Surprising ways boredom helps children thrive.
Parents are rightfully concerned about the amount of time children have spent alone during the pandemic, isolated from their friends and away from their busy schedules.
There is, however, a significant and lasting upside to time spent alone that parents, no matter how many children they have, will want to understand and encourage once in-class school and after-school activities resume at full tilt.
For parents with one child, in particular, alarm bells went off unnecessarily as lockdowns dragged on. They felt as if they needed to be their younger only child’s playmate or to make sure their older only child was occupied. Turns out, most only children were at an advantage and did just fine during pandemic, one reason being they were used to having alone time and were able to fill it on their own.
“I have nothing to do”
Is there a parent who hasn’t heard a child of theirs say, “I have nothing to do” or “I’m bored”? Parents, me included, tend to rush in or feel they should find something for their child to do.
Contrary to what you may think, boredom—that space to allow your mind to wander--is more than desirable. In her book, Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self, Manoush Zomorodi, creator of the WNYC’s Podcast “Note to Self,” drives home the point that “boredom is actually a crucial tool for making our lives happier, more productive, and more creative.”
Zomorodi spoke with Dr. Jonathan Smallwood, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of York in England, who told her, “In a very deep way, there’s a close link between originality and creativity and the spontaneous thoughts we generate when our minds are idle when we are not interacting with others or immersed in a goal-specific chore or project.”
Michele Borba, EdD, underscores the advantages of not having children constantly busy in her book, Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine. She adds sanity to what is parenting today and the stress we put our children under with expectations too high and competitiveness too great…with schedules so tight, children eat meals in the back seat of the car as parents rush them to the next game or lesson.
Before the pandemic, most children had little downtime. Dr. Borba asks parents to make room in their children’s day to be idle, to do nothing, possibly be bored and establishes the link between boredom, free time and creativity. According to Dr. Borba, creativity, and its close cousin curiosity, is one of the seven strengths a child needs to thrive. Without meaning to, by over-scheduling and micro-managing their children’s lives, parents leave little, if any, time for that creativity to flourish.
“Parents can make a big difference on their children’s character and future success if they help them develop mind-sets that are open to curiosity and the capacity to imagine, create, and invent ideas,” she says. In other words, she explains, “when left on their own to explore and fill their time, they develop curiosity, creative problem solving, and divergent thinking that will help them thrive. Children need some solitude and the time to daydream, play and imagine.”
Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the enormously successful “Hamilton” and other extraordinary stage and film projects attributes much of his success to having hours alone as a child. During an interview with GQ journalist Michael Hainey, he said, “Time alone is the gift of self-entertainment—and that is the font of creativity. Because there is nothing better to spur creativity than a blank page or an empty bedroom.” Lin-Manuel’s key to parenting, “a little less parenting.”
Periods of solitude and the time to play encourage children’s creativity and curiosity,” Dr. Borba underscores. For younger children who may need a parent to get them started, she recommends, different types of boxes filled with items you think might capture your child’s attention such as a Meryl Streep box fill with hats, scarves, old towels for capes; a Frank Lloyd Wright box with hammers nails, wood and sandpaper; or a Leonardo da Vinci box with empty paper towel rolls, sticks, paper clips… If your child doesn’t seem interested, make up a different box. Open-ended toys or supplies such as building blocks, paints, colored pencils and paper, balls of yarn, for example, don’t require a “right way” or “right answers” and allow imaginations to take hold.
Although older children may seem tethered to technology, they need time away from their devices. Even the late Steve Jobs who co-founded Apple supported this once saying, “I’m a big believer in boredom. ... All the [technology] stuff is wonderful, but having nothing to do can be wonderful, too.” Jobs told writer Steven Levy at Wired magazine that he was nostalgic for the long, boring summers of his youth, which fueled his curiosity, because “out of curiosity comes everything.”
Creativity is so important in our fast-paced and, as we know from the pandemic, unpredictable world. As we slowly head back to some semblance of normal, consider avoiding the fast-moving train that so many children rode prior to the pandemic. Children can’t be fully curious and creative if they are being shuttled nonstop from one activity to another.
When we eventually “re-enter” from our pre-COVID-19 isolation, think about what activities and commitments can be pared back so your children have some of the solitude and free time they need. Who knows what your child will discover on her own and all the fun she will have. Or, as Dr. Borba told me, “If you want to raise creative, curious kids, leave them alone.” Yes, let them be bored.