5 benefits of letting kids get bored

April 29, 2020

Unlike a spontaneous hug or an early morning, sleepy-eyed snuggle, hearing “I’m bored” from a child isn’t something that makes a parent or caregiver’s heart sing. In fact, it can be positively annoying. But before responding to this age-old childhood anthem with exasperation (or a screen), it’s important to keep in mind not only that boredom will pass, but also, that it can lead to a number of benefits. 

In 2019, researchers from the Academy of Management surmised that, despite its prevalence, boredom is likely the least understood emotion, but also that, if left alone, boredom can give way to a host of positive outcomes. “Being bored doesn’t have to be a bad or nagging feeling,” says Dr. Brandon Smith, general academic pediatrics fellow in the Department of Pediatrics at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. “Actually, it can be a really good thing. It pushes kids to think a little more about themselves and what they want, while giving them the motivation to explore.”

Feel guilty every time you hear those two dreaded words? Don’t. Here are five expert-backed reasons boredom is good for kids. 

1. It helps kids get in touch with their authentic self

Without the influence of outside sources — school, friends, cat videos on YouTube — children are given the opportunity to figure themselves out. “Children need time to sit back and think for themselves without adult rules or expectations,” says Tovah Klein, a child development psychologist, director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development and author of “How Toddlers Thrive.” “When they’re given time and space where they’re not being entertained by others — the space we often refer to as boredom — it allows them to solidify their own desires and thoughts, which are pieces of self-identity.”

According to Klein, when kids have unstructured downtime, it forces them to answer small questions such as, “What do I want to do?” and “What can I figure out on my own?”, which in turn, help them answer the bigger question of “Who am I?” Klein says, “Having ideas of one’s own is a hallmark of developing a sense of agency and being one’s own person.”  

2. It helps develop self-motivation

When you opt out of orchestrating a tutorial-style art project — or perhaps, more realistically, turning on the TV — you’re helping to hone an important life skill: Self-motivation. “When parents resist the urge to tell their kids what to do when they’re bored, it strengthens their internal motivation,” notes Klein. “Without direction from parents and caregivers, children will be pushed to find their own spark in order to help them figure out what it is they want to do, which ultimately, can help give them drive in life.”

While kids sometimes need a little help from adults to get the spark going, Klein notes that developing this type of self-inspiration can only happen when children have space to sit back and figure things out on their own. “When kids are constantly being stimulated and told what to do and how to do it, they don’t just miss out on opportunities to figure out their own ideas, but the catalyst to do so, as well,” she explains.

3. It equips kids to deal with uncomfortable feelings

When kids are constantly entertained, they lose out on the chance to deal with uncomfortable feelings, such as ennui, loneliness and irritation. In the short-term, children may have a difficult time unpacking these emotions, but in the long run, it’s to their benefit since life isn’t a parade of games, crafts and games of hide-and-seek. “Children shouldn’t have something to do every minute,” says Klein. “If this is the case for them, they won’t know how to be with themselves or their thoughts and emotions.”

It’s also critical for parents to send the message, directly or indirectly, that it’s important — necessary, even — to take time to just be each day. “When parents and caregivers feel there is no room for downtime, they’re conveying that frame of mind to their child,” says Klein. “The message inadvertently becomes that the child needs to be fully engaged or stimulated every moment, which they’ll usually seek from their parents, caregiver or a screen.”

4. It strengthens problem-solving skills

When you’re not tending to a child’s every whim, question and request, you’re also giving them room to grow as a problem solver. Michele Lee, a mom of two in Garwood, New Jersey notes that almost every time she doesn’t indulge her kids when they have “nothing to do,” they wind up figuring something out — a game, a broken toy — on their own. “Both of my kids have more of a tendency to try to fix something by themselves or solve a problem without my husband or me when they’re bored,” says Lee. “They also wind up coming up with new uses for their toys that we would have never thought of ourselves.”

In that same 2019 study by the Academy of Management, researchers found that allowing the mind time to wander often gives way to better problem-solving skills and productivity. In other words: That makeshift kite the child made with some errant string and paper? They have boredom to thank.

5. It boosts creativity

The biggest, and perhaps most beneficial, byproduct of boredom? Creativity, which, according to the National Association of Gifted Children, has a host of benefits for kids, including providing them with new points of view and giving them ways to make sense of their own development. “When kids are bored, they have the chance to use their imagination and think creatively,” explains Smith. “It gives them the time to search deeper for things they may have always been interested in but didn’t have the time to explore.”  

And on a similar note, according to Klein, boredom lets kids further explore interests they already have while also giving them the chance to think about them in a new way. “It may be an uncomfortable feeling at first — and it may take a little time — but as children ‘solve’ their boredom, they develop new ideas from within themselves, using their imagination and creativity,” Klein says. “Whether you want to refer to it as boredom or daydreaming, it’s definitely beneficial for kids.”

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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