The importance of boredom

boredomWhen I was a kid, it was usually around this time of year — at the height of summer vacation — that I started to get bored.

The novelty of being out of school would wear off as June melted into July. The newness of spending full days outside and staying up past my bedtime to read got varnished. Everything I couldn’t wait to do when I stepped off the bus on the last day of school had already been done.

Yup. I would get out of bed and wonder, “What am I going to do with myself today?” I’d slump down the stairs, swinging my arms gorilla-style, and look around for an activity.

Whenever boredom set in, a miraculous thing eventually would happen: I would get un-bored.

Boredom instigated creativity and independence. If I moaned to Mom about being bored, she would say, “If you’re bored, I can give you housework.” Inevitably I’d skedaddle and stop pestering her with complaints of having nothing to do. I’d go to my room or outside to find something to occupy my time.

Once I made a three-dimensional colt from construction paper and paper towel tubes rescued from the trash can. That was in the height of my horse obsession, after I’d already read and reread all of my Pony Pals and Thoroughbred and Saddle Club brooks. I spent an afternoon in my room pretending I ran a stable.

Another time I had a dog show with all of my Beanie Baby dogs. I repeated that game the next day, and again the next.

One summer I escaped Mom’s threat of chores by spending an afternoon at the backyard basketball hoop. I imagined I was the star player on a junior high team headed to a national championship. That evening I created a team roster for my team … then for all the opposing teams. I spent the evening pretending we were on a road trip and I was in a hotel. Over the next two weeks, I spent every non-rainy day at the basketball hoop, eliminating rival teams on a tournament bracket I created.

I loved that multiweek game of make-believe so much that I started writing it down. It eventually became the second novel I wrote in childhood, a 200+ page middle grade book titled “The Coach.” I started it that summer and finished writing in the midst of my seventh-grade year.

On rainy days, boredom usually was cured by books. If there wasn’t new reading material lying around, I’d comfort myself in an old favorite.

Parents, kids, and passing time

Last month, digital news outlet Quartz published the article advising parents not to fill every minute of their children’s day with fun and activities.

Instead, child psychologist Lyn Fry told Quartz that parents should fill their leisure time with activities that make them happy, and children should be left to discover their own happiness and interests during leisure time.

Except our society doesn’t like people to be bored or leisurely. Busy is the new normal. Ana Veciana-Suarez, of the Miami Herald, observes:

Our culture abhors boredom. It looks askance at unstructured time. Idle hands are the devil’s workshop and all that. If an adult is bored, it must be because she isn’t working enough or cultivating the people and the causes she should. And if a child confesses to this dullest of dull states, we sign them up for soccer or order them to pick up their bedrooms.

As a (hopefully) future parent, the pressure is intense. I don’t even have kids yet, and already I feel the need to be a “perfect” mom. My social media feed is full of women my age who share daily highlights of their mommyhood, from their homeschooling stories to sensory play strategies to elaborate photo collages showing the themed birthday parties they’ve arranged. They have blogs about day trips they take their kids on and hands-on activities they plan and cloth diapers they sew and lessons they teach (be it introductions to Spanish/French/sign language, cooking, crafting, etc.) …

For a long time, I aspired to be one of these mothers. The kind who devotes every minute of my life outside of work to my kids. The kind who makes sure every waking minute for the tiny humans in my house is fulfilling and magical and perfect.

Except that’s not the kind of person I am. And my desire to fit that role weighed me down. That method works for some moms, but I worried about how I wouldn’t fit that role. Because I value alone time. I need family and togetherness, but I also need independence and “reset” time.

My mom was attentive but left us to amuse ourselves much of the time. She went about her housework and errands while we played. She read books and watched TV programs that she enjoyed while we did the same in another room. She maintained her own identity as an individual person with independent interests and let us develop our own identities and interests.

There were times she would work with us on a craft or plan an activity. But there were plenty of summer days when she’d leave the job of entertaining ourselves up to us.

And on those days, I managed to find things to do.

Boredom isn’t bad

Even though I don’t have kids yet, the Quartz article let me breathe a sigh of relief. I won’t be a “bad mom” if I tell kids to amuse themselves instead of expecting me to cultivate entertainment 24/7.

Even better, the article says I’ll  be a good mom for telling kids to amuse themselves.

Fry, the child psychologist, told Quartz, “There’s no problem with being bored. … I think children need to learn how to be bored in order to motivate themselves to get things done. Being bored is a way to make children self-reliant.”

The article also states:

In 1993, psychoanalyst Adam Phillips wrote that the “capacity to be bored can be a developmental achievement for the child.” Boredom is a chance to contemplate life, rather than rushing through it, he said in his book On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life. “It is one of the most oppressive demands of adults that the child should be interested, rather than take time to find what interests him. Boredom is integral to the process of taking one’s time,” added Phillips.

We should let ourselves (and our children) be bored sometimes so we can find new, pleasant ways to fill time. Veciana-Suarez, from the Miami Herald, proposes a good goal:

Think of boredom in another light: as the catalyst to creativity, as the pathway to invention, as proof that slowing time and delaying duty is a luxury in a hyper-connected world. Seems there’s a growing movement to bring back boredom, the kind that forces us to wonder about ourselves and about the world around us, the kind that shuns outside stimulation but produces private entertainment.

So this summer, slather on the sunscreen, make sure to stay hydrated and refuse a child’s panic call. Get bored. Discover the vastness of your mind and your imagination: the last unexplored frontier.

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3 Responses to The importance of boredom

  1. Lonny Cain says:

    Good one. Reading, of course, was my usual escape.

    Favorite saying of my dad: “Go outside and play in the traffic.”

    Ha.

    Lonny Cain Retired, former Managing Editor The Times, Ottawa, IL 815-343-4195 twitter.com/CainWords

    “Make The World Write.”

    >

    Like

  2. trinitygrau says:

    My mom is always running through the same schedule every day. She wakes, does some stuff, wakes us, schools us, feeds us lunch, and goes right back to chores. Besides electives, we have the rest of the day to ourselves. While my mom does make an effort to foster and help with any activities we may wish to pursue, we are also given plenty of time to ourselves to create. I can often be found typing my latest book on a typewriter while my siblings are interacting on Minecraft building their latest fortress or making crafts or just having fun.
    I wouldn’t worry about being the ultimate housewife/mom. The best thing you can do is be a parent. No matter how hard and crazy it gets, there will always be someone who’s been there. And it may be insane, but ultimately it’s fun.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Erik says:

    Hi, Julie. I’m reading this quite a while after it was posted, but I heartily agree with you. This is a topic I devote a lot of time to in my own writing. The funny thing, even the word “boredom” is just a negative word for “not having an immediate, packaged distraction.”

    You frame it here that “boredom” invokes creativity. I agree, and it is the catalyst for so much more besides: problem solving, self-reflection and honesty about things we need to change, appreciation and gratitude, reflecting on previous activities and experiences for deeper insight. The list goes on.

    I was never bored as a kid. And to this day, aside from the occasional obligatory meeting that runs too long and is led by a boring presenter, I’m still never bored; never on my own time.

    You may enjoy my previous four-part miniseries of posts on the topic of children, boredom, and remaining childlike without being childish as we grow older.

    Thanks for sharing your own words and ideas with the world. I hope I’m proof that you never know when they’ll be read or by whom. Keep writing!

    Like

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