Family & Education

Get Excited About Boredom

Creativity and self-sufficiency eventually emerge out of drawn-out tedium
TIMEJuly 24, 2019

School’s out, and the kids—Tom, Caroline, and Jackson—are home full time for the summer. Their mother, Sarah, has scheduled a week of soccer camp for Tom and Caroline, and in August, the family will travel to the beach for a vacation, but otherwise, the kids will spend most of their days at home.

In the first week or so of their summer break, the siblings are delighted to be free of classrooms, textbooks, and teachers. No longer do they have to stagger to the van in the wee hours of the morning under a book bag that weighs nearly as much as they do. No longer are they tormented by the agonies of common core math class or by the dreary minutes of sitting after supper at the kitchen table doing their homework.

Then the day comes when that terrible serpent, acedia, enters this summertime paradise.

It’s mid-afternoon, and the heat and humidity in the backyard could boil an egg. Nine-year-old Tom has used up his allotted time for television and the computer. Now he drifts from room to room like a wraith, picking up a book and putting it down, rolling the drawing pencils in his fingers and putting them back on the sketch pad, looking at the puzzle he started yesterday and shaking his head. He refuses to play Candy Land with 7-year-old Caroline and their 5-year-old brother—“It’s a game for babies,” he tells himself—and he stands surveying his partially constructed Lego village as if he’d never seen it before.

His rambles take him into the kitchen, where Sarah is wiping down the countertops. Tom slips onto one of the stools, puts his elbows on the breakfast bar, wraps his cheeks in his hands, and unleashes that dread pronouncement: “Mom, I’m bored.”

So what does Sarah do?

She might offer suggestions to relieve Tom’s malaise: running through a sprinkler in the baking heat of the backyard, writing a letter to Grandma, breaking out his box of toy soldiers and setting them up on the dining room table, tidying up the closet in his room. (That last is least likely to fly, but as a woman of hope, Sarah might slip it into the conversation.)

Of course, Sarah might resort to that old chestnut my mom used. When I complained of boredom, Mom would stop whatever she was doing—as the mother of six, she was always doing something—raise an eyebrow at me, and say, “Well, if you’re bored, I’ll find something for you to do.” So even though boredom and my boyhood self were well acquainted, I soon learned to keep my mental lethargy to myself.

Or Sarah could just say, “Well, some people think boredom is good for you.”

And she would be right.

If you Google “the virtue of boredom,” you will find a score of articles proclaiming the value of ennui. The Child Creativity Lab, the Acton Institute, Benjamin Franklin Circles, The Virtue Blog, The Atlantic—these and other websites feature articles on why we benefit from boredom.

After reading half a dozen of these pieces, I discovered some common ground as to why these researchers and commentators find value in tedium.

First, after noting that many children have a weapon against boredom in their phones and tablets, an array of amusements at their fingertips, these commentators are universally opposed to such a circus of constant entertainment. It teaches, they argue, the wrong life lesson to our young people. Nearly all of us, at one time or another, find ourselves adrift in the doldrums, caught up in dull but necessary chores or work. Children who fail to learn that lesson are missing a critical part of their education. Had Tom asked his mother whether she was ever bored, she might tell him that folding the laundry was the most boring thing she could imagine.

How we react to boredom interests nearly all these researchers and writers. In “The Meaning of Boredom,” psychologist Heather C. Lench writes that “boredom creates a ‘seeking state’ that motivates people to seek out new situations and stimuli.” Though they don’t use the term “seeking state,” all the investigators of boredom believe that malaise does indeed breed creativity.

Folding pajamas and matching socks may bore Sarah, but while she is doing so, she is planning the details of Jackson’s upcoming birthday or considering the colors she intends for the repainting of the living room. Tom’s bout with boredom will eventually lead him into that seeking state. Perhaps he’ll ask Sarah if he can invite a friend over, or build a fort of blankets and ropes in the playroom, or learn a magic trick from the book his dad gave him for Christmas.

An old adage states, “Only boring people get bored.” This is not quite true. Most of us get bored.

The writers of these articles would instead contend that “only boring people stay bored.”

Which leads us to another benefit of allowing Tom his boredom: self-sufficiency. In “The Virtues of Boredom in an Anxious Age,” Joseph Sunde examines the role boredom plays in “fostering true resiliency and creativity.” He quotes Pamela Paul’s New York Times article “Let the Children Get Bored Again,” where Paul notes, “Boredom teaches us that life isn’t a parade of amusements … more important, it spawns creativity and self-sufficiency. … Boredom is something to experience rather than hastily swipe away. … Boredom is useful. It’s good for you.”

By finding his own way out of his boredom rather than with the help of his mother or, as is the case with so many adults, by means of electronic entertainment—television, computers, phones—Tom is learning independence and how to deal with a problem. He is exercising the self-sufficiency that Pamela Paul, Joseph Sunde, and others promote.

When we fill up our children’s days with activities and entertainments, we not only take away those hours of free play necessary for growth and the imagination, we also remove the valuable lessons boredom teaches: that peaks of excitement are often followed by valleys of the humdrum, that we deliver ourselves from those valleys through willpower and imagination, and that we, not others, are ultimately responsible for our interior moods.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See to follow his blog.

Jeff Minick
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust on Their Wings,” and two works of non-fiction, “Learning as I Go” and “Movies Make the Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See to follow his blog.