I remember the long hot days of summer kicking a ball along the dusty Saskatchewan roads, looking for friends to play with and wandering around town searching for an adventure. There were many times when my adventure would go unrealized as I could not find something to entertain me or fill my summer days.
I remember the mixed feelings of relief to have no activities on my plate that day, but also the desire to get out and do something. There would be days when my brother and I would plan a big adventure to the store once we had enough money for a Slurpee or ice-cream. Sometimes we would pack a lunch and a book and just get on our bikes and ride around town, unsure what the day would bring. I also remember just stretching out on the lawn and watching the stars emerge at night, feeling a bit bored but also intrigued by those shining diamonds in the sky that drew my attention and my thoughts.
Parents nowadays seem to have children programmed into continual summer camps and endless enriching activities, to the point that we do not leave them enough time to just get bored. This generation of parents seem to feel that we need to entertain our children, and that it is our responsibility to make sure that they are being filled up with information and action all the time. As a parent, a Parent Educator, and a Child and Family therapist, I challenge parents to start letting their children get bored.
It is my belief that boredom can be very healthy for children. Parents are much too responsive to children when they say "I'm bored". It is not your responsibility to entertain your child if they are bored -- in fact quite the opposite is true. When my children were young and they would approach me with the "I'm bored" complaint, they soon learned they were not going to get my attention that way. I would respond with a "Fabulous, what a great time to go and spend time with yourself and come up with something new".
The "I'm bored" soon lost any traction in our house, but spending time with oneself and thinking new thoughts stuck. My children are now teenagers but they still like to take time for themselves; sometimes they do come up with some amazing ideas and thoughts, and sometimes they just get a little bored.
Boredom is not the enemy to be conquered by action and another planned activity. Boredom can be a vehicle to creative thinking, self-awareness, empathy and compassion. When we are bored we are often alone with our thoughts -- this is a great way for children to get to know themselves. If they can learn to be comfortable with themselves when bored and restless, they will better know how to hold onto themselves in the midst of life's actions and pressures. To know him or herself will also help your child to better know others. The roots of empathy are in self-knowledge and the understanding of our own thoughts and feelings. This awareness translates into a caring attitude towards others. Being bored also motivates us to reach out to others and develop connections.
We cannot underestimate the power of boredom in creativity and innovation. When we are bored we dig deeper into our mind and our thoughts, and we challenge ourselves to create something new. If we interviewed some of the most successful people who have truly impacted our world, we would find that when they became bored they began to search for MORE. Exceptional living comes from a curiosity and a perseverance through challenging times.
The other gift of boredom is that it allows our children to develop self-reliance. If your child is bored they may want to pick up a book and read, or develop a new board game or even watch 17 episodes of Star Trek on Netflix. Some of these might be more creative than others, but all of them require self-reliance and will bring some new information to your child. Maybe they will just daydream -- who knows what gifts those daydreams will bring to your child or to our future. All of our truly great human inventions and innovations were somebody's daydream before they were a reality.
So I challenge parents to let go of the fear of your children's boredom, free yourself from this responsibility and sit back and see what emerges out of your child. Who knows, you might even want to let yourself get a little bored and see what emerges out of yourself as well.
ALSO ON HUFFPOST:
Replay some mental pictures of your child over the past week. If all your images are of him or her on the go--heading to an appointment, on the way back from one, doing homework, practicing an instrument--and there are not many moments of quietude and relaxation, your kid is too busy. "Every hour kids come into my office and throw themselves onto my couch complaining that they are overbooked with too many appointments," says Dr. Fran Walfish, a child psychologist and author of The Self-Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building A Better Bond with Your Child. "All they want is down time," she says.
OK, so maybe there's no hunchback or gray hair yet, but it's a warning sign if your child looks and acts tired, complains of headaches and pains, isn't sleeping well, or "just doesn't feel right," according to Dr. Kate Cronin, a pediatric physician at the Nemours/AI duPont Hospital for Children in Delaware. Irritability and grumpiness are also signs that their life balance is out of whack, she says. Pay attention to those "grumpy old man" symptoms -- there might be underlying issues.
"One of the surest signs that a kid is overscheduled is when what used to be fun isn't fun anymore," says Dr. Edward Hallowell, author of Crazybusy. "Activities are like ice cream --they're great, but when you have too much, it makes you sick." How can you tell if she's just growing out of a unicorn phase as opposed to protesting an overscheduled life? "They start saying no to everything that used to be fun for them," says Dr. Hallowell. If it's just grumbling about one activity, let it go -- but if nothing seems to appeal to them anymore, take notice.
If you can't read your child's face, head to the data -- look at the grades. One of the most oft-cited signs for an overscheduled child is that his or her grades start to drop. School should be a top priority, and if activities are sapping a child's time and energy away from homework, something needs to get cut. "I hear of kids getting up as early as 5 am to get their homework done because they didn't have time to finish it the night before due to all their activities," says Cronin. That kind of scenario can't be good for grades.
Your gas bills have shot up. Your car has become an extension of the home. You're spending more time with your kids in the car than anywhere else, because you're constantly shuttling them back and forth to activities. This is a sign that activities and schedules are dominating as the focus of family time. "What's worse is that nowadays everyone is plugged in to separate devices," says Hallowell. He suggests unplugging and at least using the car time to have conversation and bond.
Dr. Bob Block, President of the American Academy of Pediatrics, has been seeing an increase in the rate of depression in kids, and he links it partly to overscheduled lives. "The more activities a kid is involved in, the more opportunities there are to not do well in them -- not live up to a standard, either their parents' or their own." Signs of depression and anxiety include bad moods, being very quiet, avoiding friends and family. Which leads us to...
Your child and her best friend used to be thick as thieves -- now you never see her. Ruling out a fight, a sign your child is too busy is when he or she no longer connects with friends, according to Jennifer Little, Ph.D., an educator for over 40 years. If there used to be sleepovers and phone chats and impromptu catch games, but now your child seems more isolated, take that as a warning sign that she's too busy.
"Families have priorities, and some of those might be mealtimes with the family," says Block. If your kids are dropping out of mealtimes for choir practice or dance rehearsal, then it's time to re-assess priorities. Think back to the past week or two. How many meals did your child eat on the go or in the car? If it's more than a few, it may be time to sit down and redo your child's schedule.
If a child starts to look to you to tell him what to do at every turn, this might be a sign he's overscheduled. "I can often tell if a child is overscheduled by the way they behave in a social setting," says Sheela Raja, clinical psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "When there is not a set agenda, is the child able to use his own imagination? Does the child continually look to adults for what to do next? This is a red flag that a child needs some unstructured or down time. It's actually very important for their cognitive and social development," she says.
One of the easiest ways to tell that your child is too busy? "You as the parent feel stressed," says Cronin. Hallowell agrees: "You're tired of schlepping them around, you dread all the activities--you're tired yourself," he says. "If you as the parent feel this way, chances are that your child does too." If your kid exhibits several of these signs, take some time to re-assess his or her schedule. The good news is, the solution is simple. "As far as life's problems go, this one is extremely solvable," says Hallowell. "You can do something about it, and you have more control than you think you do. Just start by eliminating one activity per week." You'll probably be grateful for the break yourself. Calculate how much your own time is worth at LearnVest, and sign up for LearnVest Moms, a newsletter designed to help you maximize on your time and money.
Follow Alyson Jones on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MOREAlysonJones