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Can boredom be a good thing?

‘I’m bored, Mum!’

This phrase comes so easily and often with our children, even when they have so many devices and games and toys to play with. Especially now, I have heard Mums saying that, when they are not allowed to use their techno gadgets: games and phones etc, children just don’t know what to do. Watching TV is the couch potato option so often taken, the passive way of occupying oneself, and we all know the results of that.

Let’s look at boredom a bit.

By saying, ‘I am bored’, what is a child actually saying?

I think back to my own childhood. And to when my children were small.

Did it mean something different then?

Is it just about not having the fingertip access to stay entertained and mentally stimulated that children today have?

I think there are two different types of ‘boredom’

1. Is part of the discipline of life, the times when stillness and listening are expected, learning to recognise when running around and talking are not acceptable.

As a child, for me, this sort of boredom was -

  • When in church, sitting through sermons that were often longer than an hour. As a young child, these were in Tamil, a language I only knew at a basic level. After going to UK, they were delivered in English language that was often Biblically archaic and I could only understand if I concentrated well on the theme. They were ideas and exhortations that seemed far from my own life experience.

  • When we had guests, and we were expected to sit quietly and listen to the ‘grown-ups’ talking, or sometimes, to help with giving nuts, biscuits, cakes and drinks out to our guests. (We were not allowed to take any of these ourselves: There was a shorthand that foretold of severe reprimands if disobeyed: FHB – family hold back – and that was sometimes hard, because the special foods we gave guests were not things we usually had to eat!)

Today, In Church, partly so as not to disturb other worshippers, and partly to give children their own, more meaningful experience of worship, children are frequently removed to have their own Sunday School, with singing and short lessons about the Bible, and are not expected to sit through the whole Church service with their parents.

In mosques, similarly, sometimes the children are in a separate room with their Mothers or those who stay with them, and can play. In others, the children sit in the main prayer hall with their Mothers, and are expected to sit and listen to the Friday Khutba: Sermon.

I believe these are important experiences for all children, and they miss out if they have nothing of this sort in their community activities. It is a loss to our children and their future capacity to focus, meditate, listen, or at the very least, be quiet for periods of time.

Times of being expected to listen, even though we often felt ‘bored’, and being questioned afterwards about what the sermon was about, prepared me for learning and for future life when I would need to spend focused time thinking and listening – at school and later at university.

How can we help our children deal with boring times – especially if he or she has a problem with attention or learning disability. (Start off by not offering anything to do, let your child sit quiet for as long as he or she can. Praise your child afterwards for however long that was!)

  • Prepare your child beforehand, explain where you are going and how long it will be for, and what you hope everyone will gain from going together.

  • Make sure you have a variety of quiet activities that you know he likes: books, colouring, models to make, or puzzles.

  • Sensory objects like squeezy balls or ribbons often work with children on the Autistic spectrum.

  • For young children, a drink in a spill-proof cup is important, or a 'quiet' fruit like banana, if only to change his attention from a disruptive activity

  • Joining dots pictures, or making squares from a grid of dots, or word games are often helpful, though you may need to participate in these even if minimally.

  • If the child is old enough, get him or her to make notes of things or words he doesn’t understand, or questions, or of the main ideas, so you can talk about them later.

here are two types of bananas: there were at least 14 different ones on the Kolli Mallai hills

  • Holding, cuddling, stroking, patting may work best for young children or those who tend to want to run around.

  • Avoid sitting close to older people or those who are likely to get disturbed if your child does not sit still easily.

  • If all else fails, find a side room, and even there, encourage a quiet activity that you may need to actively join in.

I read the other day, that in UK there is a move to increase the time given to children for their breaks, because it has been recognised that children need time to be free to choose their own activity, game or quietness in between the structured lessons of the day – though how will that be fitted into the already packed programme of a school day without extending time at school, I wonder.

2) Transient boredom. When I was bored as a child, it might be because I had just completed something, and had not yet decided what to do next. It was in that hiatus of time, when I was not occupied.

I and my siblings certainly would say “I am bored!” to my Mother when I was young. It was of course partly to gain her attention. I have tried to remember the strategies she used to deal with our ‘boredom’ when we were children in India.

I do not remember her being cross with us for disturbing her. She would take time out from her busy-ness with housework or helping in the dispensary, to do things with us – even if it was only for a short time, till we were engrossed in an activity and she could get back to what she needed to do.

  • She would go through or suggest the different things we could do, and why they would be good to do. And she encouraged us to ‘multi-task’ long before that word was coined – she would suggest we did something to help her as well as playing things we enjoyed, like stopping the goats from eating our newly washed clothes, hung over the bushes to dry, while we played hide and seek.

  • She might go to the rabbit hutches with us, and help us take out one each to play with, then leave us playing happily telling us to make sure we put the rabbits back in the hutch securely, with food and water replenished.

  • She would suggest we go to the orchards and see how many ripe banana bunches there were, and how many different sorts of bananas we could find, and find a specific type, say, plantains, to ask one of the Farmers to cut down, for us to bring home for fried bananas later.

  • She sometimes used pieces of newspaper rescued from the pile that we had helped to tear up, most of which were to go to the latrine for toilet paper. She would get us to make cones of them, and gave us small aniseed sweets or round boiled sweets, or popcorn, to put in them, and after we had made several of these cones, sending us off to share with the children from the orphanage.

  • We would often spend time in the kitchen, with our Ayah, Thangamoney, ‘helping’ with cooking or preparing food. We helped find wood for the fire, or kneading our own little dough balls.

  • When the peanut crop was ripe, she sent us off to get peanuts, to make peanut butter. We watched as she roasted the peanuts, the wonderful nutty aroma sending us crazy, then make us wait till they were cool enough to get rid of the skins, by rubbing them and shaking them in a winnowing tray.

  • Then she would grind them with salt and ghee and make the most delicious peanut butter I ever tasted to this day.

These pictures show our kitchen: the open hearth on one side, and the dish-washing area on the other - still being used today there!

This type of ‘boredom’ reminds me of the old English adage, ‘Satan finds mischief for idle hands to do’.

Parents can do so much to help steer their children into activities that will be positive and productive - even if life is a lot more restricted than the open village life I had as a child in India.

This is even the point at which parents (as my Mother did without realising it) can help their children start to learn to prioritise – an invaluable skill for later life!

  1. Ask what he or she could do next, how long it will take.

  2. Make a list, spoken even if not written down.

  3. Then suggest the child thinks about what is the most important of those things, and decide what to do based, upon the time he has, what he most wants to do, and the things that most need to be done.

Even very young children are able to think for themselves, and make those choices!

So – I strongly recommend ‘boredom’ as a necessary part of a child’s experience (within reasonable limits of course!) and that teachers and parents do their children a great service if they teach them how to make the best use of these times.

I will talk another time about avoiding the wrong sort of 'boredom' before it begins, with children who are very small, and the sorts of things we or those caring for our babies can do to stimulate their development.

Enjoy making use of your child’s boredom! Do let me know your ideas about it.

Margi Kulsoom

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