The painful experience of boredom could spawn creativity

Dr. Lorin Bradbury, author of "Treasures from an Old Book, Ancient Wisdom for a Modern World".

by Dr. Lorin Bradbury

Question: I so wish the schools would reopen. I’m tired of hearing my children say, “I’m bored.” I wish someone would come up with more things for my children to do. We have a television in every room, several computers in the house, all kinds of electronic toys, and still they are bored. I find that I have very little time to myself, because they are constantly complaining about being bored. I buy them a new game or toy, and it seems within a few minutes the newness has worn off and they are bored. I almost feel guilty raising my children in our community because there seems to be nothing for them to do. Is this normal, or is it something I should be concerned about?

The complaint of boredom in children is normal. It’s probable that Adam and Eve’s children complained to them that they were bored. A few years back, George Will addressed the subject in Newsweek with the statement, “Humanity can boast that it is capable of boredom, but there may now be an unhealthy scarcity of that particular brain pain.” He cited Adam Cox writing in the New Atlantis. “Fifty years ago, the onset of boredom might have followed a two-hour stretch of nothing to do. In contrast, boys today can feel bored after thirty seconds with nothing specific to do.” I agree with Mr. Cox, except that it’s not only boys that get bored after thirty seconds; girls are prone to the same.

What has changed? With the advent of television, and more recently, a barrage of electronic games and communication devices, we have come to expect to be constantly entertained. We fail to realize that the painful experience of boredom could spawn creativity.

National Public Radio (NPR), a couple of years ago, ran a series of stories on the loss of creativity that has been directly linked to children being in organized activities at a younger and younger age. Though it is unlikely many have been involved in organized activities, unless it is virtual, over the past year. However, I suspect that even if school was in session and there were organized activities, you would still hear, “I’m bored.”

Years ago, it was unheard of to put young children in organized sports and other forms of regimented activity. Instead, they kicked a ball around in their backyard and made up their own rules. This spawned creativity. In fact, when was the last time you saw a backyard fort? It was there that children made up club rules, established a pecking order, and learned either to work together cooperatively or submit to a dominant leader. What’s wrong with a young boy turning an empty 50-gallon oil drum into a bulldozer, or a group of young girls using empty cans to create a tea set and have a tea party?

I would suggest that your children don’t need more things to entertain them; they need less. The next time you are tempted to buy your child another electronic device, go ahead and buy it, but throw the electronic device away and give them the box. Better yet, save your money and go to the bin at AC and pick out some nice big boxes, take them home and pile them in your living room. When your kids complain of being bored, tell them to go play in the living room, but don’t give them any instructions. See what they do with the boxes.

Some of the constant complaining about being bored is analogous to the dry drunk—an addictive behavior. Years ago, Marie Winn wrote a seminal book on television watching, entitled “The Plug-in Drug.” Research showed that when children were withdrawn from television watching, they displayed behaviors similar to an alcoholic withdrawn from alcohol. For a period of time, they were irritable and often paced the floor, and were nonproductive. They were experiencing what I call psychic pain, an internal discomfort. The truth of the matter is that if given enough time, the discomfort goes away and people learn to be more creative with their time.

If you are really serious about getting help for your children, consider unplugging all forms of electronic entertainment, and try going without it for a week. Or, you might limit the number of hours of electronic input to one or two at the most. That includes all forms of electronic gadgetry, so you cannot move to the computer when the TV is turned off, or to another electronic game. Also, it means removing TVs and computers from all of your bedrooms. No cheating is allowed. Try it and see what happens after a week. Hopefully, you won’t want to go back to the old addictive behaviors.

Another thing I noted in your questions was the sense that you seemed to be looking for someone or something else to entertain your children. If you were not ready to be involved with your children, why did you have children? When you had children, you should have planned on at least eighteen years of your life not being your own. You are right when you say you don’t have time for yourself. That will come, and actually, if you play with your children, instead of looking for other people and things to do the entertaining, they will likely develop a higher level of creativity and be better able to entertain themselves.

Also, I feel compelled to address the topic of work for your children. All children should learn to share in chores around the house. Toddlers can be taught to drop their dirty diapers in the trash once you have changed them. Young children can be taught to make their beds with your help. Toys can be regularly picked up and put away before meals or naptime by the children. Then there is berry picking, fishing, etc. where children can be very involved with their parents’ activities. As children get older, they can become more and more involved in work around the house, and in some situations, join their parents on the job. This is particularly true when a parent is self-employed.

So, boredom might be a sign that your children have too many things provided for them, instead of not enough. If your children are young, you might consider reading to them or looking at picture books together. Before long, they will be enjoying the books themselves, and may be telling the stories to the younger children. Teach them how to play board games and card games. Initially, that will require your involvement, but once they have learned, they will likely play among themselves.

Lorin L. Bradbury, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Bethel. For appointments, he can be reached at 543-3266. If you have questions that you would like Dr. Bradbury to answer in the Delta Discovery, please send them to The Delta Discovery, P.O. Box 1028, Bethel, AK 99559, or e-mail them to [email protected].

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