Busting boredom

My oldest, Lego, has always been very social, and he’s always preferred for someone else to entertain him. I remember getting frustrated that he’d fuss, even as a little baby, if no one was looking at him or doing anything interesting for him to watch. Now that he’s six, it’s not much different. If he’s not completely engaged in an activity at every moment of the day, he complains about being bored. Often, we’d come home from the park or some other really exciting activity, and the moment he walked in the door, he’d say, “Mama, I’m bored.”

My response is always the same. First I tell him it’s not my problem and he needs to figure out something to do himself. Inevitably he tells me he can’t. So then I tell him I have a long list of chores to do if he wants to ask me for ideas. I will suggest a few to give him an idea. But even that doesn’t work for long. During the summer, I was fighting him over boredom five or six times a day.

And I saw right through him. Each complaint of boredom was a thinly veiled request for more screen time. See, Mama? I’m SO VERY BORED that I NEEEED to play another computer game! Maybe if he was pathetic or annoying enough, he thought, I’d cave.

I didn’t. But it didn’t make any difference.

One day a couple of weeks back, I’d had enough. I lost it with him. I was tired of being the screen-time police and the entertainer. I had enough on my plate to deal with those things too. We had a very embarrassing incident where I went visiting teaching and the boys were absolutely out of control. When I told them afterward how disappointed I was, they said, “But we were BORED.” Keep in mind that the appointment had been half an hour and I’d let them each bring a toy.

I snapped. I yelled. I cried. And then I came to myself and prayed and thought a lot about how to really solve the problem. A little parable came into my mind, and I shared it with Lego:

Me: “Once upon a time, there was a little candle who was afraid of the dark. He was so scared of the dark that he never, ever wanted to be somewhere without lights on. So he turned on lights all the time, in whatever room he was in. He even slept with a night light on at night.”

Lego: “Why didn’t he just light his own head?”

Me: “That’s a good question. He didn’t know how. His mom tried to teach him, but he didn’t really need to, since he could just turn on the lights, and that was easier. But then one day, the power went out. The house was really, really dark. His mom quickly lit her own flame, but she had work to do in other rooms of the house, and the little candle couldn’t always be with her. Suddenly he found himself in a room in the dark, all alone. He didn’t know what to do. He felt really scared. He cried. And then he remembered that his mom had told him that HE could light his flame too. He tried and tried, and finally, his flame burst to life! He was so happy that he could go anywhere he wanted now and not worry about turning on lights. He never felt afraid of the dark again.”

Lego: “I think I know what the fire is. It’s thinking of something to do.”

Me: “You’re right. And turning on the lights is like playing computer games, watching movies, and needing Mommy to entertain you. It’s fun while you’re doing it, but it doesn’t make you any better at lighting your own fire when you can’t do it anymore.”

He seemed to listen and understand, even though he didn’t seem to know how to “light his fire.”

After lunch we drove into one of the nearby canyons to find a secluded spot. I had each of us bring a towel and set it down in our own thoughtful place. Lego chose his first, and then Duplo, and then me. None of us could see each other, but we were all nearby enough to have a conversation if we needed to. The object of the game was to sit quietly and notice or think about things. After one minute, we’d meet back together and talk about what we’d seen or thought about. I told them that sitting quietly would help them to learn to light their flame.

Lego started freaking out almost immediately because he couldn’t see me. Duplo started freaking out soon afterward because there were apparently bugs all around where he was sitting. I made them stay for one minute, and then we met up together to discuss what we’d seen and thought about. The first time, they had nothing to contribute except their relief that it was over. I pointed out a nearby rock that appeared to have a fossilized plant in it. I showed them the water-skimmer bugs on the placid stream nearby. I showed them a dragonfly and some Mormon tea plants. They were amazed that I’d seen so many interesting things in such a short time and wanted to try again.

The second time went better, except that they both noticed that there was a playground nearby and wanted a go at it. I worried, honestly, that the message had been missed, but I took them home that afternoon hoping something would be different.

And you know what? It has been WORLDS different. Once in a while, Lego will tell me that he has been sitting quietly and trying to light his flame, but he just can’t think of anything to do. I don’t mind giving him ideas in this case because he’s tried. Most of the time, though, he just finds things to do. The boys have been playing more creatively. They’ve also been making more messes and fighting more, but that’s just what happens when they are playing instead of waiting to be entertained.

One Comment

    Your kids are really smart (which seems natural because their parents are really smart). My kids would have just said, “but mom, how can a candle turn on the lights or light itself? Candles don’t have hands. And if he lit himself, that would hurt.” Maybe we’re just not literary enough.

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