What children mean when they say “I’m bored”

English: A bored person

I feel like I ought to apologize for a string of didactic posts. Just remember as you read–I’m no expert. I’m a mom thinking out loud… this is my point of view. What’s yours?

“What do I say when my children say ‘I’m bored?’”
“Help! They keep on saying they’re bored! In this house? With all this stuff?”

Is this something you hear a lot? I’ve recently unearthed an exchange on this topic that had been a life-changer for me and I was lucky enough to encounter it just as my kids were starting to talk. So it means that I hardly ever hear “I’m bored.” It doesn’t mean they don’t say it, though… Paradox? Not really. Read on.

It’s a pretty simple reframing, really. When you hear “I’m bored,” do not treat it not as a synonym for “entertain me!” or “find me something to do.” Instead, think of it as a child’s attempt to communicate to the obtuse parent in simple words the child hopes the parent will understand a very complex feeling.

The conventional advice on “I’m bored” tends to be to present the child with a list of tasks, ranging from fun (“Do you want to go swimming?”) to unpleasant (“You’re bored? Here’s a list of household chores to do. Which one are you doing first?”). People who dispense the latter form of advice swear by it, saying that if they do it for a while, they never hear “I’m bored” again. Of course they don’t. They’ve “trained” the child not to say it. But the feelings that prompt that statement probably remain, and the child is left to cope with them on her own, for better or for worse, and generally, in those tender years, for the worse.

Remember how I said I don’t hear “I’m bored,” even though they say it? That’s because when I hear “I’m bored” I run the little translator, and instead I hear:

“I’m out of sorts, I have these weird, unsettled feelings, I’m not happy, but I don’t know why, I can’t settle down to anything, Help!”

When I hear this, instead of “I’m bored,” I realize it requires a totally different response.

There are other code phrases my children―and perhaps yours―may use instead of “I’m bored.” In our house, it’s often “I don’t know what to do,” or “I’m lonely” (in a house full of people, with a backyard generally full of kids!) and the like.

My response to all of these phrases is generally some variation on detaching myself from whatever I’m working on and attaching myself to them―focusing on them fully. I might ask them to come sit with me, have a cuddle, talk nonsense for a while, and see if I can help them figure out what’s going on. Often, I don’t need to do much figuring: they just need a bit of that reconnect time to ground and move on.

I resist the urge to become a calendar coordinator and offer them ideas for things they could do. That is not what they are asking for.

Sometimes, they can’t settle no matter how much cuddling or listening I give, and they can’t sort or articulate what’s going on. That’s when I do become an activities coordinator, but an autocratic one. I don’t offer a list of choices. I unilaterally implement a change of scenery. “Let’s go for ice cream.” “Let’s go check out the garden.” Or, two birds with one stone: “Help me get supper going, and then we’ll read.” Or, “Let’s go to Banff,” if I’m feeling extra adventurous and able to do a whole day trip! And we go.

Try it the next time you hear “I’m bored.” Activate that little translator, and hear:

“I’m out of sorts, I have these weird, unsettled feelings, I’m not happy, but I don’t know why, I can’t settle down to anything, Help!”

And watch your response change.