Parent Coach: It's OK To Let Your Kids Be Bored

Dear Susan,

I have my children loaded with after-school and weekend activities, but when it's vacation time, they follow me around all day wanting me to play with them or organize play dates and outings, complaining that they're bored. When I was growing up, we didn't have such busy schedules -- and I think we were happier.

Imagination Advocate

Dear Imagination Advocate,

As parents, we take pleasure in providing our children with opportunities to expand their horizons. Whether through karate classes, chess club or tap dancing lessons, most of us look for ways to help our kids develop new skills and abilities.

But children also need unstructured time — and plenty of it. Kids who are constantly occupied with organized activities don't adequately nurture their creative instincts, and often become dependent on someone or something else to keep them happy and engaged.

Imaginative play is an essential element of childhood. A cardboard box becomes a spaceship; a collection of stuffed animals can play out complex social relationships. In the world of make-believe, a child is allowed to try on different roles — mommy, teacher, horse trainer, deep-sea diver. She learns to solve problems, perhaps by figuring out what to use to make a durable roof for a living room fort or wondering how mama bear can help baby bear overcome his fear of the dark. Child's play — whether solitary or with siblings or friends — is serious business.

In cooperative play, children learn to take turns. They develop empathy as they discover that their playmates’ feelings are just as passionate and important as theirs. They learn give and take, figuring out how to choose a game that is mutually agreeable, negotiating who gets to go first on the swing, or managing the disappointment that comes from losing at checkers. Vital brain development and life skills are nurtured through pretend and cooperative play.

When a youngster says, “I'm bored,” he is simply announcing that he has forgotten that he has the capacity to entertain himself. If he insists that you do something with him because there's no one else to play with, don't feel obligated to give in. There's nothing wrong with letting a child wander the house aimlessly for a while; necessity is the mother of invention.

If you don't provide diversions, your children will find ways to entertain themselves... eventually. Over-scheduled kids often claim there’s “nothing to do” because their muscle of imagination has weakened. Allow your children their frustration. “It doesn't seem fair that Dad won't take you to the mall.” “You were wishing you could take another dance class this week.” Acknowledge their predicament, and put out art supplies or a box of Legos, but don't worry too much about making the boredom go away.

Downtime is crucial for children, especially in today's world of never-ending stimulation. Kids who lose the capacity to daydream become restless adults, constantly searching for stimulation and distraction.

Help your children rediscover the enjoyment of unstructured time, which can only exist in the unplanned spaces of their lives. You'll be helping them know that, regardless of the exciting diversions of their days, they can always enjoy life's simple pleasures.

Yours in parenting support,

Parent Coach, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and credentialed teacher. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.