How Parents Can Help

Here are just a few ideas to help you get started:

  1. Make sure that “I’m bored” doesn’t mean “Please be with me.” Kids do need a strong dose of parental attention every day. Spend some time actively listening and sharing. Once a good deposit has been made in the “attention bank,” most kids get on with their own activities quite happily.
  2. Take the time to transition. If it’s a new idea to your kids that you’re not the family activity director, give them notice that you’re stepping down. Brainstorm with them what they can do when there’s nothing on the schedule or they find themselves with time on their hands. (Be sure to include doing nothing and taking naps as legitimate.) Reduce your time as director in steps so they don’t feel abandoned or scared.
  3. Model the creative use of downtime. Let the kids see you read a book, pursue a hobby, or putter around. You may find that “withdrawal” from screens is as difficult for you as it is for the kids but it’s worth doing. You’re likely to find that you still enjoy other leisure activities or that reading a good novel really is better than a reality TV show.
  4. Plan for unscheduled, unstructured, unhurried time each day. If the kids are in after-school care, perhaps the time between getting home and having dinner can be “alone time.” Make sure that weekends include time for unstructured play.
  5. Cut down on the amount of time on screens each day. That includes TV, movies, computer games, and video game systems. If screen time has crept up in your house, it may take some time to wean the kids but you can do it. Give them some power over it by setting a maximum time per day or per week and then let them decide how to use it.
  6. Provide materials but not direction. Instead of buying another video game or going out to the movies, make a visit to the crafts store for art supplies. A weekly family trip to the library ensures that everyone always has something new to read. Unearth any building toys (like Legos and blocks) from the bottom of the toy box. Make a “dress up box.” And don’t overlook the potential of packaging. See if the local appliance store will give you one of the boxes from a washer or dryer. It will fast become a house, a castle, or a fortress. Resist the urge to remind the kids about what’s on hand. If it’s there, they will find it.
  7. Resist the temptation to rescue the kids when they say they’re bored or when they seem to be at loose ends. Instead, let them know you have complete confidence in their ability to figure out how to spend their time.
  8. Make friends with the weather. Kids are not like the witch in the Wizard of Oz. They won’t melt if they get wet. Being out in a summer rain or a winter snow brings out the creativity in kids.
  9. Make friends with dirt. Kids who play outside get dirty. Designate some clothes as playclothes and let the kids be as rough and tumble as they want. They’ll come in muddy but tired and happy.
  10. Ban the “B” word from the family vocabulary. Tell the kids that only the most boring people in the world are those who are unable to figure out something to do. Let them know you are sure they can either use the time to think and dream or to do something interesting.

As much as we might wish it, we can’t recreate the illusion of safety and the availability of stay-at-home parents of the 1950s and ’60s. The truth is, those times weren’t perfect either. But we can give our kids the gifts of regular unstructured time and our confidence they will know how to use it. Once they believe we won’t provide their entertainment every minute, their creativity will take off.