At this point, you have protected your family by sheltering in place, sanitized your house, implemented routines and clarified the house rules. You have a plan to ensure your family has the food, medicine, and toilet paper they need. Some parents have transitioned to working from home and others have set up their children’s on-line education program. You are doing your best to keep the troops entertained. Yet, it is inevitable, after being cooped up in one place with the same people — day after day — sooner or later boredom will eventually creep in.
First of all, do not fear your child’s boredom. Boredom is important. It drives ingenuity. Some of the world’s great discoveries blossomed out of boredom. While quarantined for more than a year at his family’s farm during the bubonic plague, Sir Issac Newton embarked on what he would later describe as the most intellectually productive period of his life. With his free time to think and ponder over every-day occurrences, he developed his three laws of motion and the law of gravity. Now, today’s parents aren’t really expecting their children to rewrite the laws of physics during this coronavirus outbreak, but they are looking to catch a few moments of uninterrupted free time at home!
Creativity and flexible thinking are required to conquer boredom. Effective creativity can be described as an organized mental search for related, but unique ideas. When a child is confronted with a dilemma such as free time, he accesses a metaphorical mental drop-down menu of options. But, when this menu does not spontaneously appear for a child who lacks organization, he chooses to respond with the first action that pops into his mind. A child with limited creativity skills may continually default to one preferred activity when he is bored, like video games. If you take this option away, he may be miserable — or the discomfort of boredom might motivate your child to think creatively about what to do next.
Of course, you should not be responsible for all of your child’s fun, all of the time, but sometimes you have to demonstrate how to make fun happen. Help model creativity for your child. Show your younger children new ways to use everyday objects, finger paint on glass shower doors with shaving cream, make figures out of popsicle sticks and rubber bands, teach them how to cut paper snowflakes out of folded paper, make some homemade play-dough, or go outside and play hockey using sticks and a rock. Right now there is a good YouTube video circulating of a father who creates 30 different indoor games for his preschooler using only a roll of tape. Learning to solve boredom is like exercise for a child’s brain; it requires a child to think about possibilities. A child must learn to consider all of the things she could build, play, or create. Thinking about multiple things at once is the foundation for higher thinking skills (e.g. planning, insight, perspective taking, and grasping the big picture), so battling boredom is great for your child’s development.
School-aged children and teens can be wonderfully creative, but too many stop being inventive and silly because their need to use these skills is compromised by the availability of technology. Their default time-filler is to check Instagram or Snapchat on their phone or watch TikToks and YouTube. Additionally, prior to the shelter-in-place orders, many kids were just shuttled from one activity to the next during overscheduled after-school time. Experiencing free-time was a rarity for many students. This has changed greatly in just a matter of weeks.
Now that your family is at home, encourage your children to practice creating mental (or physical) lists of things to do. When your child is in a good mood, try to brainstorm and problem-solve lots of ideas for the next time your child says, “There’s nothing to do.” Give her some general parameters and ideas, or suggest options and activities. A very organized thinker will access her mental drop-down menu of things that she wanted to do earlier, but didn’t have time for, or her menu of things that have been fun during past similarly boring situations. A creative thinker may invent new games or stories to pass the time, older kids can create the perfect playlist, and having art supplies or musical instruments on hand are good creative tools for all ages.
Additionally, over the past few weeks my message about the need to establish routines while parenting in a pandemic has proven to be useful and important to many families. I want to reemphasize that routines will reduce your child’s anxiety about being bored. When left to a large block of time without structure, a bored child fears that this feeling will go on “forever.” Adding routines to a child’s day gives them a schedule to look forward to and reassures them that boredom will only last until the next activity, which may alleviate much of their concern. Be sure your daily blocks of time have slots designated for free play or creative play, which will give your child the opportunity to practice how to fill the void on his own.
Another important routine to begin to incorporate with your family during this crisis, is by planning one or two fun activities each week for everyone to look forward to together. Plan a family movie or game night, plan a family walk or hike, or plan to make a special dessert treat. Having a fun activity to target on your calendar is really helpful to break up the day-to-day monotony of these weeks at home without visitors.
Finally, parents often feel compelled to “rescue” children of all ages from boredom by allowing them to play on a phone or tablet, or by sitting them in front of the television to keep them occupied. It may be even more difficult to resist that urge during this pandemic — and allowing your children a bit of extra time on devices to help be social with their friends during this isolation period is a good thing — so, try to find the happy-medium in your household. But, please use this unusual extended time at home to start training your children to battle through times of boredom, it will pay off as they grow up with more skills to help keep themselves entertained, whether in a pandemic or not.
Be safe and be well.
Damon Korb, M.D., a Developmental Behavioral Pediatrician and the Director of the Center for Developing Minds in Los Gatos, California, is the author of Raising an Organized Child: Five Steps to Boost Independence, Ease Frustration, and Promote Confidence.