I overheard one mom talking to another mom on the playground: “I think the books my daughter’s reading at school are too easy for her. I asked her teacher to give her harder ones, because I want her to be challenged. If she gets bored – game over.”
I understand this mom’s concerns. She wants to be sure that her child has access to reading material that interests and engages her. In response, she’s taking an active role in her daughter’s education and discussing it with her teacher. She’s doing her best for her child, and I think that’s great. But I also wonder – do kids really need to be challenged? And if they’re not, what then?
Right now we’re on day 11 of Christmas vacation. My six-year-old Hannah won’t be going back to school for another week. Now that Christmas is over and the flurry of activities and visits and gift openings is done, I can report that she is bored. She tells me as much countless times every day. Sometimes, I respond by engaging her in activities. This is a school holiday, and on one level I see it as an opportunity for us to spend time together. But other times, I have stuff to do – or I just plain need a breather. When that happens, I tell Hannah that boredom is character-building. At first, she whines in response, but usually within a few minutes she’s found something to entertain herself with.
I tend to think that a certain amount of boredom is good for kids. I think that the boredom I suffered as a child gave me skills that I use on a daily basis. Like, say, when I’m playing a game with my kids that totally bores me. I know how to buckle down and do things that aren’t that interesting or engaging to me. I know how to fill up my time when it’s not filled for me. And I know how to make my own fun. These are all things I learned during my own school vacations, when long days with nothing to do stretched before me.
I also had the experience of not being particularly challenged in school. I graduated first in my high school class of approximately 500 students, which is really just a pretentious way of saying that I was the smart kid. I usually finished my work before everyone else, and then I filled my time with quiet activities. If I was really lucky, I would get to go play on the class computer (when we had one, which wasn’t always – this was the 1980s, after all) or take something to the office. If I wasn’t so lucky, then I would look out the window or make up stories in my head. Was this time productive? I don’t know. But I do know that, once again, my boredom taught me some skills that I still use today.
There’s actually something of a debate amongst experts about the utility – or futility – of boredom. Some people say that gifted students need to be challenged more. If they’re not, the argument goes, they won’t reach their full academic potential. And to some degree, I can see their point. If a teacher has a class of 20 students, that teacher likely won’t be able to address their individual needs fully. This means that some students will be effectively held back by those who don’t catch on as quickly. Wouldn’t it be better if those smart kids had something more useful to do while they waited for everyone else to catch up?
I wonder, though, how far it’s really reasonable to go in terms of maximizing each student’s potential. I attended engineering school with some seriously smart folks. Some of them managed to graduate from high school one, two or even three years early. If a really gifted student is allowed to progress at their own pace, they may master all their high school material when they’re only 15 or 16 years old – and what then? Being an academic genius does not necessarily qualify you to navigate the world of post-secondary education, which is created for adults. I found the adjustment to be pretty huge even as an 18-year-old.
Of course, a world full of Doogie Howsers is not necessarily the outcome of challenging students appropriately. Giving gifted students access to enrichment programs can give them a little something extra, while they progress through school at the same rate as their peers. Ultimately, this is what I did. I took International Baccalaureate classes in high school. I was also a Girl Guide, I volunteered as a candy striper, I sang in a choir and I studied Tae Kwon Do. I found ways to fill my time and challenge myself, but that only came later, when I was a teenager. When I was my daughter’s age, I spent a fair bit of time being bored.
Some experts agree with my belief that boredom can be good for kids. They say that like all emotions – including anger, sadness and jealousy – boredom serves a purpose. And so when you’re faced with some unstructured time during a school vacation, you shouldn’t rush to fill it. Letting your kids figure it out for themselves helps them to develop emotionally and intellectually.
There’s one more idea that plays into the debate on challenging kids or letting them entertain themselves, and that’s the concept of flow state. Flow is that thing you experience when you’re totally present in an activity. You may not even notice that time’s passing, because you’re so engaged. In order to experience flow, you have to be appropriately challenged. This means that the task you’re working on shouldn’t be super-easy for you, but it also shouldn’t be super-hard. It should be just hard enough that you have to think about it a little. Video games are a good example of something that creates flow for most people, because as you master the game it gets progressively harder. If it’s designed well, you’ll always be in the perfect zone, and you won’t be bored or frustrated.
Good leisure (and probably good educational) activities actually are a little bit challenging, so that they create that flow state. But the question is – how do we get to those leisure activities? Do we just plop our kids down in front of video games, or send them to classes? Or, do we let them figure it out for themselves? I would argue that we probably should do a little bit of both. I think that sometimes, boredom is useful because it forces kids to try new things to entertain themselves. In the process, they may find activities that create that flow state for them. This is how Hannah found drawing. But I don’t think we should totally idealize the idea of unstructured time, either. There are benefits to exposing kids to new ideas and new experiences, too. I think the true challenge of parenting is determining just where that balance lies – at least until Christmas vacation is over.
What do you think – do you think kids need to be challenged more, or do you think that boredom is good? And how do you get that balance right? I’d love to hear your thoughts!