It may be the most dreaded phrase of the summer. Spoken with a sing-song-y whine, the insistent, “Mom, I’m boooorrrred!” intrudes on my ears surprisingly early into summer vacation. Just days after final tests are taken, kids who couldn’t wait for a break from school seem utterly unable to amuse themselves in the face of long, unstructured days. Implicit in their complaint is an assumption that the problem is Mom’s to fix.
It’s tempting to rush to fill the void with extra screentime or a whirl of organized, expensive activities. But that’s precisely what you must not do. 19th century educator Charlotte Mason said, “When our children complain, ‘There is nothing to do!’ they really mean, ‘Please amuse me.’”
In her insightful book, Be the Parent, Please, Naomi Schaeffer Riley says,
Plenty of conscientious parents give kids screens long before their pediatricians think it’s a good idea. They do it because the messages of our culture about parenting—from doctors and teachers to product advertisements and parenting handbooks—tell us that our kids need to be occupied, engaged, and satisfied at all times. [Emphasis added.]
Our current culture provides endless, mindless options for occupying, engaging, and satisfying children. From video games and TVs to iPads and smartphones, the range of amusements is staggering. The ease of the “plug-and-play babysitter” is often as good for Mom as it is for child: he’s satisfied, whining ends, and she can get back to what she was doing.
But at what cost peace and quite? A wise older friend once told me that when kids get to the “I’m bored” phase, that’s when the real fun can begin.
In her Charlotte Mason Companion, Karen Andreola writes,
Amusing oneself with idle pastimes all day is not really doing anything. A little amusement is fine, but boredom will be transformed into real interest when your children are given meaningful tasks of recreation or of service. They like to see and measure results of their activities. A frequent request at our house is “Mom, look what I made.”
You can help your kids shift from complaining to being glad for an opportunity with “nothing” to do. A small amount of planning can go a long way to teaching them how to figure out ways to make use of the hours of potential boredom in ways that will stretch their minds, engage their imagination, build relationships, and expand their souls.
Make a list
Sit down together at the start of vacation to write down fun things to do this summer. It can range from craft ideas, books to read, and people to host, to projects to tackle, sports to learn, and games to play. Each list will be as unique as the child compiling it. You might offer them some art supplies for making their lists — thereby giving them a head start on their creativity.
Meet a need
The slower pace of summer vacation makes it well-suited to looking around for unmet needs among your neighbors. Are the weeds across the street taking over a widow’s yard? Are younger kids a few doors down looking for something to do? Have you been too busy to actually meet your neighbors? These and other opportunities are just waiting to be noticed and acted upon. Older kids can host a Backyard Bible Club, middle grade kids can pull weeds and mow lawns, and children of all ages can look for ways to serve, and thereby shine the light of Christ to their neighbors (Luke 10:29-37).
Teach them God’s Word
We must strain against complaining. Philippians 2:14 tells us, “Do everything without grumbling or disputing.” It’s essential that we not only teach our children this expectation from God’s Word, but also that we help them develop the habits of mind and heart to help them obey. When your kids are tempted to complain, or for that matter, when you are, stop and pray together. Ask God to remind you of all He’s done for you in Christ and to fill you with gratitude. Give thanks to Him together. Then encourage one another to be good stewards of the day stretching before you. Each day is a gift. May we use our days well, creatively, to the glory of God.
Keep it simple
A few dollar-store squirt guns and water balloons, some sidewalk chalk, a box of old dress up clothes, worn sheets and blankets—such is the stuff of imagination. When our kids were younger, I started holding onto used egg cartons, oatmeal cylinders, cereal boxes, and paper towel tubes for impromptu crafts. In one especially imaginative burst, our eldest once turned a Quaker oats container into a rocket booster with little more than some red and orange construction paper, foil, scissors, a belt, and a roll of tape.
Give an assignment
We’ve been at this in our home for many summers. Still, occasionally our kids forget that it’s up to them to invent activities to fill their free time. They’ll occasionally wander into the kitchen where I’m cleaning or cooking or reading, and with a great sigh, say, “I’m bored.”
“Great!” I’ll say cheerfully, “I was just noticing how much this floor needs to be washed!” Too late they’ll realize their error. No matter how much they try to wiggle out of their predicament—“Oh, never mind. I’m not bored. I just thought of something to do!”—I follow through. “That’s good. You can get back to it as soon as you finish in here. The mop’s in the closet.”
I gain a few minutes of help and they gain a life lesson that no matter the circumstances, complaining is out of order. The more we practice this, the more they begin to see that boredom is a gift; a reminder that it’s time to put the mind to use, and an opportunity to make or do or see something creative. That’s anything but boring.