At one time or another, most of us have been lost. Perhaps it was while traveling in an unfamiliar city or countryside and you lost your way. Ultimately, through some combination of skill and resources, you find your way out of being lost. However, that first experience of feeling lost can be quite distressing and uncomfortable. This is similar to the feeling that children have when experiencing boredom. Boredom feels uncomfortable, maybe even distressing. But just as with being lost, if children never have the experience of being bored, they may never gain the skill of managing their way out of it.
This is the paradox of boredom. While it can be uncomfortable, learning to navigate through it rather than avoiding it yields its own benefits. Let’s take a look at how we can support our children through boredom and reap its benefits on the other side.
Why do We Get Bored?
We all know what it feels like to be bored, but when researchers try to analyze boredom, they find it a little difficult to define. Most scholars agree that boredom is an emotion, but what causes it? Two key ingredients in boredom seem to be attention and meaning.1 When a child (or adult) is bored, they typically have trouble attending to the task at hand or find the task meaningless. Think of a child bored by their monotonous worksheets in a classroom. Both of these factors are probably at play. The factors of attention and meaning often show up because the task is either too difficult or too easy. In either situation, the person can have difficulty attending to the task or finding any meaning in it, and thus boredom rears its head.
This understanding of boredom probably rings true for many of us and our experience with our children. When a child is bored on a long summer day, it is often because they haven’t found an activity that captures their attention in a meaningful way. This may also explain why our attempts to relieve their boredom with ideas for activities or lists of tasks often fall flat. Those activities come from our minds, not theirs, and therefore they may not find them meaningful or engaging.
The Potential Benefits of Boredom
Despite the uncomfortable feeling of boredom, research shows us that it does hold some potential benefits for children’s development.
Creativity: We have all heard the stories of famous authors and inventors who developed their innovative ideas while bored as children or at mundane jobs as adults. There does seem to be something about the mental “downtime” that boredom creates that fosters creativity. Studies show that when people are asked to do boring tasks, the result is often more creative thinking afterward.2
Some scholars have even linked a decline in creativity to an increase in children’s level of stimulation in the modern world (i.e., lack of boredom). Some studies have shown a link between children’s media use and a lack of creative thought and mental imagery skills.3 This implies that perhaps a lack of boredom in children’s lives may impact their creativity because they lack this mental downtime. By filling almost every available moment of a child’s day with entertainment and stimulation, scholars worry that children lose the ability to develop their own creative play and innovative narratives.4
Motivation: Although we don’t often think of it in this way, boredom can also be motivational. The discomfort of boredom can spur us (or our children) to take action to relieve the boredom. As with all emotions, the emotion of boredom tells us that the task we are pursuing is not meaningful or fulfilling.2 With that information in mind, we become motivated to change our situation. In fact, scholars suggest that there are several paths to overcoming boredom and that changing activities1 or making the activity more challenging (or easier)1 are fruitful solutions.
In children, this motivational aspect of boredom can provoke all sorts of creative changes. When children are bored, they may find a new hobby to pursue, learn a new skill, or find a new way to interact with friends.
Skill-Building: Another perhaps overlooked benefit of boredom is the potential for building new cognitive skills. Boredom presents a type of frustration to children—they feel uncomfortable without something engaging and meaningful to do. Learning to cope with this type of frustration and discomfort is a crucial life skill. In our adult lives, we often experience frustrations and disappointments and must manage our emotions in response to these experiences. When children experience the frustration of boredom, they learn the cognitive skills needed to cope with these emotions in healthy ways. Over time, children learn to change their circumstances, think flexibly, persist in finding a new activity, or problem-solve a solution instead of whining or throwing a tantrum in response to boredom.5 Thus, boredom presents children with a unique opportunity to develop crucial life skills.
Tips for Parents on Handling Boredom
Although we may recognize the benefits of boredom, it can still be challenging to hear our children exclaim, “I’m bored!” repeatedly throughout the day. Instead of immediately responding to children’s boredom with a list of activities or screen time, experts like psychologist Stephanie Lee suggest that we give our children a little time and space to figure out a solution to their boredom on their own.5 You might offer questions that can prompt their thinking, such as, “what’s one of your favorite things to do?” or “can you think of a way to express yourself creatively?” Questions like these might just prompt for children a new idea or activity that they find meaningful and engaging. Another approach is to plan ahead for times of boredom. You and your child could set aside some time to create a list of possible activities or things that your child enjoys doing. Then, when boredom strikes, they can refer back to this list.
It can also be helpful to look beneath the boredom. In other words, try to uncover if your child’s boredom is really a sign of another need. For example, sometimes children say, “I’m bored” when they really have a need for connection with you.4 They may not have the words to describe how they are feeling, so they use boredom to communicate. Other times, boredom may really be a sign of hunger or fatigue.5 Taking the time to discover and meet these needs can sometimes solve the issue that is emerging as boredom.
Boredom is Not the Enemy
In our active, overstimulated society, boredom can often seem like something to avoid at all costs. The prevailing notion that children need to be constantly entertained or have their lives filled with activities may actually be depriving them of experiencing boredom. As we’ve seen, the experience of handling boredom can foster much-needed skills in children. Instead of seeing boredom as a burden, maybe we can reframe it as a gift that will ultimately enhance our children’s lives.
The information provided on this site is NOT medical advice and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, provide medical or behavioral advice, treat, prevent, or cure any disease, condition, or behavior. You should consult with a qualified healthcare professional regarding your child’s development to make a medical diagnosis, determine a treatment for a medical condition, or obtain other related advice.
- Westgate, E. (2020) Why Boredom Is Interesting. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2020, Vol. 29(1) 33–40. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0963721419884309
- Heshmat, S.(2020) 5 Benefits of Boredom. Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/science-choice/202004/5-benefits-boredom
- Hogenboom, M. (2020) Why Not All Screen Time is The Same for Children. BBC Future, https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200925-how-screen-time-affects-childrens-brains
- Klass, P. (2022) Boredom: Could It Be Creativity’s Spark—Or a Cause for Concern? Harvard Medicine, https://hms.harvard.edu/magazine/adventure-issue/boredom
- Miller, G. (2022) The Benefits of Boredom. Child Mind Institute, https://childmind.org/article/the-benefits-of-boredom/