Simplicity Parenting - Handling Boredom

A few months ago, someone I know shared a link to this post about simplifying childhood. It spoke volumes to me, and I felt the need to share it across several boards - apparently I wasn’t the only one who was touched by this. And, of course, I had to get the book. I would like to elaborate more on what that post and book awakened within me, which I will be breaking up into a series of posts, starting with boredom.

We hear a lot about how the pace of our every-day lives has increased exponentially. Dr. Payne writes “Our society - with its pressures of ‘too much’ - is waging an undeclared war on childhood.” Especially with the advent of parenting magazines, parenting websites, toy manufacturers competing with each other over which one is the flashiest, which ones promise an educational advantage, the fictional “supermoms” who do it all and have their kids signed up for every activity under the planet, all the camps, classes, play groups, etc. The list goes on. Even then, when something in your gut feels wrong about it all, when you yourself feel exhausted from running around, there are the demands and pressures from society, from family, the internal parental guilt of “am I doing enough?” “am I playing with my kids enough?” “they look bored.” I’ve even heard that from moms of babies and toddlers.

Let’s stop for a minute, take a deep breath, and think about about this for a minute.

Think back to your childhood. What are some of your fondest memories? Was it playing endlessly with a favorite toy? Was that toy something that was simple, like a beat up teddy bear or your building blocks? Building forts? Jumping in mud puddles? Fishing with dad? Camping with your family? Or did it involve being trucked from activity to activity by your parents who were trying to meet the demands and pressures of their society? How many times did you complain you didn’t want to go to some activity, only to be met with the response “it’s good for you. I’m just trying to do what’s best for you.” And yet, the cycle continues. Now that we’re parents, we’re just trying to do what’s best for them, “oh, they’ll love that activity,” or “they really need that toy.” The unsolicited advice comes pouring in from well-meaning individuals, “they need to be socialized,” or “kids don’t like boring toys, they love toys with buttons and lights, just look at their faces,” or “what will they do all day? Won’t they be bored? An idle mind is the devil’s playground.” When, during a conversation I had with another mom (whose kids are all grown and have lives of their own) about how the idea of spending the whole day driving around from activity to activity seems rather exhausting, “of course it’s exhausting, but they love it! And really, it’s so good for them.” I wonder if that person asked her children how they felt. If they thought that, in the end, it was worth it? Did it improve their childhood in any way? Did they love it?

The idea of boredom is a relatively new concept. By this, I mean the first known use of the word in the way that we use it, as in the state of being bored, was in a Dickens novel in the 1850’s. Describing people/things as a bore is only 100 years before that. That doesn’t mean that people weren’t “bored” before then, but it wasn’t considered an issue that needed fixing, and it definitely wasn’t something that we worried about as parents until the most recent generations. If your kids were bored, it was a momentary thing that would then motivate them to find something to do, and was certainly not the parents’ responsibility to fix for them. Moms kicked their kids outside and didn’t see them until dinnertime. Not to mention I’m a bit bothered by this whole idea of having to play the hero and fix everything for our kids - how will they cope when you’re not around to schedule their lives and solve all their problems? So as parents, (and thanks to some very creative marketing on the part of companies, convincing you that your kids are DYING of boredom unless they get this magical toy that will fix everything) we go out and buy the next thing. And then the next thing. And another toy. Until our houses are FILLED with so many toys that we’re tripping over them. But why are they still bored? They play with it for a week, and then what? Dr. Payne writes “A smaller, more manageable quantity of toys invites deeper play and engagement. An avalanche of toys invites disconnect and a sense of overwhelm.” So I say, chuck ‘em, and so does he, considering he now has the nickname of “Dr. Trashbag” as his patients now fondly refer to him. In his book he explains which toys to toss and which ones to keep, not too surprisingly he recommends chucking the ones that have limited play value. An example would be that baby toy that has a few buttons that make lights go off and has sounds and rolls around, versus a set of blocks. The toy with the buttons would be something that has limited play value. You can’t build with it. There’s no imagination or creativity involved with it. You hit a button, it does something. After a week, you’ve figured out all the buttons, what they do, and then what? A set of blocks, on the other hand, has a world of possibilities. We have had the same set of wooden blocks that my husband and his siblings played with as a child sitting out ever since our daughter was a baby (she is now quickly approaching 4). What starts out as a natural teething toy turns into something to explore different three-dimensional shapes. Then it turns into a stacking toy, precariously stacking block, after block, into tall towers until they topple over, teaching about gravity and center of gravity. A little older, and they start seeing a connection between the large structures surrounding them (aka buildings) and their blocks, so you get houses, castles, or even parking lots - which has been my daughter’s favorite thing to build lately, using a thick cutting board as the lot, surrounding it with blocks and adding a ramp to drive her cars onto it so she can park them. That flashy toy you were told you just had to have because it’s educational and looked like so much fun is now sitting in the corner, collecting dust.

Boredom is thought to be the result of our brain’s push to seek new things, that wonderful thing that spurs new discoveries and inventions. It’s a state of mind. And then there’s overstimulation and micromanaging childhood - if you condition a child to expect a new toy or activity every time you suspect an ounce of boredom creeping in, s/he’ll have a much harder time figuring out how to use boredom to his/her advantage and find something new to do, new to explore, or a new way to use something that was already readily available. Ellen Goodman once said "The central struggle of parenthood is to let our hopes for our children outweigh our fears." Luckily, kids are very adaptable - if you’ve caught yourself in that trap, simplify. Chuck the mountain of toys (donate, sell, consign, whatever), and leave them with a few quality toys that have infinite possibilities. And then leave them alone - by this I mean don’t hover. Let them request your attention when they need it. Let boredom be your child’s teacher. Have a little patience. Trust me, they’ll figure it out.

Here are a few of the toys that, in my experience - and some of which Dr. Payne also suggests - are worth keeping. It’s not a long list.

  • Wood blocks and/or legos
  • A sketchbook and crayons/pencils/markers. I value sketchbooks over coloring books because it forces children to explore drawing lines, scribbles, shapes, people, creatures, animals, monsters, etc. Whatever they can imagine, they can draw. That doesn’t mean we don’t have a coloring book (after all, even I enjoy just coloring without having to create from time to time), but from personal experience, the sketchbook gets more use.
  • Play-doh or modelling clay. If you don’t like play-doh, you can get modelling clay out of beeswax that is nontoxic and doesn’t dry out.
  • Craft toys/kits such as looms if your child shows an interest in weaving.
  • Dollhouses or castles - this allows children to pretend-play and visually work out scenarios that they’re dealing with in real life.
  • A handful (read: not a mountain) of beloved stuffed animals or a doll or two - again for pretend play.
  • A play kitchen, workbench, cleaning tools - younger children especially like to what their parents do. Or show them how to do the real thing and provide them with child-sized versions (Montessori and Waldorf refer to this as learning life-skills)
  • Cloths, play silks, blankets, clips - for making capes, forts, pretending to be ghosts, for hiding and shutting out the world when things are a bit overwhelming, snuggle time.
  • Dress-up clothes - for pretend play.
  • A few cars, trains/tracks
  • Balls, frisbees, buckets, toys for playing outdoors
  • Musical instruments. Little drums, rattles, a piano if you have one, a guitar
  • We also like to keep a handful of puzzles in rotation - just one puzzle out per child at his/her skill level, then switch it out when they’re done.

That’s pretty much it. What are your thoughts on boredom? How do you handle your children when they say they’re “bored?” How do you deal with boredom?