- Friday, December 27, 2013
When my eight-year-old, Tate, is bored, she’ll complain about having nothing to do, but left unanswered, she’ll usually pull out some paper and markers and draw up a story, a restaurant menu, or a game board. If she’s really daring, she’ll scissor apart a cardboard box and transform it into a fairy house. When my five-year-old son, Reed, is bored, he’ll mostly do flips on the couch and sit upside down, or perhaps jump off his top bunk just to see if he can land on two feet, but none of this happens without Kyle and me first enduring a bout of whining about how it’s been so long since he’s played games on our phones (it was usually two days, max). He takes a bit more cajoling into finding something original to do, but left to his own devices, he’ll find amusement.
It’s our two-year-old, Finn, who has never thought of the concept of boredom. He’s happy with his collection of toys, he’ll eagerly tag along with older siblings to do whatever they’re doing, and the backyard serves well as a kingdom to reign. He remains unscathed from the boredom bug, and our older kids were, too, as toddlers.
Boredom is a relatively new concept. In the eighteenth century, no one was bored. If you were bored, you were probably on your way to certain death, because if you wanted to eat, you had to work. There was no time or energy to be bored. In the twenty-first century, we are so used to being amused that we can hardly stand the thought of having nothing to do (for the record, I can’t remember, post-having-kids, ever once having nothing to do). It was actually Charles Dickens who first coined the word boredom, in 1852, with his publication of Bleak House. The irony of his book’s title doesn’t escape notice. Its precursor was a Greek word, acedia, which the Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church defines as “a state of restlessness and inability either to work or to pray.”1 There was a real danger implied with acedia, because it typically led to sloth—spiritual or emotional apathy.
But this isn’t usually what my kids mean when they say they’re bored. They simply mean they can’t think of anything to do. And if I’m not intentional, my knee-jerk reaction will be to provide some form of entertainment, because heaven forbid we’re not all hooked up to an IV filled with amusement to get our kids through the day. Turning on some sort of screen is the quickest route to ending whines and complaints; this I know—but living according to our values rarely involves a shortcut.
If boredom is simply a lack of stimulation and the unpleasant feelings that go with it, then the antidote is not finding a source of entertainment—it’s finding motivation to brush away those unpleasant feelings. If I quickly solve my kids’ boredom problem with movies in the car, the next great video game, a slew of extracurricular activities, or even lying on the floor with them to serve as a playmate because no other kids are around, we’re short-circuiting what could ultimately be a beautiful thing. History has shown that boredom is the impetus to creativity.
Psychology Today says, “The antidote to boredom is to provide children with an environment that lets them experience autonomy (the ability to work a little on their own), control (the right to have a say over what they do), challenge (a small push beyond their comfort zone), and intrinsic motivation (the motivation that comes from inside them).”2 If my home is already relatively equipped to handle boredom, just as it’s equipped to handle the autonomous educational exploration mentioned in chapter 27, I’m able to freely say, as a parent, “Go find something to do.” Many parents I know even counter every use of the word bored with a chore. A house could get clean in no time with a brood of bored children.
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