Published January 22, 2016

Boredom Rocks!

By shanghaiexpateditor

Wracking your brain for activities to keep the kids busy over the summer? Remember to schedule some time for nothing at all.

by Angela Daley

Remember when you were a kid and there were days that seemed to go on forever? The hours yawned heavily before you, and you – blissfully ignorant of the frenetic years that lay ahead – had absolutely no idea how to fill them. Sometimes you were so bored, so drowning in tedium, that you made the cardinal mistake of whining to your parents, “I’m booooored” and just like that, whiplash fast, you were presented with a long list of household chores. Problem solved.

Your kids don’t have that. They don’t experience boredom in the same way that you and I did because as affluent expat kids, most of them have countless diversions within arm’s reach: iPads, smartphones, laptops, video games, TV. Give them an idle moment and they’ll text a friend, change their Facebook status, or launch a few angry birds.

Dullness has gone the way of the dodo. However, for many educators, psychologists and parents, the extinction of boredom is a worrying facet of modern childhood and they advocate quite the opposite: that boredom is good. Boredom is even useful. Allowing your children to experience healthy doses of it could be an important key to creating a happier, more meaningful life for your kids now and in the future.

But what exactly does that mean? Should we sit them in a room and let them watch the proverbial paint dry on the wall? Not exactly. “Boredom in and of itself is not so important but the ability to be bored signifies the capacity for reflective thought,” explains Dr Adam Cox, an American psychologist and the author of several books on children’s mental health. He continues, “Young minds are currently being sculpted by electronics to be all peaks and no valleys. Kids go from one stimulating activity to the next with no rest in between.” Amy Smith, a health teacher at Shanghai American School agrees, “Without stillness, there can’t be reflection. Those still moments are often where the best ideas come from.”

A Catalyst for Creativity

Those ‘best ideas’ arise from the often-elusive fount of creativity and giving your children tech-free, activity-free downtime is vital for them to nurture this important skill. “Children should be allowed to get bored so they can develop their innate ability to be creative,” says education expert Dr Teresa Belton in a recent article on the BBC’s website. Belton, a senior researcher at the University of East Anglia, interviewed authors, artists and scientists in her examination of the effects of boredom on creativity. Most of her interviewees revealed childhoods with vast periods of quiet time, and even solitude, as the events that spurred them on to write, paint and, in general, create their own worlds in order to fill the void.

But what’s a parent to do in a tech-rich, busy world like Shanghai?

Smith acknowledges the challenge, “Free time is extremely rare here. Kids are overscheduled and when they do have free time, they’re on a screen. I suggest to parents that they set a ‘tech curfew.’

There should be a certain time every night when kids hand in their technology, say an hour before bedtime. That hour can be used to talk to their parents, play, or simply have time to reflect on the day.”

Simone Setterberg-Schwank, a psychologist with the Shanghai Community Center, takes it a step further, “[Give] them an hour each day to be on their own. Parents shouldn’t give them any direction. Choosing their own thing makes children so happy because then they’re not afraid they’ll fail.” For little ones under six, thirty minutes is a good starting point.

Unstructured Time = Smarter Kids?

Technology isn’t the only culprit. Another problem, and one particularly relevant in the success-oriented expat community, is the idea that idle time is, at best, unproductive and at worst, downright lazy. Dr Cox explains, “The difficulty is not just that parents aren’t letting their kids get bored, but the difficulty is to be constantly productive, constantly multi-tasking, to live with a sort of manic intensity.”

Consider this: If your child spends the majority of the day engaged with school, tutors, Skyping friends or googling answers for a school project, when do they learn to simply think on their own? “We’re not allowing them to wrestle with uncertainty,” explains Smith. “They almost never experience that uncomfortable feeling of not knowing something. Instead of mulling over their problems, they go to the internet, type in their question and immediately get dozens of different answers. However, that time with no activities and no connectivity is important so that kids can exercise critical thinking skills.”

“I think thinking is very important. Kids don’t have a chance to think for themselves if their parents are always saying ‘do this,’ says Tammy Cho, a Taiwanese mother of two teenagers. “I grew up with a lot of pressure and I don’t want to put that on my children. If I were in Taiwan, I would probably have them in afterschool lessons but in Shanghai, I feel more relaxed. The international school education is enough.”

And it’s not only academic information kids search for. They also turn to the internet for help with social problems. “It’s always interesting to see what other people think,” says 16-year-old Lauren Rowland. She elaborates, “So, yeah, if I had a question that was too embarrassing or weird to ask my friends or parents about, I’d google it first.”

Occasionally hiding the iPhone and cancelling the tutor are a first course of action. Another option is what Dr Cox calls a ‘pushback’ to the temptations of constant connectivity. He explains, “We have to present an alternative, something more interesting to do. Give kids the opportunity to have a serious discussion about serious topics. Kids are starving to be asked about important things. And, with young boys, enforcing downtime on them usually doesn’t work. It needs to be more physical. Wilderness programs are hugely popular with them.”

Intrinsic Motivation and Finding Flow

So, a regular dose of boredom, or maybe more precisely said, giving your kids the chance to get bored, can help them develop themselves creatively and intellectually. But there’s more: some experts also believe that it could, in the long run, make them happier.

“If you let your children develop an activity, it can become quite peaceful, just like putting them in front of the TV,” explains Setterberg-Schwank. However, she stresses, “But parents shouldn’t get involved. Let the kids do their own thing.” Her observation touches on two, linked thoughts: 1) intrinsic motivation – the notion that there are things we like to do that come from somewhere inside of us, and 2) the concept of ‘flow,’ an idea from psychology that is popular in various disciplines, including education. According to the theory, a person in a state of flow is single-mindedly immersed in an activity that perfectly matches their skills with the challenges posed by that activity. The end result is that a person in flow feels almost euphoric. The psychologist behind this idea, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, claims that the more times we can achieve a state of flow in our lives, the happier we will ultmately be.

But how does this notion of flow relate to boredom? It goes back to the two major concerns: constant technology use, in which every idle, potentially boring moment is filled with a screen; and little downtime away from scheduled activities.

Setterberg-Schwank concludes, “It’s not possible for a child to develop a sense of intrinsic motivation if they’re constantly getting input from outside. It’s not that a parent can’t ever impose an activity. Who knows? Maybe it’ll become something they like. But parents have to sometimes let kids find their own thing.”

“Kids don’t want to sit around wasting time watching TV or on the iPad,” stresses Dr Cox, “They might turn to IM to get a cheap version of flow but they know it doesn’t mean anything. They want something serious to do. It could be helping mom and dad build something in the backyard or it could be pushing through the boredom of an activity like learning the piano to create something beautiful.”

In the end, the key to helping our kids along the path to a successful adulthood might not be imposing long stretches of boredom on them but rather presenting them with rich alternatives to Skype, Instagram or the newest app. Tammy Cho says there are plenty of chances at home for her kids to stretch themselves intellectually, “Their father likes to listen to music and the kids will come, sit down and listen with him. He challenges them to listen carefully and pick out the individual instruments. I think it’s where their love of music came from.”

Dr Cox echoes this outlook, “It’s fine if they know how to use your iPad at age two. There has to be push back, though. Electronics are a convenient distraction but they’re the adjectives of life. Conversations and meaningful activities are the nouns and verbs. If you look back on the day’s events and there were three times when the kids played with technology but four times where they played with you or had a great conversation, well, those are the great moments of the day. Those are the moments that make a childhood.”