Parenting Blog

The official blog for Ann Douglas, parenting book author and weekend parenting columnist for CBC Radio. Ann is the creator of The Mother of All Books series and the author of Parenting Through the Storm. Her most recent book, Happy Parents, Happy Kids, was published by HarperCollins Canada in February 2019.

A Quick Guide to Taming Back-to-School Stress

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Back-to-school season can be an emotional rollercoaster ride for parents and kids alike.

On the one hand, there’s all the excitement and activity that tends to accompany the start of a new school year. (New binders! New running shoes! A new backpack!)

But, at the same time, there can be a feeling of sadness, as parents and kids are forced to acknowledge the fact that summer is really-and-truly winding down. (Goodbye, summer evening marshmallow roasts. Hello, early morning school bus rides….)

What follows are some tips on minimizing the stress of back-to-school season and savouring what’s left of summer — the focus of my most recent weekend parenting column for CBC Radio.

Take solace in the fact that you’re not the only parent who finds back-to-school season stressful

A lot of parents find it to be a challenging time of year — and for good reason. It’s a busy time of year and it’s an expensive time of year. Kids have a habit of growing, so September is often wardrobe replenishment season on top of school supply purchasing season. Add to that the fact that the refrigerator needs to be stocked with the fixings for lunches and snacks and the fact that there can be hefty sign-up fees associated with various extracurricular activities and you can see why many parents begin to feel like they’re running a back-to-school marathon—an endurance marathon that is largely about emptying their wallets.

Resist the temptation to set the bar impossibly high for yourself

At this time of year, there can be a lot of pressure to get things organized. Super-organized, in fact. It can be easy to set the bar impossibly high for yourself—to tell yourself things like, “This will be the year when we finally have our act parenting completely together.” “This will be the year when every single school permission form and library book are returned on time.” “This will be the year when the gym clothes magically hop inside the backpacks each and every gym day.” Yep, it’s the stuff of which back-to-school fantasies are made and it can be a considerable source of back-to-school stress.

Calm yourself; calm your child

Parents have the opportunity to set the emotional tone for the entire family during back-to-school season. If you’re stressed out, your child is likely to pick up on and respond to those feelings. So the best way to keep your child from spinning out of control is to manage your own stress level.

This is something I was talking with Jenny Raspberry about recently. She’s the mother of two school-aged children. And she says that parents actually make back-to-school season harder on themselves if they leave all the preparations to the very last minute. Her best advice? Pace yourself! “Try to do a little bit at a time: Okay, does everybody have a backpack? Great! Okay, we need to make sure that everybody has a lunch bag. Okay. Maybe a couple of days later, you’re making sure that everyone has their water bottle. The more the parents are rushed and stressed, the more the children will pick up on that and act out accordingly.”

And the more likely it is that there will be tears at the bus stop on the first morning of school….

Reach out to your parenting “village” for support

Look for opportunities to share some of the back-to-school workload and to “be the village” for one another’s kids. Maybe you could take turns walking your kids back and forth to school. Maybe you could team up to plan a back-to-school picnic or barbecue (a fun way to take care of dinner during that busy and exhausting first week back at school). You can probably think of countless other ways you could join forces with other families.

Accept the fact that there will be a few back-to-school road bumps

Switching from your family’s summer to school-year routine can be challenging for all concerned. Personally, I have found that things tend to hit rock bottom on the Friday of the first week back to school. At that point, the adrenaline and excitement associated with the start of a new school year has started to wear off and everyone’s starting to feel tired—really tired—and really grumpy, too.

The good news is that you have the opportunity to help dial down that stress, both by accepting that change can be hard and by treating both yourself and your kids with compassion as you ride the rollercoaster that is back to school. It’s hard for them and it’s hard for us, but we can get through this transition together.

Resist the temptation to jam-pack your family’s schedule with a whole bunch of fabulous-sounding extracurricular activities

At this time of year, they all sound fabulous. But it’s important to be realistic about how many extra-curricular activities you and your kids can reasonably handle at one time.

Instead of just telling yourself, “It’s okay. I’ll find a way to make this work,” stop to consider how happy or how exhausted you are likely to feel a month or two from now if you actually try to shoehorn all these different activities into your family’s schedule.

How will “November you” feel about the commitments that “September you” is busy making right now?

Savour what’s left of summer

Yes, another school year is starting, but that doesn’t mean that summer is about to pack up its bags and leave town. If past years are any indication, the good weather should be sticking around for at least a little while longer. But we definitely want to make the most of it, while it’s still here. That means taking full advantage of the evenings and weekends; and heading outdoors as often as you can. It means zeroing in on the things that you and your kids you love most about summer and then figuring out how to continue to enjoy those experiences even after the school year starts again. It doesn’t need to be expensive or complicated. It’s simply about having fun together and about making a conscious decision to carry “the best of summer” forward into the new school year.

Ann Douglas is the author of numerous books about parenting including, most recently, Happy Parents, Happy Kids. This fall, she is launching The Village (a six-month online community of support and discovery for parents).

Summer Parenting Storms: Weathering the Emotionally Stormy Summer After High School

The high school graduation celebrations are officially behind you and your teen’s entry into college or university is still a couple of months away. This summer should be all about harvesting the fruits of all your earlier parenting labours and truly savouring your relationship with your teen, right?

Well, maybe….

While that all sounds great in theory, the reality tends to be a whole lot messier. In fact, the summer before college or university can be an emotionally stormy time for parents and teens alike. Here’s what you need to know to ride out those storms.

Seek the wisdom and support of other parents

Hopefully you’ll be lucky enough to have a friend who has weathered some of these storms as a parent and who can reassure you that everything that you’re feeling is perfectly normal (although it may feel anything but). My friend Bonnie was that person for me. She did an amazing job of validating my feelings: my sadness about the fact that my child was leaving home and my pride in them for being ready to take this step and my fear that they might walk away and never look back (that they might forget that they’d ever had a mom!) and my deep-seated worry that I might officially be becoming obsolete.

Understand why you’re feeling all the feelings

The summer between high school and college or university is a time of relationship transition; and change is always hard. We humans love our ruts! So, as a parent, you’re trying to make sense of the fact that your relationship with your teenager is about to change in all kinds of unknown ways. That’s scary, especially given that you’re invested the better part of two decades into this particular relationship. How could it not feel high stakes when there’s just so much at stake!

I remember how restless I was feeling and how restless my teenager was feeling: it was like we were caught in an emotional holding pattern for an entire summer, caught between a familiar past and an unknown future. I had so many questions. What would my relationship with this teenager be like once we packed up their stuff and drove them off to college or university? And what would my life be like? This was as much a turning point for me as it was for them.

I also remember feeling like the clock was ticking down: that I only had a few precious weeks left to finish the job of preparing my teen for life in the outside world. Had I had all the important talks with him? Was there something important that I still needed to teach her? It felt like this was my last chance to tie up all the loose ends of parenting!

Of course, looking back, I now understand that I was putting an extraordinary amount of pressure on myself — and often needless pressure. I didn’t need to help my teen to cram for some final exam called life. I’d been helping her to do the necessary prep work all along! And it wasn’t as if I was about to be fired from the job of “mom.” I’d just be switching to more of a consulting role. I’d be on-call instead of working full-time.

Remind yourself that this is an emotionally challenging time for your teen as well

Your teen is no doubt wondering about what lies ahead: what it’s actually like to head off to college and university. Is it non-stop fun, like Instagram would have you believe, or is it actually a scary amount of work? And what will it be like to be a very small fish – say a teeny tiny minnow – as opposed to a big fish in the much smaller pond that was high school?

And of course, there’s the whole issue of separation. Your teen is likely feeling a lot of anxiety about separating: about being away from you and from their circle of friends. Contrary to popular belief, separation anxiety isn’t just a thing for babies and toddlers. It is very much a teen thing, too.

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This is something I was speaking with Sara Dimerman about recently. She’s a psychologist in Richmond Hill, Ontario, and the author of a brand book – Don’t Leave, Please Go – that takes a deep dive into all of these issues. She noted that it’s not just a matter of teens struggling to let go of their family. They’re also struggling to let go of their friends. “It’s totally normal for your teenager to be going through this process of separating not just from you as a family, but also from their friends,” she explained. She pointed out that this can be really tough, particularly when the friendship roots run deep. Bottom line? Saying goodbye to a group of close knit friends who are about to scatter to the four winds can be emotionally wrenching for a teen.

If you can remind yourself that parenting is ultimately about empathy (recognizing that it’s hard to be the parent and that it’s hard to be the kid), you’ll find it easier to respond to your teen’s desire to spend the maximum amount of time with her friends (and the minimum amount of time with family) with kindness, not hurt or frustration.

Recognize that this transition isn’t just a mom thing

It can be really tough on dads, too. And, what makes it even tougher for dads is the fact that dads have a harder time tapping into support than moms. A 2015 Pew Research study found, for example, that moms were nearly twice as likely to have received support on a parenting issue from their online networks in the previous thirty days as compared to dads. And this continues to be the case in 2019.

Dimerman told me that it’s really important to look for opportunities for dads to work through some of the emotions that they may be feeling during this summer of transition. She recommends that dads dive into the practical preparations for the impending move and that the entire family, including siblings, be involved in the process of saying goodbye. After all, this pending separation will have a huge impact on the entire family, so it makes sense to work through the experience as a family.

Remind yourself that this is a beginning, not an end

CBC Radio parenting columnist Ann Douglas on the emotional challenges of parenting a teenager who is getting ready to head off to college or university.

CBC Radio parenting columnist Ann Douglas on the emotional challenges of parenting a teenager who is getting ready to head off to college or university.

If you talk to other parents who have weathered this transition with their kids and who have come out the other side, you’ll find that, in most cases, the relationship between parent and child continues to be strong. It’s just strong in a different way.

These parents will also tell you that, in the majority of cases, the anticipation of the separation ends up being far worse than the actual separation. You’re basically spending an entire summer dreading the removal of the world’s biggest emotional bandaid: a bandaid that’s roughly the size and shape of your child! Once that bandaid has been yanked off and you’ve had a chance to settle into your new normal, you may be shocked to discover just how happy you feel. There’s a solid body of research to indicate that the happiest stage of parenthood for mothers in particular is the young adult stage. You still have a loving connection to your child, but with a whole lot more sleep and a whole lot less laundry! And while it may feel like the end of the world (at least until you’ve lived through it), it’s actually an exciting new beginning: a brand new chapter in the relationship story that you will continue to write with your child.

Ann Douglas is the author of numerous books about parenting including, most recently, Happy Parents, Happy Kids — a guide to thriving alongside your kids at all stages of parenting. She is also the weekend parenting columnist for CBC Radio. This blog post is based on her most recent parenting column.

What Makes for a Happy Mom?

Looking for the recipe for a happy (or happier) mom? Ann Douglas has a few thoughts to share on what actually contributes to happiness in mothers.

Looking for the recipe for a happy (or happier) mom? Ann Douglas has a few thoughts to share on what actually contributes to happiness in mothers.

Wondering what actually contributes to happiness in mothers (as opposed to what the all the guilt-inducing messages about motherhood might have you believe)? This is a key theme in my brand new book, Happy Parents, Happy Kids, and it is the focus of my parenting column for CBC Radio this weekend. Just in case you aren’t able to tune in, here are a few highlights from some noteworthy research about what does — and doesn’t — make for a happy mom.

What moms love most about motherhood

Believe it or not, motherhood isn't just another word for misery. We moms actually derive a lot of enjoyment from motherhood and, not surprisingly, what we enjoy most about being moms is actually spending time with our kids.

As psychologist S. Katherine Nelson and her co-authors put it in a groundbreaking study entitled In Defense of Parenthood: Children Are Associated with More Joy than Misery, which was published in Psychological Science back in 2013: "Taking care of children provides parents with more happiness, on average, than their other day-to-day activities."

So far from being the source of misery, time spent with our kids is actually the good stuff in most mothers' lives.

What moms love least about being moms

Of course, that kind of begs the question: what is it about motherhood that moms love least?

The research is pretty clear on this point, too. It's all the other stuff: the stuff that gets in the way of these moments of connection with our kids. All the feelings of anxiety, guilt, and being overwhelmed that are pretty much baked into the experience of modern motherhood, in other words.

Parenting isn’t just hard. It’s almost impossibly hard. And for reasons that have little to do with parenting.

Parenting isn’t just hard. It’s almost impossibly hard. And for reasons that have little to do with parenting.

One way to manage those less-than-happy feelings is to rewrite the stories you’re telling yourself about what it means to be a good mother.

This is something I spoke with author and registered psychologist Vanessa Lapointe about recently, while I was researching my CBC Radio parenting column. Here's what she had to say: "The idea of being happy really begins with going kind of deep down within ourselves and beginning to tell ourselves a narrative or a story about our our life about ourselves as mothers, about our children, about our partners, about the world that we live in….that we concoct a story that works for us rather than a story that works against us."

So acknowledge that things are hard and then work at rewriting the script in your head — the one that tries to tell you that you're not a good enough mom.

Of course, a mindset shift isn’t going to be enough to move the happiness dial in a major way for a mom who is feeling really crushed by the demands of work-life imbalance or who is feeling frustrated by the fact that she seems to be shouldering a disproportionate amount of the parenting load.

And, as it turns out, these two factors are really key ingredients in the recipe for maternal unhappiness. So if you’d prefer to whip up a batch of maternal happiness instead, it’s pretty clear what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to switch up the recipe a little.

Reduced work-life conflict = happier moms

Research conducted by the US-based Council on Contemporary Families highlights the fact that parental happiness levels increase in the presence of policy that makes it less stressful and less costly for parents to juggle the competing demands of work and family.

When things aren't working well on that front, mothers in particular tend to experience a lot of guilt. A 2017 study published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies found, for example, that mothers experience significantly higher levels of "work-interfering-with-family guilt" than fathers do.

The good news is that access to quality affordable childcare is a complete game changer for moms, allowing parents to juggle the competing demands of work and family more easily. It helps to minimize work-life conflict, encourages greater equity in couple relationships, and eliminates the so-called motherhood tax (the fact that mothers are penalized in the workplace in terms of both income and opportunity because they still tend to be the ones in their families who take the lead when it comes to caring for children).

So better family policy that actually reflects the realities of what's happening in Canadian families in 2019 is definitely a key ingredient in the recipe for a happier mom. And it may explain why childcare is showing up on the wish lists of a lot of moms this Mother's Day. I actually spotted a hashtag on Twitter this week that declared #childcarenotchocolates. I don’t know about you, but I loved that so much….

A more realistic job description for the position of “mother” = happier moms

If you've always had a nagging suspicion that being a dad tends to be whole lot more fun than being a mom, well, it turns out that science is on your side. A 2016 study conducted at Cornell University concluded that mothers report "less happiness, more stress, and greater fatigue" during the time they spend with children than fathers do.

The job description for “father” is still a whole lot more forgiving than the job description for “mother.”

The job description for “father” is still a whole lot more forgiving than the job description for “mother.”

At the root of the problem is the fact that the job description for "father" continues to be a whole lot more manageable than the job description for "mother." There are more flexible and more realistic models of what it means to be "a good dad" as compared to "a good mom" — even in 2019. These stubborn gender norms conspire to make life harder for moms and dads alike which, I should add, means any person of any gender who happens to step into either of those prepackaged roles.

How does this play out in real life? Well, for starters, mothers tend to spend more of their time with their kids taking care of the hands-on, hard work of parenting, freeing dads up to enjoy more of the fun stuff.

And really, who wouldn't enjoy the fun stuff of parenting more?

There’s no one-size-fits-all motherhood experience

Of course, it’s important to acknowledge that there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all motherhood experience — just as there’s no such thing as one-size-fits-all anything. Some moms do have a tougher time than others. Some kids are easier to parent than others. Some stages of motherhood are easier and more enjoyable than others. (Spoiler alert: The preschool years tend to be the motherhood sweet spot.) And some parents are at increased risk of parent burnout (which is more likely to occur when parents have sky-high expectations of themselves).

It’s okay to be a gloriously imperfect mom. In fact, it’s more than okay!

It’s okay to be a gloriously imperfect mom. In fact, it’s more than okay!

So taming your own expectations of what’s realistic and possible for you in your life right now may be the most important ingredient in the recipe for a happier you. And that starts with celebrating the fact that moms don't have to be perfect. It's okay to be a gloriously imperfect mom. In fact, it's more than okay. By giving your child the gift of a gloriously imperfect mother, you're teaching your child something really important: that none of us have to be perfect in order to be worthy of love. And what a gift that message is for any child to receive.

So here’s to ditching the guilt and embracing the joy this Mother's Day.

Ann Douglas is the author of numerous bestselling books about parenting and the weekend parenting columnist for CBC Radio. Her two most recent books are Happy Parents, Happy Kids and Parenting Through the Storm. A passionate and inspiring speaker, Ann delivers keynote addresses and leads small group workshops at health, education, and parenting conferences across the country.

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A Guilt-Free Guide to Becoming a More Active Parent

Yep. I’m putting the “guilt-free” thing right in the headline for this blog post. That’s because I know how easy it is to feel weighed down by guilt about not being as physically active as you’d like to be (and as the world keeps telling you that you should be). For entire decades of my life, I was the poster child for self-neglect. I had pretty much given up any hope of ever getting to a healthy weight or becoming a physically active person. And yet I was able to turn the situation around, gradually, over a period of time, with a whole lot of support from family and friends. So that’s the perspective I bring to this conversation. And I think it’s a timely one to have during New Year’s Resolution season. Here are some thoughts about all that! - Ann

New Year’s resolutions season has rolled around yet again – a time of year that is too often characterized by sky-high expectations followed by crushing regrets. The guilt of failing to follow through on a New Year’s resolution can be particularly crushing if you’re a parent who is trying (and so far failing) to encourage your kids to be more physically active. The good news is that there are things you can do to increase your odds of making your family’s new active living resolution stick – and in a sustainable, guilt-free way. Here’s what I’ve figured out along the way.

You’re not the only parent who is struggling to be more active (although it may feel that way).

Happy Parents Happy Kids will be published by HarperCollins Canada on February 19, 2019.

Happy Parents Happy Kids will be published by HarperCollins Canada on February 19, 2019.

Sure, your Instagram feed is overflowing with photos of parents doing all kinds of active things, but that’s not how things are playing out in the lives of every single parent. Some parents find it really tough, particularly during the early years of parenting. So if you’re finding it tough, too, please know that you’re not alone.

When I was researching my forthcoming book, I stumbled across some rather mind-blowing research about how becoming a parent impacts on a parent’s physical activity levels. (Spoiler alert: it’s not good news!)

Becoming a mother for the first time typically leads women to become less physically active — and that dip typically lasts for the next four years! And it’s not just moms who miss out on their workouts. New dads/partners often feel pressured to cut back on time spent exercising on their own in order to meet the increased demands of parenthood and to avoid triggering feelings of resentment in the couple relationship.

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But it’s not all bad news. Not by a long shot! Some parents choose to treat the transition to parenthood as an opportunity to become more active. They see it as a turning point in their lives—and opportunity to become more (as opposed to less) healthy. They’re highly committed to making these changes, so they find ways to troubleshoot the barriers that might otherwise prevent them from being as active as they’d like. They have a plan for working around time constraints, fatigue, childcare challenges, and the other things that can derail even the best of intentions – a plan that works at least some of the time!

Don’t set the bar impossibly high for yourself. Think progress, not perfection!

Start small and build on your successes over time. Don’t expect yourself to start running marathons over night (if, in fact, that’s even a goal for you). Measure success on your terms and think progress, not perfection. That’s the kind of mindset that helps to sustain you over time—as opposed to black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking.

Look for tiny chunks of time in your schedule when you actually have a hope of making physical activity happen. This is something I was speaking with Eileen Kimmett about recently. She’s a Peterborough, Ontario, mother of three school-aged children who made the transition from being completely sedentary back in 2012 to being someone who has totally embraced physical fitness — and who has helped her husband and her kids to do the same. She told me that what allowed her to become physically active for the first time in her life was identifying a chunk of time that she could devote to physical activity on a regular basis. For Eileen, that meant first thing in the morning, when her husband was available to take care of the children before heading off to work.

For other parents, it might mean squeezing in a walk during their lunch hour at work — when their kids are in childcare or at school. Given that childcare is one of the major barriers to being physically active when you have young children (one group of researchers found that an astounding 98.6 percent of mothers cite time commitments related to childcare as a major barrier to physical activity), this is a really practical way to make physical activity happen: by zeroing in on a chunk of time when you don’t have to worry about finding someone to take care of the kids.

Remind yourself that it’s okay to treat your own health as a priority. Self-care isn’t selfish. It’s self-preservation. And it’s an act of kindness toward your child.

Not only will you be giving your child the gift of a happy, healthy parent: you’ll also be modeling the kinds of lifestyle habits that will help your child to arrive at that happy, healthy place, too. It’s the ultimate win-win.

Parents who are able to be physically active on a regular basis tend to be happier and healthier. This is because exercises boosts your energy, improves the quality of your sleep, leaves you calmer and better equipped to deal with stress, improves your focus and alertness, and makes you feel better about yourself. It has far-reaching effects on your physical and mental health, to say nothing of your parenting.

And kids who have physically active parents benefit from some pretty powerful role modelling. There’s a solid body of research to demonstrate that more active parents have more active kids — and that more active kids become more active adults. (By the way, having one parent who is physically active is good. Having two parents who are physically active is great. Children are most likely to participate in sports themselves when both parents (as opposed to one parent or no parents) do likewise.)

And here’s an interesting twist: More active kids have more active parents. Active living seems to beget more active living in families. The top three tips to be gleaned from the research on what actually encourages kids to be active? Be active as a family; make it fun; and head outdoors!

Don’t rely on motivation alone. Motivation tends to fade pretty quickly.

Sure, use that motivation to blast off with great enthusiasm — but then anchor that resolution on something a little more solid, by creating a predictable habit or routine. Better yet, automate that habit so that you don’t have to waste any time thinking about whether or when you’re going to be physically active. You’ll just know you’re going to be active in the morning, in the evening, on the weekend, or whatever the case may be. And at some point down the road, with enough repetitions, being active will feel as automatic as brushing your teeth.

Embrace your new identity as an individual and as a family. Start to think of yourself as a physical active person and a physically active family, even if you’re relatively new to this thing. You’ll find it easier to honour your commitment to get out of bed a little earlier or to drag yourself off the couch after dinner if you remind yourself that, “I’m the kind of person – or we’re the kind of family – that is committed to being physically active on a regular basis.” You’ll want to live up to that image of yourself!

Don’t be afraid to tap into support from other people. Instead of feeling guilty for asking for that support, look forward to the day when you will be able to pay that favor forward by offering encouragement to the next physical activity newbie you encounter when you’re out for a run or a walk.

Finally, hold on to hope. Who cares how many times you’ve struggled to become active in the past. Maybe this is the time your new active living habit will stick! I know this can happen because it happened to me. Six years ago today (yes, today), I embarked on the journey from card-carrying couch potato to physically fit person — and I’ve never looked back. I’m living proof that it’s possible to make this shift — even if it feels completely impossible when you’re first starting out. Bottom line? You can find your way to that happier, healthier place.


This blog post is based on my most recent parenting column for CBC Radio. Want to listen to the entire thing? You can tune in to my conversation with Nana aba Duncan, host of CBC Radio’s Fresh Air, right here!

Ann Douglas is the weekend parenting columnist for CBC Radio and the author of numerous bestselling books about pregnancy and parenting. On February 19, HarperCollins Canada will be publishing her latest book, Happy Parents Happy Kids. This month, Ann is volunteering to lead Project Active Family for the physical literacy non-profit group Active for Life because she wants to encourage other parents to make the shift to becoming more active with their kids (and to make that shift in a sustainable, guilt-free way).

Back-to-School Parenting: That White Space on Your Calendar? It's Called Breathing Room

That white space on your calendar? It's called breathing room -- and it's good for you and your kids.

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Back-to-school season also happens to be extra-curricular activity sign-up season: that time of year when it is tempting to sign your kids (and yourself!) up for every conceivable activity. Everything sounds so exciting and so much fun. And it is -- as long as it doesn't tip your family into complete overload mode. 

Last year at this time, I shared some strategies for resisting the temptation to fill each and every square of your family's calendar with all kinds of fabulous activities.

This year, I'm going to build on that earlier post by talking about the benefits of leaving a little white space on your calendar -- of allowing your child to experience a healthy amount of boredom.

The upside of boredom

In our culture, we tend to think of boredom as a bad thing -- as something to be avoided at all costs. But what if it isn't actually something to be feared and dreaded? What if it's actually more like a gift? 

As it turns out, there are at least three significant benefits to allowing our kids -- and ourselves -- to be bored, at least according to the growing body of research on the science of boredom. 

1. Boredom encourages creativity

This happens because being bored is such a deeply uncomfortable feeling for us humans. Our brains will do pretty much anything to avoid it. You've no doubt experienced this in your own life. Perhaps you were stuck in a meeting room, waiting for someone else to arrive: someone who was running really, really late. As the minutes kept ticking away, you grew increasingly restless, and, out of utter, sheer desperation, you looked for a way to entertain yourself. Suddenly your eyes hit upon a stash of office supplies. And, before you knew it, you were making a chain out of paper clips or a patchwork quilt out of sticky notes. Anything to relieve the boredom! 

It's not just you, by the way, who finds boredom incredibly uncomfortable. One group of people who were participating in a scientific study about boredom actually voluntarily subjected themselves to electric shocks as a means of relieving those very same feelings! It was either sit there and do nothing or give yourself an electric shock. They opted for the electric shock!

The challenge for most of us these days is to actually allow ourselves to sit with these feelings of boredom and to encourage our kids to do the same. If we reach for our cell phones as a way to relieve those feelings of boredom, we miss out on the opportunities to exercise the creative parts of our brain. Likewise, if we rush in too soon to solve the so-called "problem" of boredom for our kids, we rob them of these opportunities, too. 

This is something I was speaking with Christine Hennebury about recently for a recent CBC Radio parenting column. She's a creativity coach and mother of two and a firm believer in the benefits of boredom. Here's what she had to say: "Teaching our kids to be okay with the discomfort of being bored can help us to gain a little mental real estate for ourselves -- and I think it's good problem-solving practice for them. The more problems they solve on their own -- including the problem of being bored and the ability to get comfortable with that uncertainty of 'What do I do next?' -- the fewer problems that we will have to solve for them." 

So you get a break.

The kids get to work on their problem-solving skills.

It's pretty much the ultimate win-win!

2. Being bored can reconnect you with your sense of purpose.

When you're bored, your mind starts to wander in a good way that encourages broader and more expansive thinking. Suddenly, you're able to see the broader perspective, the so-called big picture, as opposed to narrowly fixating on the minutiae of daily living. You're able to connect the dots between past, present, and future, something that allows you to derive a greater sense of meaning and purpose from your life. You know who you are, where you've been, and where you're headed. Your life actually starts to feel like it makes sense!

3. Being bored can make you a kinder person.

This is one of the more fascinating findings I stumbled across while pouring through the research on boredom while writing my forthcoming book. Spending time in a state of boredom actually encourages altruism, empathy, and acts of kindness. Researchers think that this is the direct result of the very thing we were just talking about: the fact that being bored encourages us to engage in deeper and more expansive thinking -- the kind of deeper thinking that allows us to become the best and wisest version of ourselves. We're no longer living our lives on autopilot, in a state of perpetual distraction. Instead, we have the opportunity to reflect on what matters most to us in life, like our relationships with other people. And that, in turn, encourages us to come up with creative ways of nurturing those relationships. We're so much happier and healthier as a result.

Helping kids to get comfortable with being bored

So now that we've talked about the benefits of boredom, let's talk about what it takes to help kids to become comfortable with the feeling of being bored and to figure out how to solve the problem of boredom for themselves. 

As parents, we can help them to understand that boredom is actually a good thing, not something to be feared or avoided at all costs. They need to know that the restless feeling we experience when we're really, really bored is designed to spur us to action. It's like an error message from your brain telling your body, "Hey! We've got to do something differently here!" The challenge is to figure out what that "different" might be. Maybe it means switching from a boring task (like mindlessly surfing the Internet) to a more interesting task (like doing art or solving a puzzle). And sometimes it means finding a way to make a boring task less boring (perhaps listening to some music while you're unloading the dishwasher).

And, of course, this is a skill we can practice in our own lives as well -- because being a grownup can be pretty boring at times, too. Think about it. Folding laundry is never going to rank up there as one of life's top ten most thrilling experiences. Ditto for washing dishes or, if you're a parent, listening to a six year old rhyme off an endless stream of "knock, knock" jokes. 

When boredom becomes a problem

Of course, as with anything else in life, you can get too much of a good thing -- even when that "good thing" means being bored. Extreme amounts of boredom can trigger unhealthy or even risky behaviours. Not only is boredom associated with mindless eating: it's also linked to substance abuse, bad driving, risky sex, problem gambling, and even political extremism. And it has been linked to poor grades, increased dropout rates, and difficulty managing impulses. 

That last bit brings to mind the time when two of my boys decided to relieve their feelings of boredom by playing with the can of spray paint they found in the next door neighbour's garage. As they discovered, curiosity may be the cure for boredom, but it can also get you into a lot of trouble. Or, as boredom researcher Andreas Elipidorou likes to put it: "The interesting isn't always beneficial." (Fortunately, the neighbours were pretty understanding.)

So you definitely don't want your kids to be bored 24/7. Extra-curricular activities can be a godsend -- in moderation.

It's about finding that sweet spot between total boredom and total overload.

That's where the magic happens as a family. 
 

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