The benefits of boredom

By Dr. Emily O'Leary

The benefits of boredom
Sports, music and more: these days people feel obliged to schedule their lives – and those of their children – with constant activity. But what about the advantages of doing nothing for a while - what are the benefits of boredom?

There is a plethora of books about overstimulating children – The Over-Scheduled Child, The Pressured Child, and so on. However, where is the line between overstimulating kids and underestimating them?

One of my most boring road trips as a child was the hour-long drive to my grandparents’ house. But when I actually think back on it, it’s playing I Spy and goofy jokes we told that I remember more than the monotony.

According to child experts, my parents were early pioneers of modern parenting because being bored is apparently good for the grey matter and increases creativity.

However, like all good theories, there are proponents for and against. Critics of “let kids get bored” say there is no evidence for it and call it “lazy parenting” while critics of over-scheduling say it is damaging children’s creativity and interfering in their lives.

Doing nothing is a skill

Stephen Fry recently admitted that he works hard because he fears boredom, and the depression that can come from it. Many contemporary psychological therapies have grabbed onto this concept of “doing nothing” by encouraging mindfulness.

Mindfulness is about training yourself to focus on the present moment and purposefully concentrate on what’s happening around you. This sounds easy, but it’s actually quite difficult.

At the clinic, I often give clients homework of sitting on the back deck looking at the trees for five minutes. Why? It is very hard for the anxious mind to be completely still and not chase worries. People fear quietness, therefore many people have sleep issues as it is the only time where there are no distractions.

As we fear boredom, we glorify “busy”. Being busy has become synonymous with being successful.

How often when you ask someone how they are, do they reply, “so busy”. Can you ever recall someone saying “I’m really focusing on doing nothing.” If they did, what judgement would you make? I must confess to being one of the “busy” people.

I am incredibly bad at being mindful. For this reason, I do hot yoga to practise it. Some days, I am mindful and other days I plan my grocery list. The point is, similar to training for a marathon or preparing for a presentation at work, doing nothing requires time and it needs to be a priority.

Dr Susan Mann, senior psychology lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire, says the more we fill our world with fast-moving stimulation, the more we get used to it and the less tolerant we become of a slower pace. In other words, we become used to “sound bites” rather than listening to the whole programme.

Mann states that we are hardwired to seek novelty, which produces a hit of dopamine – that feel-good chemical in our brains. To keep getting this feel-good chemical we need more and more new stimuli to get the same effect. Neuroscientists are increasingly finding that our brains depend on downtime to process information, to consolidate memory and reinforce learning.

Karen Debar, specialist in child development at North Carolina State University, suggests a balanced approach to battling boredom. Parents should balance activities with scheduled downtime. She states that it is not a parent’s job to entertain their kids. Finishing your cup of tea and encouraging independent play is great for kids, as it models balance and sets them up to expect that not everything will be on their time. Providing constant input could have an adverse effect as kids may be unable to generate ideas and self-regulate.

Benefits of Boredom

No boredom, no imagination

A child is born with an immature nervous system, making it difficult for them to process a large amount of information at one time.

What makes a child overstimulated changes developmentally, for example, a newborn under three months old can easily become overstimulated by loud noises.

This tendency to become overwhelmed with too much information continues into adulthood and is not defined by age. I often talk about a “reset button”. With the sheer amount of information we take in over the course of a day, by the end of it your head can be spinning.

Taking time to “reset” and let the mind wander, while on the surface can appear like you are wasting time, is cognitively and emotionally vital. Ask yourself when your best ideas usually occur. Many people often have a pen and paper by their bed for when thoughts arrive.

Child development experts have suggested that over-scheduling children, to the point where they have no downtime, can interrupt this process of ideas and creativity.

Dr Teresa Belton, from the University of East Anglia argues, “When children have nothing to do, they immediately switch on the TV, the computer, the phone or some kind of screen.

But children need to have stand-and- stare time; time imagining and pursuing their own thinking processes or assimilating their experiences through play or just observing the world around them.” It is this sort of thing that stimulates the imagination, she says, while the screen “tends to short circuit that process and the development of creative capacity”.

Belton’s argument rings true, as the practice of allowing a child’s mind to play and create is not only important neurologically but also behaviourally. Alvin Rosenfeld, author of The Over- Scheduled Child, says that there’s nothing wrong with scheduled activities if they are enriched and parents make sure children have enough downtime with no activities. However, not everyone is on board with this concept.

Laura Kastler PhD states the “over-scheduled child” epidemic is a myth, because only a small fraction of children participate in more than 20 hours of extracurricular activity (Mahoney et al, 2006). She argues that average participation level in extra activities is about five to seven hours a week which, when compared to the amount of screen time most kids have for social media or entertainment, is very small.

Kastler asserts that not only do organised activities build character strengths, they decrease problem behaviours. There is no doubt that this issue is a contentious one, but perhaps the middle ground in this debate lies in the motivation of why the scheduling occurs and whose needs it is serving.

Whose agenda?

Michael Thompson, author of The Pressured Child, states that the real problem in the boredom/over-scheduling is less about the actual number of activities but rather how the activities are scrutinised. In other words, when little Johnny’s rugby is being arranged, is this because he has a genuine interest in rugby or is it because of a parental need?

We all fall into traps of doing things that we think will get social approval. One of our instinctual drives as human beings is to be accepted. The issue is when there is no insight into the behaviour.

When I had my first child, I joined a mothers’ group and at our first meeting someone brought baking. My response was, “I should do that. She’s obviously coping so well – she even has time to bake!” The next week I brought my instant brownies, but I stressed out completely getting myself and the baby dressed, plus the brownies ready on time. This was not about the other mothers, or my child.

This was all about my need to show the group that I was succeeding at motherhood. On the way home I was unhappy. I knew what I was doing and it annoyed me that I had fallen into the approval trap.

Parenthood is a hard job and we are constantly striving to “get it right”. We all engage in activities to be accepted, including over-organising for our children. Letting children be bored is not lazy parenting, any more than over-scheduling is good.

The answer lies in the application of both. For some introverted children, a high number of activities may be overwhelming whereas an extroverted child may love it but find “scheduled boredom” more difficult. Like all things in life, reflection, love and balancing the needs of your child is the most important thing.

Warning signs

Even though your child may genuinely enjoy being involved in a myriad of different activities, they are still young and growing.
So it’s important to note when too much gets too much for them and when it’s time to start scheduling in some downtime to allow those creative juices to flow and develop.

1. Do they seem more irritable generally?
2. Are you having to drag them out of bed
in the morning?
3. Have their teachers noticed anything or are their reports/results not in keeping with their usual marks?
4. Are you still finding the time to have family dinner together regularly?
5. Do you ever see your child just doing nothing or are they always rushing to the next practice or appointment?
6. Are they sleeping well at night?
7. Are they complaining of headaches or pains?
8. Are they still finding joy in their usual treats, such as ice-cream or their favourite books?
9. Are you feeling like you’re spending the majority of your time in the car?
10. Are they still seeing their friends on a regular basis just to play and relax?

Read more: Feed your creativity


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