Monday, June 27, 2016

The Lost Gift of Boredom

Great ideas can sprout from boredom. Many years ago, while working as an internal training manager at a large Boston law firm, I was bored. Very bored. After enduring those days of boredom, I finally had an idea: I'll write a book. What followed was an enlightening and productive process of learning how to write a book proposal, find a publishing agent, complete a manuscript, and so on. I left that training job before my first book was published, and began running my own training consulting business, where I was often energized and rarely bored. 

Good things can come from boredom. Yet, with our children, we can sometimes be concerned if they are bored. They may whine. They may bicker. They may seem unsettled, lost, anxious. As anyone who has had their children enrolled in school and then removed them to unschool will tell you, parents and children alike must go through an important process of "de-schooling." In this process, which can often take months or even years, children must re-learn how to drive their own learning, how to identify and pursue their own interests, how to structure their own time, and how to overcome their own boredom--without a grown-up telling them how. Most of these formerly-schooled children spent their time being systematically told what to do, what to think, how to learn in a methodical, top-down way that can easily sap creativity and self-direction. The de-schooling process helps children to re-discover their innate self-educative instincts and reminds them that they are, in fact, in charge of their own time, their own interests, their own learning.

As parents, we can sometimes be overly-focused on making sure our children's days are fully enriched with dynamic classes and activities to keep them from being bored, when, in fact, boredom--and the important ability to overcome it independently--can be an even greater lesson for our children. As Richard Louv writes in his excellent book, Last Child in the Woods: "We need to draw an important distinction between a constructively bored mind and a negatively numbed mind. Constructively bored kids eventually turn to a book, or build a fort, or pull out the paints (or the computer art program) and create, or come home sweaty from a game of neighborhood basketball." 

I think that if we parents can overcome our anxiety about our children's potential boredom and unstructured time, then we will see that children have an amazing talent for making their own play, for finding interesting ways to occupy themselves, and for unleashing their imagination. As Louv states: "Most of all, children need adults who understand the relationship between boredom and creativity…"

These long summer days can be a perfect time for parents to let go and embrace slowly unfolding days, which may be marked by periods of boredom. With many classes and activities on break for the season, it can take a period of adjustment for children and their grown-ups to settle in to slower, more unstructured family rhythms. It may even create tension, when parents become frustrated by a child's boredom. As psychologist and Tufts University professor, David Elkind, writes in his book, The Power of Play: Learning What Comes Naturally: "If these young people were bored and unmotivated, it was not because they were lazy or lacked interest in learning. They were bored and unmotivated because they had been taught that their interests and passions were of little value. And they were, not surprisingly, not about to get interested in what we adults thought they should be learning." 

Children are innately curious and intent on learning about their world and exploring their interests, as long as we grown-ups get out of their way. Our role as parents is to create the time and space and resources for our children's learning and then let them direct their own education, following their own passions. Often to find our passions, to ignite creativity, we need some boredom. We need to allow our children to express their boredom and allow them the freedom to feel empowered to overcome their boredom on their own, without adult intervention. As Boston College psychology professor, Peter Gray, writes"To learn on their own, children need unlimited time to play, explore, become bored, overcome boredom, discover their own interests, and pursue those interests."

So on these slow summer days, let's embrace boredom. Let's give our children the gift of freedom to drive their own learning, their own doing, and uncover their own creative outlets. Let's watch what they can do when given the freedom to do it.

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