Let Them Be Bored
It’s been only a few days since the last final exams were turned in, summer has not yet officially begun, and yet teens in my practice are already talking about clashes with their parents around not being busy and productive enough. John, for example, puts enormous pressure on himself to get good grades in his academically rigorous independent high school despite having significant dyslexia. He became tearful as he told me that his mother has been yelling at him for “doing nothing” and waking him up at 9 AM “so he won’t sleep the day away.” Natalie, who left her freshman year of college a month early to get treated for a debilitating medical condition, got upset while relating that her mother has been “hovering over” her and asking “what I’m going to do with myself so I don’t get bored.”
Although teens experience these parental behaviors as critical, I believe that they’re really about anxiety. Like most mothers and fathers, you may have many understandable reasons to worry if your sons and daughters look as if they’re going to be sitting around all summer. You might be afraid they’re going to get bored, lonely, unhappy, or depressed unless they have planned activities. You might fear that idleness could lead to them getting into mischief or real trouble. These days, empty calendar weeks can make you lament lost opportunities for activities that could build their skills and resumes. And let’s be honest, seeing your own kids lounging around watching TV or glued to their devices when you hear about all the fabulous internships, community service projects, college programs and jobs other teens are doing can evoke all sorts of uncomfortable feelings that can make you question your parenting as well as your teen.
And yet, in my experience, there is much to be said for boredom. Here are some considerations in favor of not preempting that experience this summer by signing up your teens for a myriad of experiences that fill their schedules.
1. Give Them a Much-Needed Break
Teens today are busier than ever. Between classes, never-ending homework assignments, projects, exams, clubs, sports practices and games, tutoring sessions, after school jobs, volunteer commitments, and standardized test prep, many kids’ days start at dawn and end at midnight. Add to that the pressure of feeling as if every activity is a performance that determines their futures—not to mention the approval or disappointment of their parents—and you can imagine the state of constant frenzy that is modern teenage life. As one girl explained, “I can only see you in August when I get back from my program because once school starts in September I won’t have time to talk until I graduate.”
Many teens are so exhausted, mentally and physically, that all they want to do is sleep and “veg.” Believing in the mantra “Work hard, play hard,” I would argue that this is exactly what they need: days to get up whenever they awaken, without setting an alarm, without rushing, without having unfinished tasks hanging over their heads. Much-needed relaxation prevents the cognitive impairment, burnout, and depression that result from sleep deprivation. Getting rest at night and taking delicious summer naps can spark teens’ motivation and boost their energy.
2. Encourage Reflection
In my experience, too many teens are so swept up by their desires to achieve—to get stellar grades, shine in their extracurricular activities, join the most desirable friendship groups, look good, impress their parents and teachers, and get accepted to prestigious colleges—that they are not examining their reasons for doing so. As I was testing a rising high school junior the other day, Samantha burst into tears as she said she desperately hoped to be allowed to take AP English this fall. When I asked why she wanted to take this class so badly, she replied, “That’s what people do in my school.”
Samantha’s goal is not based on her personal interests or needs; in fact, she hasn’t even considered them. She wants to be in an AP class only because she wants to be seen as one of the smart kids. But because of her dyslexia, she finds reading difficult and slow going. If she were to take on the challenge of such a rigorous course, she would have to decide if she could keep up with the faster pace of assignments, how the extra work might affect her other classes, whether she can realistically get the As she strives for in the non-AP English class and, if not, how she would feel about lower grades. Samantha is intent upon doing something that may be not at all in her best interest and in fact totally inappropriate for her.
It is not unusual for teens to go through the motions in adhering to plans that have been set out for them. If they’re fortunate, they’ve been able to follow their own path; too many, however, feel as if they have been railroaded by others’ expectations, either explicit or tacit. And even if they have decided, say, to play Varsity soccer or take AP Bio or get recruited for lacrosse, if circumstances or their own wishes change it is nearly impossible for them to make mid-course corrections.
As a result, many teens are arriving at college with little awareness of why and how they got there. Ironically, and more worrisome, the frantic compulsion to prove their worth has prevented them from getting to know who they really are. Time for self-reflection can be the antidote, giving teens the means to becoming more self-aware, authentic, and confident.
3. Facilitate Executive Function Skills
One of the reasons many students are not making it in college is they can’t manage their lives when they’re living away from home. Trouble self-regulating sleeping, eating, and study habits or poor management of socializing and partying lead to problems such as academic probation, suspension, and legal issues. Professionals believe this is becoming more prevalent because teens these days have precious little practice in developing these crucial skills.
It’s become the norm, for example, for teens to expect their parents to wake them up for school (often repeatedly, sometimes by dragging covers off them), monitor their assignments online, remind them of due dates, ask if they’ve studied for tests, and track their extracurricular commitments and appointments. When there are conflicts with teachers or coaches, parents often call or email to intervene on their kids’ behalf. So great is the fear of mistakes and their “consequences” (such as lower grades or late assignments or missed athletic practices) that teens are not given the chance to figure out how to avoid such incidents in the future.
When you allow them to become bored, however, teens get to sit with their feelings and decide for themselves what to do about them. They may be impelled to make and implement plans. Or if that strategy fails, to flexibly think of alternatives. Teens who are given the space to get bored have the chance to monitor and satisfy their needs without relying on others—or by learning to ask for whatever help they realize they need. Left to their own devices, they figure out how to manage their time. Eventually, they develop problem-solving skills that serve them well once they get to college and beyond.
I’m not suggesting it’s easy to allow kids to become bored. As parents, we’ve all jumped on the bandwagon of using teens’ “productivity” as markers of their success—and our own. It’s also admittedly hard to see half-asleep sons and daughters emerge from their darkened bedrooms well past noon. “Wasting away their days” is the thought that comes to many adult minds. (Giving them the chance to be bored doesn’t mean giving them a reprieve from chores, either, which any responsible family member should do while living at home.)
The hardest thing for parents, by far, may be dealing with our own anxiety so we can resist criticizing teens for doing “nothing,” making suggestions about what they could do, and jumping in to “protect” them from possible discomfort. But I believe it’s worth the effort. Leaving teens with their real thoughts and feelings, which teaches them how to channel them constructively, is one of the best ways to raise capable, confident, and successful young adults.