The Benefits of Boredom

Richard Louv
August 16, 1999

Every summer around this time, parents hear the moaning complaint: "I'm borrrred."

When kids say they're bored, it's easy to get nostalgic about summers past, which (at least through the fog of memory) didn't seem boring at all.

In the mid- and late-'50s, air conditioning was not yet common, so you spent a lot of time in the cool of the basement, making up games, building forts with chairs and blankets. In the late afternoon, when the sun was punishing, the Mickey Mouse Club might have been enough to pull you in from outside, but most of the rest of the day there was nothing on except soaps and quiz games and an occasional cowboy movie—which made you want to leap up and head outside.

Perhaps you lost yourself in the woods and built great treehouses, wombs of the imagination. You felt the sting of thistles on your legs and arms and neck as you crossed long fields in the sun. You watched cumulus clouds heave above you like gods. Under their loose supervision, you were free.

"Well, times have changed," says Tina Kafka, a San Diego teacher and a mother of three. "Even if kids have all the unstructured time in the world, they're not outside playing. They're inside with their video games." She recognizes how carefully planned activities pale in comparison to more spontaneous experiences in her children's long-term memories. She wants to nurture magic in her children's lives. But she's also a realist.

"Today, kids just don't go out and play and ride their bikes that much. They're more interested in electronics," says Kafka. "I'm uncomfortable with them lolling around watching TV, but to be honest, I also get tired of feeling that I have to keep them entertained."

What's a parent to do?

A Brief History of Boredom

"The word bored isn't in my vocabulary," some of us remember our grandmothers saying. In fact, the word wasn't in anybody's vocabulary until the nineteenth century, according to Patricia Meyer Spacks, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, and author of Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind.

In medieval times, according to Spacks, if someone displayed the symptoms we now identify as boredom, that person was thought to be committing something called acedia, a "dangerous form of spiritual alienation" that devalued the world and its creator. Who had time for such self-indulgence, what with plague, pestilence and the labor of survival? Acedia was considered a sin.

Then came the invention of labor-saving machinery, the valuing of the individual, and the "pursuit of happiness." Forget the sin, now we could afford the emotional state of boredom. And just in time, too. ''If life was never boring in pre-modern times,'' Professor Smacks adds, ''neither was it interesting, thrilling or exciting, in the modern sense of these words.''

At its best, boredom is the font of creativity. Just look what a little forced idleness has produced. If he hadn't been locked up, Martin Luther King would never have written "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." And O. Henry wouldn't have turned out his famous short stories if he hadn't been sent to prison for embezzlement.

Then again, Adolf Hitler wrote Mein Kampf in jail. Boredom can lead to creativity or just plain trouble.

Today, kids pack the malls, pour into the video archives, line up for the scariest, goriest summer movies they can find. Yet, they still complain, "I'm borrrred." Like a sugared drink on a hot day, such entertainment leaves kids thirsting for more—for faster, bigger, more violent stimuli. Experts on childhood point to this insidious, new kind of boredom as one reason for the rising number of psychiatric problems among children and adolescents, according to Ronald Dahl, a professor of pediatrics at the Pittsburgh Medical Center writing in Newsweek. He suggests it also leads to more of doctors prescribing "stimulants to deal with inattentiveness at school or antidepressants to help with the loss of interest and joy in their lives?"

We need to draw an important distinction between a constructively bored mind and a negatively numbed mind.

Nurturing Constructive Boredom

Constructively bored kids eventually turn to a book, or build a fort, or pull out the paints (or the computer art program) and create, or come home sweaty from a game of neighborhood basketball. But kids need the guidance of parents or other adults if their boredom is to be constructive, and lead to creativity.

  • First step: More than a new toy to ease their boredom, a bored child usually needs to spend more time with a parent. Indeed, complaints of boredom may be cries for a parent's attention. Parents or other adults need to be there for their kids, to limit the time they play video games or watch TV, to take them to the library, or on long walks, or fishing—to help them detach from electronics long enough for their imaginations to kick in.
  • Second step: turn off the TV as much as possible. Any parent who has punished a child by taking away TV privileges and then watched that child play—slowly at first, then imaginatively, freely—will recognize the connection between time, boredom and creativity.

    "There's something about television—maybe that it provides so much in the way of audio and visual stimulations—that children don't have to generate very much on their own," says Aletha S. Huston, a long-time child and media researcher now at the University of Texas, Austin.

    In a famous study from the 1980s, the University of British Columbia examined an otherwise typical Canadian town (named, in the study, "Notel") that did not receive television service because of isolating geography. The researchers compared kids in that town with children in two other towns that did view television. The children in Notel did significantly better in creativity tests. The director of the study concluded that television "displaces other activities ...We had an impression," she says, "that one of the reasons the kids in the town without TV scored higher was because they'd been bored more often and had had to figure out more things to do."

  • Third step (for summer programs as well as parents): find a balance between adult direction and child boredom. Too much boredom can lead to trouble; too much supervision can kill constructive boredom—and the creativity that comes with it.

    "I structure some unstructured time for their kids, times when they can just draw or paint or read and dream, with no deadlines or commutes to lessons," says Kafka. "I realize that sounds paradoxical—structuring unstructured time, but you've got to do it."

    Suzanne Thompson, who lives in a Los Angeles suburb, is also trying to strike a balance. "I've signed Julia (her 11-year-old) up for a summer band two hours a day," she says. "I'm trying to give her some structured time with other kids—as an only child, she needs that—but also enough time to relax and dream."

How Institutions Can Help

Kafka has the summers off, and Thompson works at home much of the time. Most parents don't have that kind of flexibility, but they need more (flexible summer workplace hours, for instance) if they're going to help their kids use boredom wisely.

Another goal: additional funding for community-based summer recreation programs. Summer camps, schools and child-care programs are godsends to many working parents, especially single parents. A good summer program can literally mean survival for some children, who live in rough neighborhoods.

Some programs make room for dream-time. "Adventure playgrounds" provide kids with a supervised (by an adult, at a distance) vacant lot filled with old tires, boards, tools—and places to build and dig. Supervised nature programs help children explore without excessive direction. And teen centers allow teenagers, rather than adults, to create the recreation. Such programs deserve extra support.

Most of all, children need adults in their lives who understand the relationship between boredom and creativity—and are willing to set the stage so that kids can create the play.

Richard Louv is Senior Editor of Connect for Kids and columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune. He is also author of "101 Things You Can Do for Our Children's Future" (Anchor) and "The Web of Life" (Conari).