The Brain Benefits of Boredom

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My mother had a consistent and clear response to me and my three siblings when we complained of being bored. Her response was always simply, "If you're bored, I'll give you something better to do."

Keep in mind that her assigned activities didn't include playing, Pinterest activities, or popsicles. We quickly figured out that we were better off finding something to do ourselves than ending up with chores.

I didn't necessarily repeat this strategy verbatim when I became a parent many years later. Indeed, I learned that sometimes the wail of, "I'm bored!" was code for another need including loneliness or sadness. Those feelings beg a different response than the job jar. But the lesson that my mother did model for me - don't rush to entertain your children in the face of boredom - was a powerful one.

Don't be afraid of boredom

It turns out that in our rush to find boredom busters for our children, we actually rob the brain of essential downtime and opportunities for creative thinking associated with the wandering mind. While we associate boredom with inactivity, the brain is often far from quiet. Here are just a few of the brain benefits of boredom:

  • Recharge. Being constantly barraged with external stimulation is exhausting for the brain. Downtime allows our children to recover from this "cognitive overload" and to recharge executive functioning skills. This isn't saying that our children should sit on the couch and stare at the wall all day, but ten minutes of daydreaming and doing nothing is sometimes just what they need to be ready for what comes next. Heck, your brain could benefit from a little boredom too. Next time you are tempted to scroll through your social media feed in line at the grocery store, give yourself permission to just stare at the wall and let your mind wander.
  • Imagination and creativity. The latest research shows that our brain doesn't go into lower gear when we aren't focused on something. Instead the activity shifts to the imagination and creativity parts of the brain. Have you ever come up with a great idea in the shower? Thank your brain for wandering towards a creative solution.
  • Goal setting. It might seem counterintuitive that while your mind is wandering, your brain is busily considering future directions and goals. It turns out though that mind wandering is generally quite future focused and can actually help children with choices about what to do next.
  • Altruism. Some researchers believe that when we are bored we work to seek out meaning elsewhere. A group in Ireland found that people were more likely to seek out prosocial behaviors to help regain a sense of meaning in their lives.

So the occasional dose of boredom this summer might be just what your child needs. Of course organized activities like sports, theater, arts, and music provide great benefits to kids and chronic boredom can lead to a host of other challenges. But consider letting your child sit every once in a while with nothing to do - it may be just what their brain needs to be more inspired by what comes next.

Here are some tips for how to respond to the call of "I'm bored!"

  • Avoid rushing in with a prepackaged solution, organized activity, or app.
  • Ask questions to get to the bottom of the feeling. Try "What do you mean when you say that?" Parenting coach Christine Carter reminds us that sometimes children use "bored" as code for lonely or sad. This is all the more reason not to rush in with an organized activity. Instead, you might pivot to a conversation about those feelings or simply invite your child to work alongside you for a bit.
  • Instead of solutions, create space and time for children to come up with their own ideas for what to do next. This may mean having some materials around to prime the creative pump (for little kids this could be as simple as sticks, paint, and cardboard!) What they do next is up to them.
  • If your child seems truly stuck coming up with ideas after a while, try asking questions instead of supplying ideas. For example, "Who is your favorite Pokemon again? What is their power?"
  • Nurturing free play throughout the year will help your child learn how to make their own fun.