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Let your kids be bored

It seems most parents are deathly afraid of their kids being bored. I'm surprised when my peers tell me they can't take a family road trip without playing a movie on their portable DVD player. They can't handle the complaining. I've heard of parents going grocery shopping with their toddler-aged children sitting in the cart entranced by an iPhone. I see parents bribing their children with candy during church so they'll sit quietly. I see parents scheduling every hour of their school-aged kids' free time with music, language, sports, and tutoring. I'm not sure who is more afraid of boredom - the parents or the children.

I totally get it though. My first temptation, especially when I'm tired, is to turn on the electronics - hand them the iPad or pop in the video. Appeasement always works in the short-term. If I'm more energetic, my second temptation is engage them in some creative, imaginative building activity involving styrofoam balls and toothpicks that will last forever as a cherished memory. Parent intercession is demanding but worthwhile.

The problem with appeasement is that teaches immediate gratification, shortens attention span, and dulls the imagination. That's everything that's wrong with today's connected generation and we're busy creating version 2.0. And the problem with persistent parent intercession is it creates a culture of entitlement. You can find thousands of kids' activities on the internet and they are guaranteed to exhaust you and your children. It's a tremendous amount of pressure to be the super-imaginative, super-engaged parent. It is not sustainable. I don't want my kids to reply upon me as the bane of all boredom. It doesn't cultivate their imagination either.

As a latch-key kid, it was absurd to think of my parents as responsible for curing my boredom. It was my own problem. However, they didn't define any boundaries nor did they model healthy ways for us express our imagination. When we got home from school, with either babysitters or on our own, it was like Lord of the Flies. Out of the pain of boredom came bug-killing, fire-setting, firecracker-making, petty vandalism, and lots of beating each other up. There were good things too - outdoor exploration, sports, books, and lots of LEGOs. Boys have a tremendous capacity to either build or destroy. Given these two extremes in parenting, I offer four suggestions for helping kids be bored in a healthy way. 

1) Set boundaries: Set boundaries around what your kids can and cannot do. Boundaries include location (within the house), time, and moral (must not harm anyone). The fewer the better.

One key boundary is limiting time on electronics. Judy allows our kids about an hour of TV per day and Caleb and Micah get 45 minutes every other day on the iPad. iPad time is subject to loss in the event of misbehavior. Given my childhood, I'm not exactly the boundary guy in our household. But I'm learning.

2) Initiate and model activities: There are two kinds of kids' activities: things your kids like to do and things they don't. You should do both. First of all, we do fun things with our kids. We go camping, backpacking, to the beach, to the park, swimming, etc. This summer, I taught Caleb and Micah how to play poker and Big 2. They love it.

But our kids' preferences are not the only factor in our activity schedule. During my sabbatical, we've visited other churches. They're not thrilled about waking up earlier and being handed off to a strangers who want to be their friends. Nor do they enjoy sitting with Judy and I during the service. But they need to figure out how to make the best of it.

3) Leave them alone: Its easy to get so busy that our kids don't have time to just sit around at home and play. They actually really want that especially Caleb and Micah. Caleb likes having his own time to sit around, read, and play with LEGOs. The same with Micah.

Each of our kids is different but they all enjoy imaginative play and they need time and space to pursue it. Its amazing the stuff they can come up with. I love watching Elliot and Abby play together. Their conversations are hilarious.

4) Support their ideas: Encourage your kids to think of stuff to do. And if your kids come up with a crazy idea, never dismiss it immediately. Try to find a way to make it work, no matter how whimsical. Have fun with what they think of. And then help them pursue it. Recently,without any prompting from Judy or I, Abby and Elliot have been putting on puppet shows. Our most important role is to watch and enjoy.

This is another weak area for me. I'm not good at this. I tend to take things over. On Monday, the boys and I had some time to kill. I wanted to build something so I took them into the garage. Micah wanted to make a race course for his partially-broken solar-powered robot. We started slicing up some cardboard. It wasn't working so well. I remembered we had some plywood left over from our kitchen remodel. We made a ramp instead. Caleb loved going off it with his scooter and bike. It was funny watching Elliot ride over it on his tricycle. Next time I want to run with one of their ideas. 

As you attempt to apply this, you will experience failure. The truth is, I'm deathly afraid of being bored. It is death by numbness. I told my dad that there have been moments during my sabbatical where I was bored. He responded that it was good for me. If you can't handle your kids being bored, you undoubtedly have trouble with boredom yourself.

And our inability to handle our own boredom is revealed in how we handle our kids' free time. How we raise our children is a mirror into our soul where our deepest issues are revealed. My restless discontent is rooted in pride. It shows me how desperate I am for the gospel. I don't know how to rest in the unconditional love of Jesus. We need not only to be saved but to be transformed. 


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