“Only boring people are bored,” my mom used to say when my siblings and I whined about having nothing to do. “But if you’re really bored, you can clean the fridge.” We rolled our eyes at her then, but now I’m grateful my mom let us be bored. Boredom is the empty ground that creativity grows in.
I’m not talking here about the boredom of busywork or monotony. I’m talking about empty time, where we can sit through the entire uncomfortable process of being responsible for our own experience of life. Not only does boredom force us to invent interesting occupations, it’s great practice for learning how to manage other uncomfortable emotions without reaching towards harmful substances or other self-destructive distractions to frantically fill our emptiness.
Boredom is positive emptiness. My parents’ low-TV, unscheduled approach to parenting meant we had large blocks of time in which we had to entertain ourselves. We usually began by getting bored. Then some idea would strike and soon we would be trying to string a tin-can telephone over our three-story house, or inventing working flying machines, or teaching our chickens to sit on our heads.
I see the same process with my students. If I organize games for them during recess, they will have fun, but nothing special. If I let them be, they bum around for a while, then invent an entire society, complete with forts, guilds and double (or is it triple?) agents. The game will go on for weeks, with intrigues and subplots and presidential campaigns.
Sometimes the best thing adults can do for children is to get out of their way. Kids need time to daydream, to cloud-watch, to wander, to tinker, to putz. We all do. So when your children want you to entertain them, or sign them up for a zillionth activity, it’s OK to say no. When they say “I’m booooooored,” you can think good! and say, “You know, you only get bored when you’re being boring. But if you want to, you can always clean the fridge.”
Becca Hall is the founder and director of Frog Hollow School, a writing program for homeschoolers with classes in Seattle and on the Eastside. She lives in Seattle with her fiancé and their dog and is finishing writing a novel.