That white space on your calendar? It's called breathing room -- and it's good for you and your kids.
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.
Want to get the scoop on Ann's forthcoming book -- Happy Parents, Happy Kids -- when it hits the bookstore shelves early next year? You can sign up for Ann's book announcement newsletter here.