Do you ever feel as if you are chief activities officer in your family, in charge of ensuring that every waking moment is filled with entertainment and/or distraction? If so, you are not alone.
Many parents I speak with feel the pressure to make sure their children never feel the pangs of boredom. Depriving a child of in-car DVD entertainment on even the shortest of road trips can feel analogous to neglect.
And yet, amidst all this entertainment, are we doing our kids a disservice?
Having interviewed and spoken with over 80,000 young people over the last decade who are growing up in a media-saturated and multi-channel world, I believe we are. By over-entertaining our kids, they are coming to learn that boredom and downtime are the enemy and should be managed out of our daily lives.
The challenge with this trend is that boredom can actually be a gift. After all, kicking our brains into neutral and embracing downtime is critical for:
Independence - There is something really empowering when we realise that we able to be left to our own devices and it won’t kill us. This is something many schoolteachers I speak with discover on school camps which are often ‘off the grid’. While the students hate being out of mobile phone range at first they actually come to appreciate and even enjoy it after a few days.
Mental well-being - Recent research at the University of California in San Diego indicates that our brains actually need downtime and solitude in order to function properly. In essence, they have discovered that our brains process experiences and convert them into memories when we allow them the space and time to do so. By constantly bombarding our minds with stimulus, we are actually impairing the ability of our brains to do what they are designed to do.
Creativity - The old saying is true: great ideas rarely interrupt us. Creativity and inventiveness often only develop when we have to come up with our own entertainment.
Bearing these benefits in mind, here are three things parents can do to help encourage their kids to embrace boredom and downtime:
1. Resist the urge to recue
Necessity is truly the mother of invention and your kids may need to experience the negative emotions of boredom in order to move past them and grow through the process. Stepping in to provide a solution or new distraction will rob them of the benefit and the lessons they could otherwise gather.
2. Model it
Actions speak louder than words. Do your kids see you embracing downtime or always busying yourself with Facebook, emails and phone calls? Sometimes just sitting and being ‘unproductive’ will set the example of embracing downtime that they need to see.
3. Wean them onto it
Set boundaries around the use of TV or devices which can grow over time. Child psychologists are emphatic that screen time should be avoided entirely by children under the age of 2. But from the ages of 2-5, perhaps allow them an hour per day. By the time kids get to the age of 8, their cumulative screen time will be 8 hours a day on average (aided by screens at school in the classroom). As such, you may want to impose a strict 1-2 hour per evening boundary on screen exposure, video games and social media.
Naturally, these boundaries will be a shock at first and they may even experience withdrawals. However, hold your ground and within a few days or weeks, they will adjust to the new status quo and even come to enjoy being unplugged!