The Day Boredom Built a Robot
Scheduling Time for Nothing
Does it sound like “scheduling time for nothing” is an oxymoron, a riddle perhaps?
It is no riddle. I am here to encourage and inspire you to schedule time for something not likely on your weekly to-do list — time for curiosity, new ideas, surprises, coincidences, and epiphanies. In other words, schedule in some idleness.
How Boredom Got on the Endangered Human Experiences List
Scheduling in boredom is not what today’s App developers had in mind when creating organizing tools for maximizing time, sharing information, and collaborating with others. In a culture where we have limitless tools to occupy our time, and organize and schedule our lives, we have left little time for idleness. Boredom is now on the endangered list of human experiences. Recent studies show that the average person with a smartphone looks at it an average of 80 times per day. However, many researchers feel this reporting far underestimates the reality of how often we “check-in” on a screen. What we are unwittingly doing in this impulsive checking-in of our smart devices is disturbing any chance of boredom setting in. We are stimulating our brains, sometimes multiple times a minute, in a habitual and unconscious effort to stave off boredom, not realizing that what we are duly staving off is any chance of drifting thoughts, daydreams, or inspiration.
We are a plugged-in society where subways and plane rides don’t host spontaneous encounters and conversations as they once did. We are literally plugged in, with our eyes and ears, to our phones and digital devices many hours of the day and one of the consequences is less daydreaming, and less creativity. That’s right. Boredom is the birthplace of creativity, and by having our minds engaged in constant scrolling, reading, and listening to external content, we are cheating ourselves out of one of the attributes which makes us uniquely human: the mystical ability to create.
Parenting By Example
As a result, hyper-stimulated adults with little time for doing nothing are raising a generation of children who are also afraid of boredom. A sense of fear is becoming the response of many smartphone carrying adults were they to find themselves on the commuter bus for an hour of sitting only to realize they had left their phone at home. The horrors! What, pray tell, am I supposed to do on the bus for the next HOUR? If you feel a nervous giggle coming on as you read this scenario, it is likely because you see yourself in this portrayal of a panicked 21st-century adult facing an hour of boredom.
As parents, we are setting the example for our children on how to avoid boredom by aimlessly scrolling for 3 minutes while we wait in line at the grocery, 2 minutes at a red light (you know you do it!), and 5 minutes at the coffee shop. Do you schedule a full weekend of playdates and activities for your children? Do you routinely overcommit to social engagements or spend precious weekend hours running countless errands leaving little to no downtime during your non-work hours? These actions are fueled in part by anxiety about what we will do with unstructured time, and heaven forbid a little boredom. Dr. Sherry Turkle, the well-regarded MIT professor and researcher, has conducted numerous studies addressing how technology has influenced our response to boredom. In Turkle’s latest book, Reclaiming Conversation, her research subjects report feeling anxious about the possibility of experiencing boredom and describe using a constant feed of online stimulation to avoid it. This trend in behavior has unintended consequences, especially for developing children. The ability to positively cope with boredom is a learned skill with lifelong benefits. One of those benefits is building self-esteem as children use self-sourced initiative to relieve their feelings of discomfort. Yup. You read that correctly. Boredom and self-esteem are linked.
Linking Boredom and Self-Esteem in Kids
Self-esteem building in children is a tricky and critical business to their development. We enroll them in sports, assign them household chores, and let them pet-sit the neighbor’s cat in part to give them a chance to build their sense of agency through assigned responsibility. But we often prevent our children from experiencing another emotional state that bolsters self-esteem through building self-reliance and problem solving. Good old-fashioned boredom.
Most of us don’t associate boredom with anything productive or character building. But when we allow our children to experience boredom, we are giving them the time and space to understand that they have the power within themselves to alter their emotional experience. If given a chance to really let boredom brew, kids will arrive at creativity’s doorstep. Unfortunately, creativity often gets crowded out when it is fighting for a seat at the table in a very simulated childhood life. Idleness gives a child’s brain time to wander, and wander it will into curious, imaginative, and inventive places.
Coping with Boredom is Valuable Life Skill
In his book, Raising Generation Tech, Dr. Jim Taylor, the prolific contributor to the research and writings on child psychology and technology, explains that boredom builds tolerance for discomfort, bolsters initiative, and helps develop patience in children. Taylor goes on to say that patience, self-reliance, and initiative are critical skills for successfully navigating future careers and work lives. Children will figure out that if there is no entertainment, they can entertain themselves and with this sense of self-reliance comes increased self-esteem. Children who can tolerate boredom will arrive at creativity’s door and once there, they will do what children are developmentally programmed to do: build, draw, explore, and invent.
The Day Boredom Built a Robot
Let me share with you the story of how boredom built a robot.
My son, eight years old at the time, was in a wrestling match with his boredom and the match was taking place in the middle of my kitchen floor.
While I was trying to cook dinner.
When kids are bored, they are difficult. I am not suggesting this allowing-children-space-to-be-bored-business is easy. He was really trying to communicate his extreme feelings of anxiety over “having nothing to do” by lying on the kitchen floor making moaning sounds.
This went on for more than 10 minutes.
It might as well have been four hours. I kept my cool though, not engaging with him or problem-solving. This meant letting him make (the oh so annoying) moaning sounds, without suggesting toys, his basketball, or a bike ride to occupy his time. I let him figure it out and I must say, it was painful for me.
As the time droned on, however, he popped up and ran out of the kitchen. He had an idea. As we were about to sit down to dinner, he came back into the kitchen wearing a robot suit. “I am a robot!” he pronounced as he showed off his costume. It had a cardboard box body, complete with drawn-on “buttons” to push, two seltzer boxes for arms, and was all held together with masking tape. The 10 minutes of boredom had taken his little mind from a state of anxiety to daydreaming about robots. Now, wearing his robot suit he was feeling quite proud of his accomplishment and also garnering well-deserved praise from his father and me. Had I solved his anxiety about being bored, or expressed my feelings of impatience with how a kid with so many toys could ever be bored, this opportunity would have been missed.
Tips on Helping Kids Manage Boredom
1. Model the behaviors you desire your children to exhibit. Examples are allowing downtime in your personal schedule, monitoring over commitment, and waiting in line without getting on a screen.
2. Resist the urge to FIX your child’s boredom. Fixing their boredom is like doing their homework for them; it cheats them of the opportunity to learn a life skill.
3. Clean out the playroom. You know that feeling of overwhelm you experience with too much stuff around? Well, kids feel that too. A paired down toy selection encourages play with toys that are favorites, and creativity with what they do have access to.
4. Limit screen time, of any kind. Whether it is screens in cars, restaurants, or during sibling sporting events, these are all times to ditch the screens and let children dig into their inner resources. Given the opportunity, kids find ways to entertain themselves without a constant stream of spoon-fed digital stimulation. Boredom is a muscle, give it some workout time!
5. The “Bored List”. When kids are in good spirits (not in the middle of a “bored moment”) they can create a list of (non-screen) activities they enjoy. Younger kids may need help writing or brainstorming, bigger kids can do this on their own. Then when kids make really annoying moaning noises in a fit of boredom, and you simply can’t tolerate it one moment longer, you can suggest they consult their Bored List. This usually does the trick without parent over-involvement or fixing.
6. Teenager Hint: The “Bored List” works for tweens and teens just as it does for younger kids. As older kids often have their own tech devices, it is critical that they have engaging (non-screen) activities to participate in during this stage of their development. The average US teen spends over 7 hours a day on screens (NOT including use during school hours or homework) according to 2019 research by Common Sense Media. Imagine all the displaced daydreaming and creative thinking with so much external stimulation. Now more than ever, it is critical that parents support their teenagers’ engagement in personal interests. Parents can be supportive by setting limits on screen time and protecting routines from over-programming. During the years when kids stop playing with toys is when they often lose interest in individual pursuits. Cultivating hobbies contributes to a sense of self, belonging, and identity, all of which are crucial components of positive adolescent development.