We all know this familiar refrain. It crops up when school is out, homework is done (or being procrastinated on!), or when no-screen time is enforced. As adults, we often feel like a child’s boredom is something we need to manage. But every so often, boredom is the best gift we can give kids.
As paradoxical as it sounds, boredom is interesting! When we get bored, our minds begin to wander. And when our minds wander, remarkable things happen. Our brains begin making surprising connections.
“It’s crucial for our brains not to respond to tasks or immediate stimuli or even concentrate on a singular topic but to sometimes just space out, mind-wander,” says Manoush Zomorodi, journalist and author of Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self. “It’s not being lazy. This is when the brain’s default mode network kicks in and our best, more original ideas get gestating, because we dip into profound and hidden reservoirs of emotion, memory, and thought. Many areas of the brain are lit up as we bring together past, present, and future to imagine entirely new realms and ways to do things.”
You’ve probably noticed that when you hyperfixate on a problem, the solution gets farther and farther out of reach. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, our bored and daydreaming minds take us to imaginative realms of thought, and that allows us to do our best thinking. It unwittingly gives us new ideas and tools we need to maybe problem-solve, invent new games, find hobbies, and generally learn about the world and ourselves in a low-stress way.
While letting kids be bored is not a silver bullet for nurturing their creativity and curiosity, it is one way to help them find new interests and ideas. There is no shortage of activities and events to help kids manage their boredom these days, and their minds are always go, go, go! And even when they do get a reprieve from what keeps them busy, they often find refuge from their boredom on a screen.
According to Pew Research Center, smartphone ownership has become almost universal: 95% of teenagers either have a smartphone or access to one. The number of teens that say they’re online on a near constant-basis has nearly doubled since 2015: 45%!
Cultivating a child’s comfort with boredom at any early age might make a difference as they get older. Boredom is an unsettling feeling, idle hands and all that, but consistently preventing the mind from being idle may cause creative burnout.
Daniel Levitin, a behavioral neuroscience at McGill University, said that when people try to pay attention, they tend to pay attention to several different things at once. These interrupted thought processes can have a tangible (and negative) neurological effect on the brain.
“Every time you shift your attention from one thing to another, the brain has to engage a neurochemical switch that uses up nutrients in the brain to accomplish that,” Dr. Levitin says. “So if you’re attempting to multitask, you know, doing four or five things at once, you’re not actually doing four or five things at once, because the brain doesn’t work that way. Instead, you’re rapidly shifting from one thing to the next, depleting natural resources as you go.”
This is exactly what we don’t want for our kids! Busywork or mindless screen consumption can inhibit creativity and curiosity. Researchers at University of Southern California found that teenagers who multi-tasked being on social media and talking to friends or doing homework were less creative a few years later about both personal development and solving societal problems.
According to Merck’s 2018 State of Curiosity report, there’s a big difference between Millennial and Generation Z curiosity levels. Millennials had the highest curiosity scores when compared to other generations (Generation Z, Generation X, and Baby Boomers). Gen Z had the lowest. 46% of Millennials reported that they could devise their own means and methods to accomplish tasks, while only 29% of Gen Z respondents felt they could.
This makes a difference! Boredom plays a valuable role in how people set and achieve goals. According to Texas A&M University psychologists Shane W. Bench and Heather C. Lench, boredom motivates us to get out of our own heads and act on new ideas and goals. It acts as a catalyst by bringing together different parts of our brain — social, cognitive, emotional, or experiential memory. When we’re firing on all neurons, we’re at our most imaginative and making connections we otherwise never would have.
So go be bored, and encourage your kids to be bored too. Maybe you’ll find a new and creative “Eureka!” moment in your life, or imagine a great big new future for yourself or the world. Boredom is a worthwhile adventure.