What to Do With Kids Over Spring Break: Absolutely Nothing

Kids who have no desire to entertain themselves -- or even any idea how -- are increasingly common. Parents are confused, because isn't that why they bought all those racing cars, coloring books, puzzles, and Legos stashed in the playroom?
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Vacation week was drawing to a close -- and Jamie couldn't be more ecstatic. She felt guilty, but she was desperate for her boys, six and nine, to go back to school. Their week had been a nonstop parade of activity: bowling, ice-skating, play dates, lunches out, family games, family movies. They were constantly in her sight, and not necessarily in the best way. In the few moments between a walk to get hot cocoa and a planned trip to the trampoline park, one or both of the boys would dance around her: "Now what? What are we doing next? When are we doing it? We're bored!" Monday couldn't come fast enough.

Kids who have no desire to entertain themselves -- or even any idea how -- are increasingly common. Parents are confused, because isn't that why they bought all those racing cars, coloring books, puzzles, and Legos stashed in the playroom? But self-sufficiency isn't something most kids are born with. They need to be taught how to be with themselves -- what that means and what it looks like -- deliberately and repeatedly. School vacations can be a great opportunity for parents to do this; to encourage their children how to create their own fun, come up with their own activities, and even learn to appreciate being bored.

This can be difficult for some parents, especially those who view vacation as valuable extra time to spend with kids who are in school much of the week. Jamie, who'd taken the time off from work, had imagined a week that was a mix of family fun and personal time to catch up on reading, try new recipes, and get ahead with the laundry. Instead, she found herself playing cards and racing cars, when she wasn't leading outings or driving the boys all around town. They liked playing with each other, but only if Jamie was there, too. "I thought when I had two kids they'd entertain one another," Jamie said. "But they still seem to want, or need, me to set up the situation, if not also take part."

In one sense, Jamie was flattered that her boys wanted to spend so much time with her. She figured at six and nine she wouldn't have too many more years of this, which is one reason she continued to indulge them. But kids who can't come up with their own fun, or refuse to play without Mom or Dad by their side, risk becoming overly dependent. They have difficulty forming a clear sense of self. They may grow to become adolescents or adults who need other people around constantly, or get anxious when situations aren't stimulating. They don't know how to behave if it's not in pursuit of attention.

For most kids, the innate tendency is to let things happen to them, to be taken care of forever. As a parent, you can and should help alter that course. A few ways to start:

Give them the chance. It's difficult to listen to kids complain of being bored and, by extension, unhappy. But kids don't learn to play by themselves without practice. It can take time and lots of encouragement, but it's worth it: Solo play is an extremely important role in brain development. This means that kids benefit less when you commandeer the game for them, or over schedule so that there's something to look forward to every second of the day. What's more, kids who are always anticipating the next activity never learn how to be happy in the moment they're in. They grow to be adults always searching for what they don't yet have.

Back off -- and then back off some more. You can put together a list of activities your child can take part in when they're "bored." That's a great first step. But the ultimate goal is for them to figure out an activity for themselves, and then go do it. This is how self-sufficiency begins to form. One caveat: If given the choice, many kids may choose television or videos. Let them know that those are viable options (if they are in your house), but establish limits. For example, they can choose to play video games or TV during one half-hour block of the day. Once it's used up, they need to choose something else.

Find things for them to do. If they keep complaining, tell them you'll help them find something to do, all right: How about reorganizing their game closet? Or helping dust bookshelves? It won't take much of this for boys to realize that a better option than complaining or expecting your input is to go ahead and fill the time themselves.

Let them be bored. It's important for kids to learn that boredom is a normal part of life, and needn't lead to unhappiness or uneasiness. Life isn't constantly stimulating, and that's perfectly okay.

Lead by example. Let your kids know that downtime is important to you, and then go have some. Take a half hour to read on the couch, work on a project, or do some yoga without interruption. Show them that it can be fun to hang out with yourself. If they see it happening for others, they're more likely to try it out for themselves.