I used to be convinced that as soon as my oldest son could produce a gummy smile, it was my job to be his personal entertainment director. All the time. I felt guilt—immense guilt—when I thought I wasn’t doing enough.
Carol Nama, a mom of three (ages 10,7, and 3) in Willow Grove Pennsylvania, can relate. Even though her older boys tend to be super busy during the school year with sports and activities, summertime—and its lack of structure—is a different story. “A nice, slow day to me is like the kiss of death to my kids,” she says.
Contrary to what most kids believe, no one has ever died of boredom. Being able to cope with an unscheduled day—or hour—is a critical life skill, says Eileen Kennedy-Moore Ph.D., co-author of Smart Parenting for Smart Kids. “Parents often see boredom as their responsibility to fix or think it means they’re not doing a good enough job,” she says. “I disagree with that.”
Facing down boredom can spur creativity and play, and helps kids learn to motivate themselves. That’s a skill they’ll need throughout life, not just on quiet summer days, but in school and, someday, at work.
Here’s how to help a bored kid-but not too much:
Babies and Toddlers: Entertain (A Little)
Most of what very young children need—an environment that includes talking and singing, parents who respond to their sounds and actions, an ability to explore—they get in everyday life. They don’t need a three-ring circus in the family room. Too much stimulation is overwhelming. So carry your emergency toys for car trips and waiting rooms, but resist the urge to trot out a new item every three minutes.
What about a whining toddler? Instead of scrambling for a new game to play, go for a fast dash outside—it’s proof that it doesn’t take a stack of DVDs to have fun.
Preschoolers: Help Them Plan Ahead
When you know you’ll be in a boredom-inducing situation, it’s okay to help your child plan for it instead of working out what you’ll do to keep him happy. For instance, if you think he’ll get bored watching a big sibling’s baseball game, ask him to pick out two or three special activities to bring along.
It also helps to acknowledge your child’s feelings. You might say, “You’re feeling restless right now,” or “I know it’s hard to wait while grown ups talk.” This’ll help him see that it’s normal to feel bored sometimes, but that doesn’t mean you swoop in to save the day instantly.
School-Age Kids: Step Back
A kid who claims to be bored may be tired, frustrated, lonely, helpless, or something else entirely. So the first thing to do with older kids is to help them figure out what’s really wrong. That’ll get them on the road to solving the problem. A bored kid can’t think of anything to do; a lonely kid needs to think of a friend to call.
You might also try some old-fashioned tough love (a.k.a. encouragement) like “What do you think would help?” or “I’m sure you’ll figure out something to do.” Or, make an activity out of filling out index cards (or an Excel doc) with tons of ideas for things to do. Even if some of the ideas are wacky, it’s fun for kids to write down anything from “Make a comic book” to “Visit Mars.” Next time boredom strikes, you can point him to the list (he can try to create a Mars rover out of the items in the recycling bin, for instance).
It’s not rocket science, but many of us take for granted the simple pleasures that boredom brings, says Alvin Rosenfeld, M.D., co-author of The Overscheduled Child. “In the midst of boredom when nothing is happening, you often have an important conversation.” And that sounds like a great way to spend a summer day.