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Why Boredom Is Good For Your Kids

It's for your own good, kiddo.
It's for your own good, kiddo.
Michael Neudecker

MUNICH — To be a parent is to be a victim. That's at least the message some parents convey. Yes, of course children are wonderful and sweet and all that jazz. But let's be honest, aren't some of the things children say just annoying?

"I don't liiike it."

"I don't waaant to."

"Are we theeere yet?"

The distinguishing and irritating characteristic in all three examples is the excessive stress on a vowel, usually towards the end of the sentence.

Here's another one: "I'm so booored!" — a sentence some pestered parents rank as the worst of the worst. And yet for many scientists and researchers, that oft-repeated phrase is a subject of great fascination.

Research has shown that boredom can be downright dangerous in some cases. A recent study conducted on civil servants in the United Kingdom found that the risk of suffering a heart attack increased by two-and-half times if the employee was bored at work during the previous month.

But what about children? Is a kid who constantly complains about being "booored" in any kind of serious danger? No child, it would seem, has ever suffered a boredom-induced heart attack. But how might boredom affect a child's psyche? Should we consider it a child's worst enemy after hunger, or say, the neighbor's vicious little dog?

The path to creativity

The answer to that question, according to countless neuroscientists and educational theorists, is a resounding "no." As an important motivating force in child development, boredom can help rather than harm children. As such, it should be allowed to develop, meaning parents can just be parents — not entertainers who are responsible, as some how-to books suggest, for dispelling boredom by introducing fun little games at every turn.

Hamburg-based educational theorist Peter Struck writes in Parenting Book that parents shouldn't even react to the classic "I'm booored" plea. Children, according to Struck, need space to develop activity ideas. Parents who take immediate measures at the slightest sign of a tantrum to amuse their child end up encouraging lasting behavioral patterns. The lesson children take from this is: "I am bored = I will be amused by my parents," which can have devastating effects on both parents and children in the long run.

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Photo: greg westfall

Struck is not alone in advocating this particular point of view. Nietzsche came to a similar conclusion. "To escape boredom, man works either beyond what his usual needs require, or else he invents play, that is, work that is designed to quiet no need other than that for working in general," the famous German philosopher wrote.

"He who is tired of play, and has no reason to work because of new needs, is sometimes overcome by the longing for a third state of mind," he added. "A state of mind relates to play as floating does to dancing, as dancing does to walking — a blissful, peaceful state of motion: It is the artist's and philosopher's vision of happiness."

Helping kids help themselves

Without boredom, in other words, there would be no creativity. A highly regarded study carried out three years ago by psychologists Benjamin Baird and Jonathan Schooler of Santa Barbara's University of California focused precisely on this subject.

The researchers gave 145 students two minutes to come up with as many preferably original uses for everyday objects such as toothpicks, clothes hangers or bricks. They then divided the students into four separate groups. One group had to carry on with the list of uses. The second group was allowed to rest. The third group was given a highly complicated, engrossing task, while the fourth group was given an undemanding, monotonous challenge.

After 12 minutes had elapsed, all four groups were then given the same task as in the beginning, i.e. to come up with uses for toothpicks, clothes hangers, etc. There were no noticeable differences in performance among the first three groups. But the fourth group improved their performance by 41%. The students who had been given a simple task and were bored by it had continued to work, subconsciously and without any pressure, on the first, more interesting task.

From the perspective of French philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, the founders of existentialism, boredom is one of the central experiences leading to the recognition of the self. Educational theorists have their own ideas about why and how boredom is beneficial: Children who never learned to overcome boredom will not, they argue, know what do with themselves when they reach adulthood.

None of that is to say that children should be left entirely on their own to cope with and dwell on their boredom. Peter Struck and his colleagues recommend that parents support their children by helping them help themselves, by providing stimulus, for example, that children can keep developing by themselves.

It's also important to take the expression "free time" literally — make sure there's time in the day when children really are free, as opposed to being engaged in violin lessons, soccer practice or dance classes. Such activities are valuable, but in moderation. Most experts suggest that one activity per week is plenty for kindergarten-aged children.

"Boredom," Nietzsche wrote in The Happy Science, "is the unpleasant calm of the soul which precedes the happy voyage and the dancing breezes" that drive us forward.

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Parenthood And The Pressure Of Always Having To Be Doing Better

As a father myself, I'm now better able to understand the pressures my own dad faced. It's helped me face my own internal demands to constantly be more productive and do better.

Photo of a father with a son on his shoulders

Father and son in the streets of Madrid, Spain

Ignacio Pereyra*


When I was a child — I must have been around eight or so — whenever we headed with my mom and grandma to my aunt's country house in Don Torcuato, outside of Buenos Aires, there was the joy of summer plans. Spending the day outdoors, playing soccer in the field, being in the swimming pool and eating delicious food.

But when I focus on the moment, something like a painful thorn appears in the background: from the back window of the car I see my dad standing on the sidewalk waving us goodbye. Sometimes he would stay at home. “I have to work” was the line he used.

Maybe one of my older siblings would also stay behind with him, but I'm sure there were no children left around because we were all enthusiastic about going to my aunt’s. For a long time in his life, for my old man, those summer days must have been the closest he came to being alone, in silence (which he liked so much) and in calm, considering that he was the father of seven. But I can only see this and say it out loud today.

Over the years, the scene repeated itself: the destination changed — it could be a birthday or a family reunion. The thorn was no longer invisible but began to be uncomfortable as, being older, my interpretation of the events changed. When words were absent, I started to guess what might be happening — and we know how random guessing can be.

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