute, says free play during such times enables children to grow cognitively, physically, emotionally and socially, and especially for young children, is “their natural means to express themselves.”
Molly Gareis has seen these benefits manifested during her years teaching third-, sixth- and eighth-graders and in her current role as director of the Williamsburg Parent Cooperative Preschool. “Time that’s quiet and unstructured is when kids are really allowed to be creative, to start to pursue their own interests,” she says. And if kids seem at a loss for what to do? “It forces them to go inward a little bit. It teaches them problem-solving, because they have to figure out what to do and how to do it.”
Beck notes that even when parents want to get involved in their kids’ play, children still need some time when they lead the play and can think on their own. “With children, a car might not necessarily be a car; it might be a space shuttle, it could be an alien, it could be anything…We [adults] come into their play with all these logical things,” she says, which can unintentionally quash kids’ imaginations.
She adds that children who experience free play with peers become better able to take turns, negotiate conflict and work together as a team, whether they’re deciding the best way to build a backyard fort, or establishing rules for a game of capture the flag.
Gareis notes that in school settings it’s easy to tell which children have been allowed too much technology during their free time at home. “Their attention spans are very short, and there’s a need for instant gratification,” she says. “It’s harder for [those] kids to sit and attend to things.”
In her experience with older children and teens, who may text rather than talk to friends during their free time, Gareis has observed that “they don’t know how to talk on the phone with someone, and it’s harder for them to read social cues.” And Jodie Newman, a guidance counseling director at a York County Middle School, says many conflicts she deals with daily could be avoided if young people spent more time interacting in person rather than on social media. “It’s amazing to see [how quickly disputes are resolved] when they actually talk to each other.”
Finding open time for kids
While free time can be beneficial for children, it’s in short supply in many families’ schedules. Gareis says the trend even at her preschool is many parents “filling their kids’ time completely” with extracurricular activities, in addition to technology. Such choices by parents may be due partly to fear of the “b” word, Beck says, but she emphasizes, “boredom is not a negative thing.”
Children’s overloaded schedules may also result from many parents feeling pressured to raise a “super-child,” according to Beck, but early exposure to music or sports won’t necessarily spark interest or develop talent at a young age. Gareis observes, “If kids are not [ready] developmentally, [learning a new skill] is not going to be a positive experience, and it’s not going to be genuine.”
As a result of too much activity and pressure to achieve and too little down time, kids and teens are increasingly struggling with anxiety, depression and perfectionism and are not learning how to manage their emotions. “They are missing the opportunity to unwind, to process what’s happened in their day,” says Gareis.
While some sources interviewed for this article say their own children’s desire to fill time with technology presents a regular parenting challenge, others who have set firm limits on screen time and/or extracurricular activities are enjoying welcome effects on their children’s behavior and their family life.
One York County mother of 18-year-old twins says, “The worst thing I ever did was buy them an iPod,” adding that it led eventually to cell phones; today, she says ruefully, an eye-to-eye conversation with her children is hard to come by.
On the other hand, Laurie Hager, a Williamsburg mother of a 9- and a 12-year-old, says she and her husband established a family policy limiting screen time (four hours on the weekend, one afternoon weekly after school during the school year) after her family took part years ago in a national screen-free week promoted by their daughter’s school. “That week made us think very intentionally about … what we wanted for our kids’ growing up experience,” she recalls. And though the policy is “not terribly popular” with her children, she admits, she has noticed that on days when they come home and curl up with a book at a sunny window, or run around the house playing together, there’s “a totally different vibe” than when they come home once a week after school and can turn on electronics. Hager says she and her husband have also limited extracurricular activities, offering their children choices, and “they’re becoming aware of their quality of life management.”
Parents must model how to use free time
Sometimes a child’s complaint about boredom masks the real need—for more quality time with their parents. Research shows, Beck says, that giving kids just 15 minutes a day of undivided attention benefits children in many ways. In addition to expressing love and validating children’s emotions, it can also help promote higher levels of thinking such as logic, empathy and an understanding of rules and consequences, which continue to develop until young adults are well into their 20s.
But if parents do want to teach their children how to use time constructively on their own, the best strategy is deceptively simple—parents must model for their kids how to disconnect from technology, take a break amidst a hectic schedule, and be creative with their own free time. “A lot of people don’t realize,” Elsa Beck asserts, “that children learn from what they see sometimes more than from what they hear.”