Let's Talk Kids: "Boredom's Boon"

Jan 27, 2017

A mother explained that she plans a tight schedule for her kids, allowing for little “down time.”  In her experience, when kids have time on their hands, trouble results.

And I get that.  Like the old adage that “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop,” I remember plenty of times in my own house when kids with not enough to do would stir up misbehavior for its own sake.  This parent has a good point, undoubtedly borne out by experience with her own three rowdy children.

But sometimes I wonder about the value of boredom, too, thinking of hours of boredom in my own childhood that led to some of my most creative play experiences.

Mud pie making was my effort to fill up those boring hours of a Saturday afternoon when my parents had their own work to do and I was on my own for a time.  Making mud pies afforded me a quiet place as my mind was free to roam.  I was able to think on more serious matters such as how to convince my parents to let me get a dog.  Lots of high level scheming accompanied this mud pie making in my childhood.

My experience is affirmed by others who recognize kids’ need for boredom in their lives.  Educational psychologist Lori Day observes the “over-parenting” in which children are kept occupied every moment. “If you believe that loving your children requires you to be their constant playmate or to chauffeur them nonstop to a slew of enriching activities lest they not be perpetually ‘stimulated,’ then some very important outcomes are being forgotten…including creativity, independence, resilience and intrinsic motivation, which result from kids becoming bored and having to create something for themselves.”

It’s as if we have a need for boredom in order to build up steam for the next creative endeavor we will undertake.  When we are overstimulated or tired, we can’t marshal the resources for starting something new.  But boredom sets the stage for us to create.  When we’re bored, our minds reach for the germ of an idea and nurture that seed into fruition.  

Child developmentalist Janet Lansbury reflects that “Boredom is just the time and space between ideas…and sometimes the wellspring of genius.”  Maybe “idle hands” are more than the devil’s workshop.  Maybe they’re the workshop of a budding genius.