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'I'm bored!' What your child is really telling you

Published on: May 01, 2010

Bored childWhen Dr. Danielle Kassow was growing up, every now and then she’d grumble, “I’m bored!” Few things irritated her mother more.

“My mother would tell me, ‘Go play, go find something to do!’” says Kassow, research and development manager for Thrive By Five Washington. “Parents feel that kids are lucky to be kids.”

Not much has changed since Kassow was a child. Parents still loathe hearing the “B” word, and kids still pull it out of their complaint repertoire. Even in an iPod, Xbox, DVD world, “boredom” persists in the tot-through-teen lexicon.

What’s more, the word "bored" means different things to different kids — at different times. “Sometimes children say they’re bored because they need direction or activity ideas from their parents,” Kassow notes. “And sometimes, it’s a child’s way of telling a parent, ‘I want you to pay attention to me.’”

“If a very young child says she’s bored, she often means, ‘I don’t like what I’m doing right now,’” says Leslie Meisner, program manager for early learning in the Tacoma School District. Then it’s the parent’s job to come up with ideas.

“Devise a list of conversation starters,” Meisner says. “Ask your preschooler, ‘What’s your favorite book? If you could buy anything at the grocery store, what would it be?’” Give her little projects, such as counting how many apples are in the fridge or how many chairs are in the house.

Then there’s the child who claims he’s bored at school. “Parents need to translate that. What does it really mean?” asks Bryan Taylor, president of Partnership for Learning, a national nonprofit that helps schools and communities work to boost learning. “Often, boredom is a signal that your child needs to be redirected.”

Maybe he’s trying to tell you that he's bored because his classwork isn’t challenging. “What he might mean is, ‘This doesn’t engage me. There’s no incentive to do this when I already know I can,’” Taylor says. On the other hand, he might need more guidance, says Taylor, as in “I kind of understand this, but I don’t know where to start. There’s no path for me to follow.”

Let’s say your child is doing a report on bees. The topic’s interesting, and your child is enthusiastic about the project. But where — and how — does he begin?

That’s where you come in. “Kids need coaches,” says Taylor. “We should take that role whether we’re the parent, the teacher or the tutor.” Help your child through the report process, step by step, he suggests. “Create a pathway for him so he can understand how to put the project in order.”

Maybe your student’s learning style doesn’t jibe with the instructor’s teaching style. The best way to find that out is by asking questions, Kassow says. “Ask your child, ‘What’s boring? What did you do for this lesson? Were you done before the other kids?’”

Helping kids wait

On the other hand, the “BOR-ing” buzzword can mean something else entirely, claims Dr. Elizabeth MacKenzie, a child and adolescent psychologist in West Seattle. “Sometimes boredom has to do with being independent and organizing activities,” she says. “Kids these days haven’t had practice entertaining themselves.”

That’s often because they’ve had too much screen time, she contends. “Watching TV and playing video games are highly entertaining but passive activities.” You don’t need attention skills for them, says MacKenzie, and they won’t help your children learn to sidestep boredom.

MacKenzie likes to help young children learn strategies to avoid boredom and stay busy. “I ask them, ‘What can you do to help yourself wait?’” She suggests activities kids can do by themselves, such as coloring and playing with Legos. She tells parents to set a timer for different amounts of time to get children used to playing alone.

The timer technique also works with homework, she says. “When kids doing homework need their parents too much, there are often conflicts,” says Mackenzie. “A parent might say, ‘You’re not doing that right.’”

Set the timer for a bit longer than your children can normally work by themselves and help them plan their study agenda, she says. When the timer goes off, check on them, gradually increasing the time they spend alone.

Some kids who complain they’re bored in school tend to focus on the negative, Mackenzie says. “They have a bad school attitude. When they constantly say school’s boring or ‘stupid’ it can be part of a pattern of negative thinking.”

How can you help your kids change that? Ask them to tell you three good things about their day. Then ask them what they’re looking forward to the next day. “Help them see that there’s something positive that happens every day,” says MacKenzie. “Sometimes they just don’t see the good things.”

Linda Morgan, ParentMap’s associate editor, writes frequently on education issues.

What to do when your child says he’s bored
(Sources: Dr. Elizabeth MacKenzie and Dr. Danielle Kassow)

  • Ask your child what he means when he says that he is bored. Is the work too challenging — or is it too easy?
  • Talk to your child’s teacher. Are there other projects the teacher can give the child?
  • Is he or she understanding the assignments?
  • Try to find out if your child is not paying attention or focusing and if so, help him or her work on those skills.
  • Consider the possibility that your child is not bored and that he or she is rather making a bid for more attention from you.
  • Turn off the electronics and get kids involved in old-fashioned play.

Originally published in the May, 2008 print edition of ParentMap.

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