As parents, we tend to try and fill our children’s lives with activity from the time they wake up to bedtime. But research suggests that a certain amount of idleness is beneficial.
As an ultrarunner and outdoor athlete, I’ve spent most of my life on the move. I’ve always viewed adventure as an antidote to the monotonous routines of regular life. But eight weeks ago, I fractured my tibia when our raft wrapped around on a rock in a rapid on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, in Idaho.
The freak accident happened on the first of a six-day trip. Thinking I’d torn my ACL, I stayed on the river, relying on Advil and an Ace bandage, rather than evacuating. When my husband and I finally emerged from the wilderness and drove 16 hours home to New Mexico, my doctor informed me that I’d broken my leg and would be spending the next 12 weeks on crutches.
For the past seven weeks, I’ve been laid up at home, unable to walk, let alone hike or ride bikes or float rivers. In the split second it took our raft to flip, our summer was derailed, a whole season’s worth of planned family adventures scotched. My first instinct was to outsource our two daughters’ summer vacation, filling their waking hours with activities and camps and sending them off with friends who graciously offered to keep them busy. They’ve spent the last two months hiking and swimming, planting the school garden, having sleepovers, learning to sew; I even arranged for them to fly to my parents’ summer cottage in Canada without us.
Even though I was stuck at home to heal, I reasoned, my kids didn’t have to be. But now that summer’s winding down, and the workaday routine of school looms large, I wish I’d left some empty space in their days. I wish I’d let them be bored more.
Boredom—the very word has dreary connotations. As Americans we’re conditioned to abhor aimlessness and lethargy. In a 2014 University of Virginia study two-thirds of male participants and one-quarter of females preferred to give themselves an electric shock than sit alone in a room with their thoughts. Excessive or chronic boredom (what scientists call “trait boredom”) has been linked to poor academic performance and truancy in schools, and to missed workdays and diminished productivity in the workplace. It has also been tied to compulsive escapism behavior like alcohol and drug use, gambling, overeating, and dropping out of school.
But the truth is, a little tedium is good for us. Two separate studies from 2013 found that, in moderation, boredom increases creativity and helps us redirect our focus to new goals. In an experiment at the University of Central Lancashire, in England, psychologists directed one group of participants to copy numbers out of the telephone book for 15 minutes. Afterwards, they were tasked with devising different uses for plastic cups. Those who had copied the phone book came up with more answers, and more creative answers, than a second group that had not.
In a 2013 article published in the journal Behavioral Sciences, psychologists at Texas A&M found that “boredom is frequently considered inconsequential and has received relatively little research attention,” and asserts that it motivates us to channel our energy into a more stimulating, and rewarding, activities. Tedium is also associated with greater mind wandering, which studies have shown, can lead to our most creative thinking. In 2012, psychologists at the University of California, Santa Barbara, found that mind wandering isn’t a sign of laziness, and that it boosts our inspiration and problem-solving abilities.
Last summer, my then seven-year-old daughter used to complain when we took her out in the rowboat—until, that is, I suggested she use the idle time to daydream. She looked at me strangely, like she wasn’t sure if it was okay to just sit there and do nothing. I nodded gently and she leaned her head over the gunwales and trailed her fingers in the lake. For the next half an hour, the only sound was the slosh of water beneath the oars; she was quiet and content. We all were. And the next day, and then the next, she asked to go again.
When I was young and complained of being bored, my mother would look at me pityingly. Not because she felt sorry for me that I was listless but that I hadn’t come up with something interesting to do, like reading, playing Four Square, riding my bike, or even organizing my room. Being bored, her reaction implied, meant that I was boring. She might make suggestions, but it was up to me to figure out how to escape my own monotony.
My mother intuitively knew what researchers have found: that boredom doesn’t arise from a lack of something to do, but rather a lack of something enticing to do. “It is very hard to come up with a situation where a person's options are so limited that he or she literally can do nothing,” write Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman, of the University of Central Lancashire. Rather it “stems from a situation where none of the possible things that a person can realistically do appeal to the person in question.”
The point is not to wallow in boredom or eliminate it altogether, but learn to navigate it gracefully by allowing periods of idleness and daydreaming to arise organically and not fight them with busyness. It’s during these aimless times, researchers have found, that people naturally come up with ideas and new interests. Think of tedium as creativity training. In her recent creativity podcast, “Magic Lessons,” bestselling author Elizabeth Gilbert recalled the times when her mother shooed her and her sister out to play so that her mother could sew in peace. Left to their own devices, the two girls concocted elaborate story lines and invented whole imaginary worlds. Is it any wonder they both went on to become writers?
Of course, it’s not always as easy as it sounds. Sometimes, as parents, you just have to get some work done around the house and need your children out of your hair; other times, kids get fidgety and grumpy with too much down time on their hands. Just the other day, my DIY boredom experiment took a major hit when my girls couldn’t seem to pass a free hour at home on a Saturday without annoying each other—and me. I wish I could have kept my cool and let us ride out our restlessness at home, but instead I hit eject and drove them to the pool where they released their pent-up energy in an epic session of Marco Polo.
It might not happen overnight, but with practice your kids—and you—will be better able to tolerate the spaces between activities and tap into their own imaginations and creativity. In the beginning, it’s OK to encourage them to come up with activities they can do on their own at home when they’re feeling listless. Simple things like playing a board game, building Legos, writing stories, or drawing maps of the neighborhood. Chances are, after some practice, they won’t need any help in devising their own ways to entertain themselves.
Last week, we finally joined our daughters at the lake in Ontario. They’d finished their sailing and swimming lessons, and the days yawned open, without commitments or organized activities. I was worried they’d be bored, but then I decided to just wing it and see what happened. What happened is that they played in the woods, made scavenger hunts, and strung beads on bracelets. One evening before dinner I found them outside with their cousins, building elaborate fairy houses, fashioned out of sticks and pinecones, in rock walls and tree stumps.
Life is short and all too busy. And so, sadly, is summer. What better way to savor the final days than by giving your kids the gift of idleness?