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"I'm bored!"

By Jeremy Freeman

Bored kid with his chin in his hands
Every parent hears this refrain. Now that cold weather is setting in, we are all spending more time together indoors and you are probably hearing it a lot more. "I'm bored."

In our household of seven, there are days when the kids play endlessly together, sparking new ideas for each other into the evolving activity that lives somewhere between a game, a theatrical play and a wrestling match. Then there are other days when a single glance from a sibling produces disdain and the "boreds." I picture the boreds as small creatures covered in bumps, popping out of my children's mouths like corn from a hot kettle.

The Band-Aid solution for boredom is new activities. "Find a new toy! Play a new game! Go outside!," parents cry, as the wind howls and we stay inside, wearing flannel pajamas and holding cups of tea. If the Band-Aid fails to work, the children may return to their screens. The boreds fall back for a time, but rear their ugly heads in vengeance when the screens are shut off. 

If you resonate with these scenarios, you’re not wrong. Research done over the past decade identified that youth boredom rose within and across grades (8-12) for much of the last decade. While boredom is not inherently bad, left unaddressed it may be associated with depression and risky behaviors, which further research confirms.

If we looked for the word bored in the imaginary parents' dictionary, we might find a hundred definitions. The word bored may be used interchangeably with hungry, tired, lonely, controlled, thoughtful, curious, sad, depressed and heartbroken. 

One way to look at it is that boredom is a gateway between states of being. Our challenge is to help youth build the bridges between states. If we intentionally tune in to youth needs, we can help them navigate their current state, which has reached its threshold and is moving into a new one. Beyond boredom, young people can find new spaces of discovery, action and innovation. They can also find rest and a place to internalize, reflect and create meaning.

Research has shown that youth who have a higher sense of autonomy and agency are less bored. Activities done out of free choice cause lower levels of boredom than those done out of compulsion. Not surprisingly, youth choice, youth engagement and socio-emotional needs are inseparable.

So what does this mean for youth practitioners? Here are a few questions to ponder:

  • In our programmatic, efficient systems, are we attentive to the inner needs of our young people?
  • Do we fear boredom and emptiness?
  • How are the places and spaces we create instilling thoughtful transitions between the gateways of boredom and being?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

-- Jeremy Freeman, Extension educator

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  1. What a fabulous blog, Jeremy, thank you! I love that idea of boredom being a gateway between states of being. Do you have an example of that you could share? I also think boredom can spark such creativity! Sometimes we need to be bored in order to find something to do we've never tried before. I notice when my kids are bored, they find all kinds of creative ways to entertain themselves. My favorite experience of this was recently, when my 14 year old came home from a jaunt with a friend completely covered in mud. They had built their own "fox hole." It made the destruction of his white school uniform shirt worth it.

    1. Jess, if we are mindful and help facilitate the process I agree that boredom can spark creativity.
      When I mentioned boredom being a gateway between states of being, I suggest that boredom is this launching point, where a person is searching but not yet enacting a new state of being - where that new state directs them is based on a number of factors. Do they have the supports or encouragement to try something new? Have they been trained or taught to internalize and reflect? Do they feel safe? All of these factors I believe can direct young people on how they respond to boredom. The example you give would be a great example of a positive response to boredom. Unfortunately I believe there are many young people who do not respond in positive ways because they do not have positive supports, confidence, or strengthened socio-emotional skills.
      I argue that our programs need to provide spaces for boredom to surface so that we can help youth in that moment understand and move, act and relate in new ways.
      Our youth programs can provide incredible resources to young people, but they also need to in small ways look and connect to their daily lived experiences so that youth can learn to thrive in any situation, not just when they are actively involved in positive programming.


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