Downtime, Boredom and Creativity
Are we creating a population of stimulation junkies? Yes, I think we are. A stimulation junkie is someone who needs to be entertained or stimulated all the time, and when left to entertain herself, becomes uncomfortable. She has withdrawals.
I bring this up because I see more and more parents falling into the trap of raising kids that are stimulation junkies. It happens rather innocently in the beginning. You want your kids to be happy, yes? And you need them to be entertained so you can get things done. Normal. It begins to turn into a problem over time when your kids demand that they have something new and exciting to do all of the time. They want to go somewhere, get a new toy, go to a planned activity like bowling or skating, play a video game, watch a TV show, or if all else fails, sit for hours in front of a computer or cell phone and surf social media or chat sites.
Very often, these kids have most of their waking time scheduled with some activity, and often activities that require either a lot of time or money. One parent I see recited her schedule for one week with her son and it included an activity every night after they got home from school and work, and the weekend was booked up with birthday parties, trips to special events or outings, and the inevitable stop in at Target or Walmart to buy something. This child was very uncomfortable just being at home, and he had great difficulty finding something to do on his own. There was little in the way of imaginary play, and certainly no downtime.
I used the word "junkie" to describe this situation because there is an addictive element involved. Kids get used to being immersed in activity every minute. They feel shortchanged or unhappy if there isn't something stimulating that is provided for them, and that keeps them in a quasi state of excitement or emotional absorption.
Unfortunately, there is a real cost to this trend. Here’s some of the more common ones.
Loss of imagination and creativity
Kids who are being fed a constant stream of activity that comes from external sources spend little time in imaginary play. Imaginary play is a necessary activity for children, especially during the elementary years. It helps them diffuse and safely discharge strong emotions, solve problems, stimulate brain development, and increase creativity. Imaginary play is the foundation for adult problem solving later in life. It's the precursor to thinking outside the box to come up with solutions to real life problems.
If you think about it, all of humanity’s greatest achievements started in someone’s imagination.
Think of the difference between sitting in front of a TV or reading a book. With TV, you are the receiver of something and you don’t have to participate in any way other than turn your attention toward the screen, although you can deviate from that whenever you like. It’s a passive consumption of stimuli that requires nothing of you. You may interact emotionally on some level, but you do not have to use your imagination or creative thinking to visualize what’s going on. Everything is done for you.
Reading a book is an interactive process. You not only focus your attention on the words you are reading, you create pictures in your mind to add imagery to what is being said, or new thoughts are initiated as you interact mentally with the material you are taking in. It is an expansive activity that sharpens your mentality and imagination, and aids in the development of both your emotional and intellectual personality components.
Kids who are used to having their life filled with outside stimulation become dependent on it. More importantly, they become dependent on others to provide it for them. They habitually seek happiness from outside sources. In short, they do not develop their inner worlds.
Inner versus Outer Stimulation
Human beings have both an inner and outer world meaning that stimulation comes from within us in the form of our thoughts and feelings, and from outside of us in the form of our interactions with others, the environment, and the world at large. There is an ongoing conversation between the two. If the balance between them becomes skewed, problems arise. In the extreme, schizophrenia occurs when we can’t make a distinction between what comes from within and what comes from outside.
The norm for most of us is that our attention is absorbed in one or the other, often with a back and forth between the two. Rarely do we focus on the inner and outer at the same time as these use different parts of the brain. If there is a constant barrage of external stimulation, we tend to remain in our outside world to the exclusion of our inner world, and begin to prefer this, which leads to some very signifcant psychological problems.
Children who don’t have regular opportunity to live and develop their inner worlds can find themselves becoming quite anxious or depressed if there is not a lot of outside stimulation to keep them occupied. They feel empty when bored or forced into a downtime situation. They begin to frantically search for outside stimulation to fill the void, and if it is not readily available, they can become irritable, anxious, aggressive, or regressive. I’m sure you know adults like this, and you may in fact be one of them. It’s a growing problem in our heavily activity oriented society.
By allowing kids to be bored and providing regular opportunities for downtime, they have to come up with creative ways to occupy themselves. Their imaginations begin to flourish and they develop a rich internal life that serves later as an anchor when faced with stressful situations. They tap into their creativity to help solve real life problems. They have the experience of feeling content and happy in their own company. This last one is extremely important in adulthood as there are many times when people are alone.
Knowing how to feel content and happy in your own company is a skill every person should develop.
Moodiness and Tiredness
Kids who are used to a lot of stimulation and get uncomfortable without it, also tend to get worn out and overwhelmed easily. They become overstimulated which manifests as tiredness, grumpiness or irritability, moodiness, and in some cases, difficulty sleeping. The last one is especially true if a lot of time is spent in front of screens. Behaviorally, they can become uncooperative, obstinate, easily bored with mundane tasks such as homework, and argumentative or whiny.
It’s great to give your kids opportunities to participate in enriching extracurricular activities. Sports, dance, music, arts and crafts, clubs, martial arts, or any kind of activity that expands a child’s horizons is wonderful. That said, it is equally important to provide downtime and the opportunity to experience and deal with boredom. When you’re bored, your mind automatically search’s for some way to alleviate the feeling. Almost always this initiates creativity and imagination. When you turn off the outside noise, the ideas hiding in the quiet can arise and take shape. As long as the noise is loud and fills the air, the ideas stay in hiding.
How much should you help?
When your kids come to you and complain they are bored, you can help them come up with a couple of ideas to entertain themselves if you like, but it is best to let them feel the discomfort of boredom. If they don’t have that experience, they won’t get to delve into their own imaginations and creativity. Let them figure it out. Point out some things they could do, but leave it to them to actually decide on what to do and do it. In other words, you can give a little jumpstart, but don’t rescue.
Imaginary Play Ideas
Prior to the proliferation of screens, kids played outside without toys or gadgets and came up with all kinds of stuff to do. They might make a tent out of blankets and take books and food inside, or play house. Turn a bicycle upside down and use the big wheel as the steering wheel of a ship; or on a hot day, just play in the hose. Our neighborhood would spend hours playing Mother May I or Red Light, Green Light. We made chains out of clovers in the yard. Inside, we played school, store, or just made up fantasy stories with dolls or action figures.
Imaginary Play and Adult Skills
When kids have to entertain themselves, almost always they can, and the experiences they have are some of the most memorable and nostalgic. More importantly, without developing the capacity to self entertain through the use of imagination and creativity, you set your kids up to be very discontent and dependent as adults. They will have great difficulty dealing with stress, boredom, emotional challenges, and disappointment. This will play out in their relationships, jobs, and even their self-care. Knowing you can use your imagination to solve a problem or create your own entertainment inspires confidence, self-esteem, and faith in yourself.
If you think of it in adult terms, an entrepreneur makes something out of nothing, and so does the kid that has to alleviate his boredom. It’s an invaluable skill.
A Word about Screens
Screens are here to stay, so we need to learn how to make them work for us rather than become chained to them. Kids today know their way around computers before they hit school. It’s a fact of life. So make sure that the time your kids are on computers, phones, tablets, TV or any type of screen, is worthwhile. Using a computer for school is a must, and using phones for communication is necessary, but spending hour upon hour texting or on social media or playing video games that are negative or violent do not help your child develop a healthy internal life. These activities taken to the extreme create internal psychological fragmentation, emptiness, addiction, and shallowness.
Keep track of the time you allow your kids to be on screens. Help them learn to make use of them properly, and be sure above all that you are giving them enough time away from screens to develop that internal life we’ve been talking about that is a necessary component for happiness and contentment in adult life. Screens are addictive and can waste a lot of time. Take charge of them.
Social media is fine and has its uses, but it also has given kids who aren’t fully emotionally developed a way to create personas that aren’t real or authentic. When you’re still in the process of developing your identity, this is problematic. It’s necessary to practice social relationships in person where you can’t hide from who you are. Face-to-face interactions are much more likely to produce authenticity and real communication, flaws and all, as well as teach true social skills.
A Good JumpStart Idea
Create a “rainy day” box and let your kids come up with as many ideas as they can for things they could do when they’re bored. This can be a list or small pieces of paper with one activity listed on each one and thrown in the box. When they hit an “I’m bored” spot, they can rummage through their box to help them get started. This activity itself is a good way to initiate creative thinking, which is of course the whole point.