Dear Dr. T,
“Maaaa, I’m bored! What should I do?”
This is the part of summer I like least. Not that I don’t deserve it. I remember complaining to my parents all the time. But seriously, after all my planning, running around, and shlepping, it is disheartening to be hit with these moans and groans.
How do I help my children learn to occupy themselves?
Those long, lazy days of summer – filled with possibility and promise – are at odds with our fast-paced, hectic, over-scheduled lives. Most of us city dwellers have life scheduled down to a “T;” every hour is packed with activity. It’s rush to car pool, work, and errands; orthodontia, dinner, homework, bath time, and more. Many of us cannot deal with free space in the schedule, and we fill it up with trips to parks, over-nights, or travelling. The concept of the family staying at home, each family member left to his own devices, has become anathema to us. Little wonder then that our children complain when the inevitable empty space appears on, say, a chol hamoed or summer break.
We have become too accustomed to our time being taken up by the demands of our schedules, our commitments to others (neighbors, shul, school), or the stimulation of the outside environment (amusement parks, restaurants).
Though parents are not responsible for solving the boredom of their children, we do want to help. We want to teach our children not to rely on external sources of amusement, but rather to develop internal sources of satisfaction. While the younger the child, the greater the need for parental support in this enterprise, even a toddler can learn some rudimentary skills to occupy himself. As the child matures, he should be able to keep himself busy for longer and longer periods. We want to encourage our children to be active players, not passive recipients in their lives. We want them to initiate activity, not be passive and wait for instructions or to be entertained.
A good place to start is by identifying your child’s interests and helping supply the means and opportunity for him to pursue what he enjoys. Besides supporting the child’s natural inclination for sports, gardening, music, or Zumba, you also want to try to introduce other interests – not particularly common – that may catch on. Then, look for a group or get the material your child needs to begin. Some parents have found that collections – miniatures, coins, stamps, cars – can be engrossing even to a young child.
Busy people are not bored, nor, incidentally, do they get into trouble.
A practical idea for the younger child or the one who cannot seem to find his niche is to address this issue head-on, before it spirals out of control. In a calm moment, talk to your child about the fact that people feel good when they learn to occupy themselves without outside help. Ask your child to write down a list of activities he can consider when “there’s nothing to do.” Then, when the specter of boredom rears its ugly head, it becomes the child’s, not the adult’s, responsibility to figure out which item on the list works. In this way, you hand off the job to the child – where it rightfully belongs – and give him the tools up front with which to do it. (Of course, this is a goal. It may take lots of support to get there.)
At this point, I want to put in a plug in for an activity that is both absorbing and healthy: reading. In our solid-state society where entertainment is both instantaneous and immediately gratifying, many a child has no patience for the leisurely pace of a book. But, as the poet Emily Dickenson has said, “There is no frigate like a book;” books have the power to transport us to another time and place outside of ourselves. Books are both educational and entertaining. Helping your child discover this pleasure is a gift for the present and the future. Reading also stimulates thought and self-reflection: two processes that in the long run will prevent your child from becoming a boring person and chronically bored.
On a deeper level, this is a good time to step back and reflect, to take a proactive – rather than a reactive – view of the situation. Time is our most precious commodity. Whether we are given a little or a lot, we want to use it, not fill or spend it. Teaching our children the value of time and modeling the ability to use it constructively is a gift of a lifetime because it is a gift that will give meaning to all of their lives. As our children grow older, we want to guide them with strategies that help them make the most of the time they do have. Your attitudes towards time will affect your child’s perception of time and its value and worth. Hopefully, your attitude will instill in them the goal to use, not waste, their time – for life’s demands, good deeds, and even relaxation. People with purpose are not bored.
The Book Nook: Raising Self-Reliant Children by Drs. Stephen Glenn and Jane Nelson is well researched, yet very easy to read. The authors present a seven-point program for helping our children learn to figure things out on their own.
Sara Teichman, Psy D. is a psychotherapist in private practice in Los Angeles and Clinical Director of ETTA, L.A.’s largest Jewish agency for adults with special needs. To submit a question or comment, email DrT@jewishhomela.com