What do you mean you’re bored? — by Betsy Hill

An article in today’s Wall Street Journal treated a familiar topic for many parents as the school year ends and summer begins – kids who say they are bored.  I was particularly interested to read about research indicating that when kids say they’re bored, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re bored.  The research cited in the article suggests that kids who are bored are really in a “tense, negative state,” or “frustrated.”

That’s very consistent with what I have been observing personally in recent weeks.  When I was in Indianapolis a few weeks ago, conducting interviews with groups of middle-school students regarding their experience with BrainWare Safari (cognitive skills development software), the first thing they would say was, “It was boring.”  Then they would start to mention aspects of the games in the program that they liked.  And they would talk about which games were hard or easy.  And they talked about what they were getting out of the program (better memory, understanding science or math better).  In fact, the more they talked, the less their descriptions matched up with my idea of “boring.”

I ended up concluding that kids use the word “boring” differently than I might have when I was younger.  It doesn’t really mean, “I’m bored … there’s nothing to do.”  Rather it might mean, “It’s hard,” or “I’m frustrated.”  It might mean that they’re having a hard time getting started on it, but that it would be very engaging if they did.  And it might mean, as became clear to me in talking with the students in Indianapolis, that no one had explained to them why there were doing what they were doing.  In other word, the activity didn’t have a purpose, or a goal.  All of those feelings can be wrapped up in the simple statement, “I’m bored.”

As adults, our knee-jerk response to a child telling us they are bored is often to feel guilty.  We haven’t made the lesson interesting or the program engaging.  We haven’t provided enough fun things for them to do.  When those “I’m bored” situations arise, which they inevitably do, it’s important for us to look beneath the statement to the emotions that are really at play.  It’s also important to help our children find ways to problem-solve their way out of those negative feelings.  After all, isn’t that exactly what we have to do every day with the “boring” parts of our own jobs?

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