“Mom! I’m bored!” 

That might just be the most common statement parents hear during the summer. I know I’ve heard it for years. I used to be able to say “Go play with your siblings,” but now, we have only one elementary-age child at home, surrounded by adults with jobs. It took about two days after school got out for her to say, “I’m bored!”

I used to stress a teeny bit about my kids being bored, thinking that boredom was bad. After all, I hate to be bored myself. Like most things, though, when not taken to extremes, boredom isn’t bad. In fact, it can actually be healthy.

An article by the Mayo Clinic says that boredom can stimulate creativity. When our 8-year-old reaches her limit of screens for the day, she knows to go find other things to do. When school ended, we sat down and created a list of things she would like to do this summer. Sometimes she gets some of the big people in the house to play a (nondigital) game with her. Some of her favorites are “Werewolves” and “The Great Dalmuti.” She also recently created a new game with Uno cards and Jenga blocks and a unique set of rules (that favored her, of course!) Sometimes she paints or draws or writes stories. Often, she curls up with a book. As a reader and a writer myself, that makes me happy. She also has items on her list that take another person’s help, like taking her dog to the dog park or going to the movies. This week, we’re going to a museum.

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Is summertime boredom healthy for kids?

Boredom teaches kids that neither mom nor dad (nor anyone else) is going to be there to entertain them every second of the day. And, let’s be honest — electronics shouldn’t either. Kids are naturally curious, but if we as parents spoon-feed them experiences 24/7, they may never have the chance to follow their own curiosity. It’s OK for kids to learn to be comfortable with quiet and not need to fill every second with noise and activity. The Mayo Clinic also says that boredom — or having brain down time — is essential to restoring the brain. Daydreaming, in other words, is healthy!

Jodi Musoff with the Child Mind Institute says that “boredom also helps children develop planning strategies, problem-solving skills, flexibility and organizational skills — key abilities that children whose lives are usually highly structured may lack.” Waiting is a big part of life — are children learning to be OK with the in-between time? Or do they still throw tantrums because they don’t have what they want as fast as they want it? I can think of some adults who don’t do well with waiting — can’t you? Maybe they needed more time to be bored as a child. 

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Boredom lets our minds reset — neither children nor adults are wired for constant stimulation. Neuroscientist Alicia Walf, a researcher in the Department of Cognitive Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, says in a Forbes article that it is critical for brain health to let yourself be bored from time to time. Down time is not the same as “numbed out” time, nor is it “lazy.” Manoush Zomorodi, a journalist and author of “Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self” writes, “It’s not being lazy. This is when the brain’s default mode network kicks in and our best, more original ideas get gestating, because we dip into profound and hidden reservoirs of emotion, memory, and thought. Many areas of the brain are lit up as we bring together past, present, and future to imagine entirely new realms and ways to do things.” That’s good advice for parents and kids!

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The paradox of overdoing it

Italians have a phrase for it: “dolce far niente,” or the “sweetness of doing nothing.” In our culture that prizes busyness, we could learn a thing or two about the value of doing nothing. Arthur Brooks, writing in The Atlantic, says that “learning to do nothing is good for us,” and, he suspects, actually makes us happier. He gives three steps to begin enjoying dolce far niente: start small, just five minutes a day. Next, go on an unstructured vacation and third, choose “soft fascination.” Soft fascination is defined as activities that “gently hold your attention while also leaving plenty of bandwidth to mentally meander.” Think walking in nature rather than watching television. The key is balance between boredom and productive work.

This summer, I’m OK with letting my daughter be bored. And, as difficult as it sounds for me, I’m committed to some time just doing nothing. I’m a little scared.

Holly Richardson is the editor of Utah Policy

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