This Christmas, Give the Gift of Boredom
How you can give your kids the gift of happiness for the low, low cost of $0.
Posted Dec 21, 2018
A family member who will remain nameless gave my two toddlers matching police megaphones, because, I don’t know, the world ran out of books? For the better half of the longest hour of my life, these two are running around the house hollering, “Pull over!” until the older one starts to complain of boredom. I revel in this sweet, silent flash of boredom until this nameless relative leaps from her chair to show the children that the megaphones also have a screaming alarm button. Suddenly, the house is like some DIY version of “Cops” as two tiny, belligerent people run around screaming incomprehensible things at each other, while stuff crashes and sirens roar. This Christmas, don’t just lose your mind when you can lose your hearing, too.
But within minutes, even the sirens have lost their luster, and for the rest of the evening, the children move from flashy gadget to shiny gizmo faster than their brains can even catch a whiff of boredom. As we think about the spirits and hearts of our children this Christmas season, I think it’s important to think, too, about their brains.
At Christmas, we put forth tremendous effort to make our kids happy. Quite often, I hear parents lament their children's lack of ability to sustain appreciation, and even interest, in all they have worked to provide. It begs the question: What does sustainable happiness look like?
Oddly enough, the substance of happiness doesn’t look like much at all. In fact, the substance of lasting joy requires an ability to welcome stillness. So much of our children’s lives are consumed by movement: homework to do, parties to attend, games to play, sports to practice. We already know we’re living in distractible times — that’s not the news here. The under-discussed piece is that we fail to design intentional space for our children to practice the learned skill of distress tolerance. In other words, life is teeming with discomfort. From simple boredom to raging grief, there are a lot of times when life just doesn’t feel good. It should not be lost on us that we come into this world screaming in primal distress. The challenge of our lifetimes, then, is to teach our children how to reliably direct their attention in ways that lead to reasonable health across their lifetime.
In my work, I have termed this effort for stillness “attentional alignment.” I call it attentional alignment, because when our attention is out of sorts, the rest of our lives fall apart. How we pay attention determines the quality of our lives.
A significantly overlooked area in the development of greater attentional control is boredom. The most beneficial aspect of boredom is that it offers the opportunity to access parts of the brains that otherwise lay dormant. Children will think thoughts, develop ideas, and design solutions that would otherwise remain outside of attentional awareness. Perhaps most importantly, it is only in this quieter, slower space that they learn the vital life skill of emotion regulation. It is here, when the outside noise quiets, that they are able to gain greater control of their emotional lives. Often, when I start talking to parents about exercises to improve sustained attention (Read: intentionally create moments of stillness), the parent laments, “But, he’ll hate that!” Meanwhile, they are worried about their children’s anxiety levels, social functioning, or school performance.
You cannot win the championship if you do not slog through the practice.
So this Christmas, if you’re in the midst of some bad sensory tsunami from things that clang and screens that flash, perhaps consider how you can give your children the gift of stillness in the coming new year.
(For more on attention, check out "Paying Attention to Gratitude.")