It happens so often. We’ve been doing school for weeks on end, and we’re tired. We all – mother and children – are desperately looking forward to the upcoming break, whether it’s a midyear break, holiday break, or summer break. The first day of break is glorious. Then, it starts: “Mom, I’m bored!”
Teaching our children how to manage their time and their expectations is an important part of our role as parents, and the feeling of boredom can be a good opportunity. But it can get tiresome. It can also be frustrating, because when they had school work they complained that they had no time, but then when they have time, they complain that they’re bored.
How do we handle boredom on school breaks as parents?
There are three possible scenarios, with various options for how to handle them. After all, we are not cruise directors whose job it is to keep everyone always entertained. Instead, our job is to disciple, train, and direct our children so that they become self-motivated, self-directed young adults with initiative.
Self-direction and initiative is often born out of time spent being bored.
So let’s learn how to help our students steward their school breaks, even when – especially when – they feel bored.
Why your kids are bored on school breaks
Although the idea of a break from school is always appealing, the reality is always different from the dream. The imagination can hold onto vague ideas of activity and delight that then never happen in real life – not because parents are intentionally dull but because the idea was always abstract and never a true plan.
The break can then quickly feel disappointing because it’s not meeting inspirational expectations. It turns out that it requires work and effort to make things happen – even fun things. But our imaginations can spin a story that fun will simply happen without any effort. A desire for fun and a desire for effortlessness are at odds with one another. The two do not generally coexist.
It’s not always bad to be disappointed. If we go into life – or even just a summer break – with false or unrealistic expectations, we need to learn how to handle the dream colliding with reality. We need to learn to recognize that the problem is in us and our imaginations, not with real life.
Let your kids be bored.
In an instant society, boredom feels bad. Our default assumption is that boredom is wrong. It must be eliminated.
So we have instant, entertaining distractions we turn to at the slightest hint of boredom. This is not just a problem for kids. It is a problem for modern humans.
However, creativity only happens when there is time. The transition from busy time to free time often includes a doorway of boredom, but it’s just a transition phase. Unless we’re willing to pass through it, we never actually get to free time where we can relax or be creative. Instead, we keep busy. Then we feel fatigued and frenetic.
Boredom isn’t a problem to solve. It’s a transition state between busy and free. We all have to accept it and view it as an opportunity and a temporary feeling we can handle in order to get time and energy to be creative.
If we as parents do not instantly step in to eliminate our children’s boredom, either through entertainment or packed schedules, we give them the chance to problem solve for themselves.
You can’t learn problem-solving without problems.
If our child sees boredom as a problem, let him work out a way to address it. He will be prompted to get creative. The practice of solving his own problem in a creative way will grow maturity and initiative that will never develop if they’re never left unoccupied and unscheduled.
Moving from very little free time to a lot of free time will necessarily cause feelings of discomfort. We call this discomfort boredom. But it’s a temporary transition that leads us into creative action.
Give your kids meaningful work.
When I was growing up, the oldest of seven siblings, we all knew from experience never to tell Mom we were bored. As soon as we did, she’d give us a mandatory chore to do. There was no reason or excuse to feel bored. There was always plenty to do. She’d make sure we recognized that and that we saw our feelings were not, actually, always valid or to rule our tongues and choices.
Being bored might feel inevitable at the time, but it’s actually a choice we can stew in or jump out of. Even doing a chore – though it’s not what you want to do – can be the thing that will snap anyone out of a mopey slump.
If the work is meaningful work, it can be particularly powerful. When we do something that makes a visible difference or obviously fills a need, we become contributors. Our feelings of boredom, which are always self-centered, are pulled outside ourselves through productive action.
Notice the use of the first person plural there. As with all parenting dilemmas, as we deal with our children we see ourselves and our own need for growth – and how to address it. Parents still need parenting, we just get most of it via self-direction. That, in turn, shapes the way we parent our children because we need to be helping them develop the skill of self-direction as well.
Self-direction is most often learned in situations that started with boredom. Feeling bored is a prompt to action, not a prompt to complain or find mindless, effortless entertainment.
The less we tolerate complaining and the more we restrict effortless entertainment, the more our children will need to learn the executive functioning skills to be productive adults. If they need a little help down that path, we provide it by giving them meaningful work.
We want them – and ourselves – to learn that feeling bored is a cue to find something useful to do. It’s the best cure.
We think we want entertainment when we feel bored, but what we really crave is meaningful action.
Watch what they do with their time.
Extended breaks can also be a great parenting opportunity. When left to themselves, what do the kids do? It’s a little like taking their temperature without any Tylenol in their system: you check where it’s actually at without interference.
The education we provide our children is about much more than imparting knowledge. It is about shaping tastes, desires, and interests. We want our children to be introduced to all manner of potential interesting avenues. We want our children to become lifelong learners.
A break is a time to see how that’s really going. Now, we don’t expect them to “do school” on their own, but we do look to see if any of those interests are rubbing off. Maybe they choose to practice art skills on their own time. Maybe they build LEGO creations inspired by their history studies. Perhaps they talk nonstop about a particular natural phenomenon and are on the lookout for it everywhere. These are all good signs that their education is rubbing off and making them interested, interesting people.
When there is nothing else to do and screens aren’t an option, do they pick up a book or a pen or climb a tree or dig a hole? Or do they have no ideas of how to occupy themselves without a friend or a screen?
When left to themselves, what kinds of books do they pick up voluntarily?
These are diagnoses questions we should be watching for so that we can parent them with greater insight and wisdom.
A child who seems to have no hobbies and no clue as to how to occupy himself might need some gentle guidance or even enforced hobby attempts to prompt his own interest and initiative. Sometimes our children are unaware of possibilities and they need a little help getting the creative juices flowing, the momentum begun, or the potential noticed.
Time to be bored can be a great opportunity for parents to gain important insights into each child’s perspective, ability, and interests. If you are not at all bored but rather busy, don’t overlook this important time. A wise watching and noticing is vital to effective discipleship.
Don’t let their bored grumpiness make you grumpy.
One of the main reasons parents answer their children’s complaints about being bored is that they themselves get bored of hearing the complaint!
The children whine and fuss and complain, and so we are tempted to take the swiftest road to eliminate the negativity because we ourselves also are internally whining, fussing, and complaining about our kids.
As parents, we need to be the ones in charge of the tone of conversation and the atmosphere of the home. A grumpy child does not need to make a whole house gloomy, but a grumpy mother will definitely have that effect.
The old reliable metaphor of a thermostat versus a thermometer applies. If we want our children to learn that they don’t have to be controlled by how they feel, but can rather control how they feel by how they act and respond, we have to take that advice ourselves first and show the way it’s done.
An impulse to feel a certain way does not need to become an inevitable response. We can respond to an impulse with self-control. We’ll have a better chance of helping our children learn responsibility and maturity through their boredom if we first take responsibility, behave maturely, and stay upbeat and cheerful no matter how negative the children are being.
Boredom is healthy.
As parents, we should see our children’s boredom as potential rather than problem. It’s an opportunity that can be used well or poorly.
We can respond to feeling bored by engaging our minds to think or our bodies to do. Instead of mulling in and exaggerating the feeling of being bored, we can direct that energy toward creativity and service and imagination.
The temptation of being bored is to look for passive entertainment. Passive entertainment is not hard to find these days, but it fragments our thinking, makes us distracted, and prevents us from being motivated, productive, and happy.
Feeling bored isn’t a problem to solve. Feeling bored is a prompt to move into something deeper and more meaningful than mere entertainment or busyness.
Perhaps we can teach ourselves and our children the mantra: Only boring people stay bored.