What to do when your kids say they’re bored

Hannah Dickson spends an hour with Diane Levy

Some things your kids say will melt your heart – but at the other end of the parenting spectrum are the things that may well make your blood boil. Top of the list of annoying phrases must surely be, “I’m bored” – usually delivered in a plaintive and whiney voice with at least four times the number of vowels prescribed by the dictionary.

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Those two little words seem to conjure up a whole raft of emotions in us, usually because we hear them at the very time we’re least inclined to deal with them – when we really, really need our children to occupy themselves for a short time so we can finish a job, or get some much-needed headspace. But rather than getting worked up after it has happened, Diane Levy suggests putting our energy into thinking ahead and pre-empting, “I’m bo-o-o-ored.”

Figure out why they’re bored

“Often what we are wanting is to be able to say, ‘You go and do that while I go and do this.’ It’s unfortunate, but I don’t think this actually works,” says Diane. When it doesn’t work, we often start wondering how our children can possibly be bored when they have so many things they could be doing, and start threatening to fill their time with chores. “I think we should save the lecture,” says Diane. “We are better off thinking about why they are bored, and what skills they are missing in order to occupy themselves.”

You don’t have to look far to get an opinion on why children complain of boredom. Society has changed – we no longer have the ‘go outside and play until dinnertime’ mentality earlier generations did, and there often aren’t neighbourhood children for our kids to play with. Technology plays a significant part in their lives and children often take part in a series of organised activities, leaving them with fewer resources to entertain themselves. They also have greater expectations of their parents as playmates.

Teach them how to entertain themselves

Regardless of how we feel about these social changes, Diane says if we don’t want to be faced with the constant refrain of ‘I’m bored’, we need to give our children the resources to entertain themselves. Diane is reminded of how children need our support to develop these skills every summer, when the beach community she visits holds its annual sandcastle building competition.

“To build a great sandcastle you need to know about getting the right combination of wet and dry sand, how to pack it down, how to decorate it and stack one little sandcastle on top of another. This is not an innate skill we are born with. We learn it from our peers, older children and from our parents. We don’t learn everything by working it out ourselves, we learn a lot of things by having them modelled to us. If we use this as an example, we can see that before you can say, ‘Go outside and play’, we need to give kids the skills to do so.”

The ‘invitation to play’ method

Diane says we can learn a lot from kindergarten teachers who use an ‘invitation to play’ method. At the start of each session they will set up several tables of activities and children can choose what they would like to do. It’s not about providing a smorgasbord of activities, but rather making sure your children have the skills and equipment to entertain themselves – and access to the wonderful learning opportunities that specific projects can offer.

“The looming craze has been and gone now, but think how much children enjoyed creating and making things,” says Diane. “They learned the things that craft can teach us like patience, repeating the same steps over and over again, dexterity – not just using their two thumbs – and completion.” Diane says the current craze for adult colouring books is another example of how we all need real things to do that encourage our skills. “Why are they so popular? They are the perfect activity. You can lose yourself in them, do something creative, perfect your skills and they are finite in the sense that you produce something.”

Try a boredom jar

Put together a ‘boredom jar’ with ideas they have written down and can pull out when they need to, or create a box with project starters like craft material or jigsaws. But it may not just be something to do that your child craves.

The two types of boredom

There are two types of boredom – activity boredom and social boredom. “Quiet children who need downtime often aren’t bored. It’s usually the children who are company or task-driven,” says Diane. A good solution with these children is to apprentice them to you as your helper. “Sit down and explain the plan for the day. Let them know you would be happy to have them work alongside you or, if they prefer, to play on their own.” Some children really need company and for them, it’s worth building plenty of play dates into your schedule.

“Children are not designed to be alone at home with just a parent,” says Diane. “They are designed to be social, so set up time with friends. Yes, the last thing you may want is two kids instead of one, but actually that often gives you far less work. Just pick the other child carefully!”

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