Boredom is a feeling we can resolve
oredom can be experienced by both children and adults. It’s a form of “brain hunger,” an internal urge for stimulation, much like the urge to eat or drink. However, providing the right stimulation for the brain is as hard as providing the exact snack your body is yearning for: “I want something. Not crackers, not fruit, not cheese, not chips, not chocolate, not yogurt....”
Boredom can’t be relieved by just any old activity. Any parent can tell you of all the activities they suggested to their bored child, who promptly rejected them. “Why don’t you call a friend?” “Why don’t you draw for a while?” “How about reading the books I just brought home from the library for you?” “Do you want to bake?”
Kids can be bored at school when there is a mismatch between what the teacher is offering and what the child’s system requires or is yearning for. For example, a child who is intellectually gifted may be bored by the classroom curriculum because he needs something more challenging to chew on. Another child in the same class may be bored because he can’t keep up with the lesson, and there’s nothing suitable for him to chew on either.
Kids can be bored at home because they’re left to amuse themselves and don’t always know how to do that well.
Even adults have trouble relieving their own boredom. They get bored at home, at work, at shul, at the park with their kids. Adults can even get bored with their lives, feeling a chronic state of existential emptiness, a lack of purpose and fulfillment.
Boredom rings an alarm in all who feel it: “Do something different. What we’re doing now doesn’t feed us!”
Like hunger, boredom keeps ringing the alarm until it’s satiated. Some people try to numb the pain by going to sleep. We see this particularly in people whose impaired health has made it difficult for them to engage in stimulating activities; they just close their eyes and drift off for many hours of the day. Some kids and adults deal with their boredom by creating drama: a bored child may tease a sibling to get a reaction; a bored adult may start complaining about the behavior of other family members. Bored people may try to wake up their nervous system with stimulants such as caffeine, drugs, or mindless activities on screens. These “solutions” solve nothing and can create more problems. What then, can we do to address boredom in ourselves or our children?
The Right Fit
Whatever relieves boredom will often be an activity that has more than one of the following qualities:
Whether easy or hard, it’s interesting or challenging to the bored person.
It involves learning or problem- solving at the right level (neither too easy nor too difficult for the bored person).
It involves creativity, imagination, music, playfulness, or movement.
It involves other people.
It involves something that is new or has new aspects.
It may have an urgent quality such as a short deadline.
It may feel meaningful, valuable, or important and/or it may yield a reward.
When we look at these criteria, we can see why our attempts to direct bored children often fall flat. “Read a book,” “Call a friend,” and so on rarely draw on a multiplicity of these traits.
“Let’s see if you can make an original pizza recipe in under 20 minutes,” has a better chance since it 1) involves creativity 2) has new aspects 3) has a short deadline and 4) is valuable (feeds the family) and might earn reward (lots of praise). (Of course, it has to be offered to a child who enjoys cooking and will find this neither too hard nor too easy!)
But let’s face it, coming up with suggestions that meet many of the criteria simultaneously will be challenging. Parents can tell their kids what the criteria are, offer examples, and just leave it to them to create their own ideas. “Don’t ask me. YOU have the criteria, and I’m sure you can figure it out,” can become your mantra.
When you or your spouse are the bored ones, let the criteria guide you in finding solutions. When all this seems too hard, it’s okay. Just be bored for a while or let the kids be bored. When it hurts enough, everyone will do what they have to do to relieve their own boredom.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 850)
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