Keeping children (3-15) entertained over long summer breaks is the bane of parents. As one reminded me recently, it’s not just the challenge of keeping boredom at bay; it’s doing it in a way that isn’t a non-stop spending spree.
“I can afford to do things for my kids,” a parent mentioned recently. “But I don’t want them to equate spending money with having fun. Whether it’s paying for parking and admission to the Zoo; or going to the grocery store and stopping for an ice cream cone on the way home; they get the message that summer entertainment equals spending money. What’s the conversation or what can I do to counter this?”
This very conscientious mom is right: movies, videos, subscriptions, going to the beach (parking, lunch for the kids), Legoland, etc. are all mechanisms for engaging kids. And many of those activities are enriching and valuable. Who can argue with an afternoon at the science museum? The concern is that as kids watch you pull out your wallet repeatedly –to purchase entertainment —they quickly absorb the action as easy, normal, and automatic —the opposite of the mindful financial behavior or self-entertainment — you want them to develop.
I understand why families fill kids’ calendars with activities and outings. Each summer friends visit me in Maine. My home there is off the beaten track; deliberately low tech. Entertainment is watching for eagles and loons, waiting for the tide to come in–or out; digging for clams; reading on the back porch; making a blueberry pie, taking a nap, making sand castles at the beach. I write there; dream up all manner of projects and ideas. I host retreats for all kinds of causes, and issues. It is, for me, fertile ground for imagining the possibility, tapping my creative inner life.
But when friends’ children first arrive with their parents, I watch them suffer a period of agitation. Initially, my quiet is disquieting for them. The absence of nearby malls, movie houses, and TV screens in the house are sure to trigger moping around or whining and general displeasure with their parents. But my friends are tough and rarely intimated by their kids. As Jai Kim said to me: “When my kids whine that they’re bored, I tell them, ‘My job is to feed, clothe, and shelter you, it is not to entertain you!’” Jai has three remarkably creative kids who are accomplished self-entertainers because she and her husband Alex were encouraging it from the time their kids were toddlers.
And I watch the kids who visit me, initially so uneasy, finally relax. Forced to experience their surroundings, unable to access the internet because the signal is weak (I can only hope it stays that way), they resort to making their own sand castles, help me make ice cream, or give themselves a chance to daydream. They make the shift from purchased entertainment (cash for the movies; miniature golf; a trip to the mall, etc.) to self-entertainment. It’s not easy. It takes some time. I’m not opposed to technology or pastimes that come with an entry fee. But boredom is a catalyst for creativity and parents who commit to making the shift give their kids a gift that keeps on giving—right into the most interesting careers.
Making a family shift from the fun that comes from spending money; setting a limit on how much summer entertainment can come from digital or paid activities, will inevitably create time gaps kids will fill themselves. Hard as it is to imagine, in a vacuum, kids invent! Not immediately of course. Kids accustomed to being entertained will be at a loss for how to entertain themselves. The agitation and anxiety kids experience in the transition is hard for everyone. Here are a few strategies for helping kids nurture their own capacity for self-entertainment.
- Reboot summer. Announce that each day there will be a time in which kids will have the opportunity to entertain themselves. This may be harder for you than for them as listening to them whine or watching them ‘do nothing’ is hard work for a parent. This is not the time to watch TV or be on screens. It’s a time to entertain self. Whether kids are 4 or 15, they will understand—and eventually adapt.
- Don’t focus on money; budget time. If you aren’t heading to a place like my Maine house where it’s easy to say, “no internet, not paid entertainment,” start in a modest way. Make sure each day has a period of self-entertainment. Extend the hours until you too can say, “It’s not my job to entertain you!”
- Provide materials. Don’t tell kids what to do. Instead give them time, space, and random materials (not the latest tech toy, but empty boxes, rolls of paper, paints, newspapers, sheets, clay, slime, chalk, Legos, batteries, etc.) and leave them alone. (If kids are very young the issue is safety; they need to be supervised enough so materials are not a danger! But 6+ kids can be left alone for periods of time to do nothing until they grow bored enough to do something. Not trusting kids to live through prolonged bouts of boredom does them a disservice.)
- Offer a Challenge Bowl. Each morning each child gets to select a challenge you’ve created (or they can help create these challenges as well). Challenges should not be must do’s, but can dos. Choosing—whether to do or not to do is an exercise in choosing self-entertainment or boredom. It provides an experience in decision-making and exercising power. Challenges might include:
- Earning money by emptying a drawer; washing the dog; choosing 3 ways to make the living room a nice place to be (not chores or helping mom but making a difference for the whole family).
- Write a note to an (aunt, grandparent, friend, etc.).
- Take photos and tell a story at dinner.
- Make something using clay, sand, macaroni, flour…
- Make cookies with a weird (but delicious) ingredient
- Write a poem and submit it to a magazine or local paper.
The options are endless. Challenges should stretch kids and be fun. And take time. If they hate the challenge they chose, give them an option of reading a (real) book for the time it would take to do the challenge (make sure there is a good selection of books. Do not take responsibility for their boredom. Let boredom do its work!
- Give them a stage. Don’t take over the job of creating a show. Invite them to tell a story, write a script, read a poem, sing a song. Invite them to put on a play, make costumes. Invite friends, relatives. Family can be a terrific audience.
- Set aside an hour to do nothing (no screens).
- Trade kids. Really. Sometimes it’s easier to deal with someone else’s children than your own.
Let me know how you help kids navigate boredom. And what the results have been!