Parenting in the Age of Information, we have access to more knowledge at the touch of our fingertips than past generations. Free, high-quality information on child development and parenting floods the web and, consequently, our minds. But, with the plethora of information on how children grow and develop, came an inundation of expectations for parents.
In past eras, the power to form ideal offspring was believed to be found in selecting the perfect mate (nature), but the abundance of information on how children develop changed our culture, liberating it from its objectionable discriminatory practices of the past, and ushered in a new generation of intentional parenting (nurture).
Now, good parenting is thought to entail scrupulous engineering of every aspect of a child’s life. And while this website is built around the motto, “Nurture the Whole Child,” I would fail in my mission if I caused any parents to feel pressured to take nurture to far. In fact, many scientists, child developmentalists and educators share this concern about the consequences of our culture’s obsession with nurture.
When we discuss nurture, consider all the things that you do for your child and especially which thoughts or experiences cause you to do for them. Consider the prodding that keeps you and your child on the go all day long, namely the pressure to entertain is your child. How much entertaining of your tot is required of you for the day? Is it possible to entertain too much or too little?
Boredom is a bit of an antiquated notion. I can’t even sit at a stoplight without thinking about what is happening in my inbox online. It is hard to be bored and I feel a bit uneasy when I am. But, learning to channel boredom into something positive and productive is a very important skill. Regardless, I still loathe boredom and it is hard to watch my children experience boredom, as well, because they behave miserably and make me miserable in the process of being bored.
Because I love my children and I want to be a good parent, I try to schedule full days to avoid negative moments (i.e. boredom), but am I missing something valuable in the process? I propose that our children have much to learn from a healthy dose of boredom. And while consistent under-stimulation is not healthy, neither is over-stimulation. But, our culture pressures us to keep moving and we do the same to our children. In our confusion, we drop our role as our child’s caretaker and we appoint ourselves as their Entertainer-in-Chief.
*Epigenetics is the process by which methylation of DNA changes gene expression.
If research has taught us anything over the years, it is that nurture matters. Nurture matters so much that is actually plays a hand in shaping our nature through epigenetic processes . Scientists have learned that parents matter, but let’s not overstate the parental role and, thereby, diminish our the child’s role in his/her own development.
Scientific research unanimously points to the importance of child self-directing his or her own learning in the early years. In order for children to be able to self-direct, they must have free-space in their minds (i.e. boredom) to consider, ponder, experiment, fail and discover. Children need at least 1.5 hours of free time each day to become bored and discover new ways to entertain themselves. They ideally need at least 30 minutes of quality playtime with you daily, but that leaves at least 1 hour of each day when you (or any other adult) should not be the source of their entertainment.
The good news is that, despite external pressure, research does not support the idea that parents are in charge of keeping their children entertained. Parents also do not need to play with their child at every request. Ideally, when home, a parent and child can “work” together, where their “work” is play and parental work is household chores and duties.
Of course, children have a variety of temperaments and not all children will respond well to parents who ask them to play on their own. There will be tears, but with time and persistence even children with high-needs temperaments can learn to play independently, near parents.
Tips for mastering BOREDOM
- Prune the family schedule down to allow unstructured playtime each day. From a research perspective, this is more important than young children learning soccer, music or art. Pencil into your calendar “free play” and turn down other enticing activities which may interfere. Naptime is a great way to practice boredom.
- View boredom as a lesson in self-direction and self-initiation. Schedule times to hand over the reigns of entertainment to your capable child. It can be helpful to verbal communicate to a child that you expect them to entertain themselves by explaining, “Now, it is your turn to play independently” or “It is time for free-choice play.” This frames play in a positive way, but communicates their control over what and how play will occur, apart from you.
- Rotate your toys! Proper toy rotation and display enables children to initiate play. It makes non-verbal suggestions about what and how play can occur without taking over play completely. If there are fresh toys on display in the home, a child will learn how to find a new activity when she senses boredom without always needing an adult to direct her.
- Do not avoid boring situations. It can be counter-productive to take your children with you everywhere you go. I avoid grocery store trips and doctor appointments with children like the plague. But, occasionally, I will take my children with me on boring errands just because I want them to practice what to do when the activity at present is not fun or about them. We talk before we leave about what I expect from their behavior and how it is my turn to take care of something important. We talk about what we can do to entertain ourselves quietly and what will happen if behavior gets out of hand. Then, off we go to embrace boredom. Not fun, but always valuable outings.
The good news about boredom is that children can be excellent self-entertainers. Their imaginative abilities far exceed that of adults and they can transform even the most boring of objects or rooms into magical places.
Parenting, the position of Entertainer-in-Chief has already been filled by your child. Can I offer you a seat on the Board of Directors instead?