Boredom is not always bad


One summer when I was in college, I participated in a study program in Urbino, Italy. About 20 other students and I took classes in art history and Italian. Apart from studying in Urbino, the group made sightseeing trips to Florence, Venice, and Rome. The experience was one of the best of my life. I loved everything about Italy the people, the food, the countryside, the churches, the museums. Every moment I spent there was rich with possibility. Everything I saw fascinated me.

However, another in our group, Emily, was not so impressed. She quickly let the rest of us know how bored she was. Living in a small dormitory in Urbino, a quiet university town, struck her as incredibly backward and slow. Even our sight-seeing trips failed to live up to her expectations. Because of her attitude, I avoided her as much as I could. In light of what I was experiencing, I couldn’t fathom how anyone could be as bored as she claimed. After the study program ended, Emily had plans to visit Corsica. For weeks, she told anyone who listened that she couldn’t wait to get to Corsica. She was counting on Corsica to provide her the excitement Urbino lacked.

After the program ended, I never saw Emily again, so I never learned if her trip to Corsica proved as thrilling as she’d imagined.

But I am reminded of Emily and her unhappiness when my kids, often in the midst of all sorts of opportunities for fun, start complaining of boredom. Boredom must, to a large extent, be a learned response. Babies and very young children are never bored, unless adults neglect them. Babies are eager to explore every nuance of their world. As long as a baby is properly cared for, he is constantly seeking and finding adventure. Everything from his mother’s smile to a Cheerio on the high chair tray commands his rapt attention.

Apart from instances of neglect or isolation, boredom in children seems a relatively recent condition. (It’s increased dramatically in the last 40 years or so. Could this have something to do with TV?) It’s most common in the older child, particularly the adolescent. And while I try to be tolerant and remember how much I must have whined similarly to my own mother, I have little sympathy for my children when they complain there’s nothing to do. The surest way to quiet them is to remind them of unfinished chores. Other times, I encourage them to wallow in their boredom. I tell them that if they stay bored some amazing ideas will surface in those vacant heads. I may be stretching the truth, but I also tell them some of the most famous inventions, ideas, and discoveries resulted from people who were goofing around, probably bored. I tell them that through boredom the mind settles into contemplation or drifts into imagination and becomes capable of greatness.

Nowadays, in light of the problem of juvenile crime, some parents are afraid of bored children. It’s true, bored kids do get into trouble. But I dispute the notion that to avoid trouble, we must make sure teens are entertained. At the risk of sounding like a drill sergeant, I believe one solution to the problem of bored teens getting into trouble is to put them to work … if not for a salary then in community service. There’s nothing like a job, especially a tedious one, to make a person appreciate his leisure time.

Another consideration is that kids causing trouble may not be bored as much as they are lonely. Providing adult supervision on long summer days or school day afternoons (yes, even for teens) helps ensure that youngsters won’t indulge in destructive behaviors. According to reports, most juvenile crime occurs in those hours after school before parents arrive home from work. Providing for their supervision would go a long way toward preventing problems among our more restless youth.

Ultimately, of course, parents and children must realize boredom is not necessarily bad. By helping children find resources within themselves to cope with boredom, we do them a huge favor. Then, they’ll learn to find adventure wherever they are. And that’s important because, unlike bored Emily, most of them aren’t heading to Corsica anytime soon.

Mary Hood Hart lives in Calabash, N.C., with her husband, Jim, and their four children, ages 6 to 14. In addition to The Miscellany, Hart is a columnist for The Mirror, diocesan newspaper of Springfield Cape Girardeau, Missouri.