Thanks to the ubiquity of smartphones and tablets, kids no longer need to be bored for even a nano-second. Whether they're sat in the doctor's waiting room for 15 minutes, the local Starbucks for an hour or in an M25 nightmare traffic jam for several, we grab a gadget and hand it over to keep them happy. We occupy their weekends, after-school afternoons and school holidays with endless activities and outings. It's almost as if some of us have become scared of letting them have any 'nothing to do' time at all.
Contrast this with my (presumably fairly typical) childhood in the 70s and 80s.
It was a classic example of how we largely made our own entertainment, rather than always being handed a screen to keep us occupied or sent to a class to 'enrich' us.
Now I admit that I spent much of my childhood slightly bored but I still think it did me some good. Instead of complaining (although we did do so occasionally), spare hours were filled making the most of what we had, be it creating obstacle courses for woodlice and ants from the contents of our box of LEGO or simply daydreaming, lost in thoughts, planning futures, re-running the day's events.
So if modern children have far less time to be bored and to occupy themselves, does it matter?
Well, it certainly seems that boredom has its benefits and they are ones that we should be concerned about our children missing out on. Take research into this by Dr. Teresa Belton, of the University of East Anglia. She discussed boredom's influence with the likes of Grayson Perry, Meera Syal and Professor Susan Greenfield, all of whom believed that being bored as kids led them towards greater creativity and thinking.
Belton's explanation is that "children need to have stand-and-stare time, time imagining and pursuing their own thinking processes or assimilating their experiences through play or just observing the world around them."
This is what develops imagination, whereas screen time "tends to short circuit that process and the development of creative capacity".
Our kids might not all be the next Grayson Perry or great thinker but as Perry told Belton during her study, it's hard to challenge his comment that "boredom is a very creative state."
For University of Surrey psychologist, Dr. Harriet Tenenbaum, who specialises in education and child development, boredom's upside goes beyond enhancing creativity: "Children need unscheduled time to be able to process information more deeply. They need it to reflect on their emotions and to increase their social emotional development. Being bored gives people chance to ruminate and think and to understand things more deeply."
So next time your kids complain of being bored, don't feel guilty - it's probably just as good for them as that extra after-school activity you didn't sign them up for or the outing that got rained off.
The New Old-fashioned Parenting rules: on boredom
- If your kids complain of having nothing to do, try to avoid always handing them a solution – be it a gadget or otherwise. Encourage them to think for themselves about what they should or could do next. The end game here is that they learn that it's their own responsibility to work out what to do at least some of the time (well, as long as it doesn't involve activities that break your rules, such as playing computer games all day!).
- Choose at least some toys that can be used creatively - Lego is brilliant, particularly a big box of bricks rather than sets to make specific, pre-ordained models. Building blocks and stacking cups can be played with in loads of different ways by preschoolers.
- If you lead busy lives, try and find a few hours for just dossing about at home now and then too.
- Keep use of 'gadget-sitting' for when you really need it (and let's face it there are occasions when we all do), rather than using it as a default on every single car journey/ café or restaurant trip.
Old old-fashioned parents (OOPs) versus new old-fashioned parents (NOPs) versus Modern Flakies – which kind of parent are you?
OOPs responded to a complaint of boredom with "well get yourself in here I've got forty pounds of potatoes you can peel" (or similar) and the classic "only boring people get bored" retort.
NOPs encourage their kids to decide what to do themselves and don't occupy their every second but give them some tools and toys to be creative.
Modern flakies hand their child their very own iPad (they got it for their second birthday don't ya know).
OOPs let the kids out in the morning during school holidays and told them to be back for tea time.
NOPs organise a good mix of activities, having friends over and kicking about at home too.
Modern Flakies make sure every day is filled with a fantastic, expensive and exhausting outing for their little darlings - life is ALL about them after all.
Liat Hughes Joshi's book based on these columns, New Old-fashioned Parenting, is published by Summersdale/ Vie.
For previous New Old Fashioned columns click here.