Why Is My Young Athlete Always Bored?

bored child

Question: At home my son Noah used to be able to find stuff to do to keep himself occupied, but since he’s been playing a lot of sports he gets bored so easily. Is there any connection? He keeps bugging me all the time and is only interested in things that are really loud and exciting.

Discussion: You’ve noticed something really interesting. Before your son was introduced into a superstructured sports environment he worked things out for himself, and he can do that again. He’s probably become used to depending on outside direction rather than self-created and self-directed activities.

Solution: When Noah is bored, your impulse might be to suggest a lot of activities for him to do, but before you flood your child’s mind with options (which he’s likely to reject anyway), let him know that it’s okay that there’s nothing to do. Parents find it hard to back off and let their children grapple with boredom by themselves. We want to step in to arrange or entertain, to fill that void in some way. We often see our children’s boredom as a personal parental failure, that we aren’t providing our children with the right developmental experiences or stimulation.

The world we live in today is becoming increasingly unstructured. As we mentioned earlier, jobs are not a long-term proposition anymore. Times are much more fluid. Children have to be prepared to adapt to radically changing circumstances as they become young adults and enter a frenetic job market. So while parents believe that by giving their kids so many opportunities—through multiple activities—to develop many skill sets, they are helping them sharpen their competitive edge, they are actually often dulling their children’s creative sensibilities. We’ve found that when left to their own devices, kids develop and strengthen the creativity and adaptability muscles that will prove crucial in later years as they navigate the strenuous adult world of job market uncertainty with confidence and
entrepreneurial flair.

When our children are bored, we have not failed them. Boredom is a gift. It’s an opportunity. It can be a precursor to creativity. Therefore, when your child makes the accusatory declaration, “Mom, I’m bored!” tell him, “That’s okay. You’ll think of something to do.” Say it in a dull, drowsy voice, so he realizes he’s not going to get much mileage out of pressing you to figure out his next move for him. You should be on your guard. He may attempt to trigger your annoyance. What better way to assuage his doldrums than by nagging until he gets a rise out of you? Essentially, you have to become the most boring thing in the room. You have to out bore the boredom.

As lacrosse coach Jenny Levy—mom to three boys—reveals, “Kids who have some activity crammed in for every day of the week where they follow an adult’s instructions or game plan are being limited. They are not learning to self-start. When my kids say, ‘Mom, I’m bored,’ I say, ‘Oh, great. Why don’t you guys go stare at each other until you figure out something to do?’ And inevitably some sort of game or project will break out. They just need some down time to work it out.” Of course, getting kids to think for themselves requires some parental fortitude. “When boredom breaks out in my house, the kids ask, ‘Can I go turn on the TV? Or play a video game?’” says Levy. But she holds her ground. She makes it clear that those two escape hatches are not an option. “I think the need to be entertained all the time is a product of this generation. You’re on your iPhone, or iPod, or plopped in front of the TV. That’s way too much stimulation.”

Think of it this way. Being bored is actually being in a quiet place where you can think and observe. It may not feel like a comfortable place to be for a lot of kids, but once they get used to it, they will handle it better. It will become an exhaling moment, a transitional phase, in which they can to learn to generate their own ideas. “It’s on them to create their own games,” says Levy. “Not me, or my husband, or the babysitter.”

Again, it’s okay that your kid is bored. You don’t have to put her in yet another sports club or dance class just to keep her busy and distracted. Downtime can benefit her immensely.

Corporate America has certainly caught on. Progressive companies like Google, Deutsche Telekom, and French IT services behemoth Atos have gone as far as to adopt measures to ensure that their employees unplug from technology. They have made downtime mandatory. They do it because being disconnected from a 24/7 news-work-technology cycle promotes relaxation and freethinking. Less-harried employees—who can reboot mentally by doing less—can then contribute with renewed zest and creativity when they reengage at work. As Jennifer Sabatini Fraone, assistant director of the Boston College Center for Work & Family, explains, “If people are drained and getting burned out, they are not bringing their best selves to work every day. It has a big effect on their creativity, their energy, their productivity, and their ability to innovate.” The same applies to your child. If he’s exhausted all the time because his every waking hour is planned out so that he won’t feel “listless” and is always “maximizing his time,” collecting skills, and “keeping up” with his peers, he will miss out on a very important developmental state: boredom. ♦

From Kim John Payne, Luis Fernando Llosa, & Scott Lancaster. Beyond Winnning: Smart Parenting in a Toxic Sports Environment (Lyons Press, Connecticut, 2013)