Most experienced parents know the importance of teaching kids how to entertain themselves. The concept isn’t new—those of us who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s have vivid memories of being left to our own devices throughout our childhoods. “Find something to do” wasn’t just an occasional suggestion. It was a way of life. While that sort of unregulated childhood likely wouldn’t fly now, there are certain elements of ’90s parenting worth borrowing. Believing that your kids can entertain themselves is one area where old school parents got it right.
For many parents, resisting the urge to be their child’s entertainment source is hard.
When my firstborn was still my only child, I took a strange pride in being his greatest source of entertainment. There were other primary influences in his life, of course—my husband, our parents, and the daycare our son attended part-time. We also had an endless slew of scheduled activities: soccer, gymnastics, story time, zoo classes, museum shows, playdates, weekend train rides, and basically any activity that soothed my need for structure and control.
During our daily activities, I placed myself front and center in my son’s play.
There I stood ready to guide, direct, and essentially fulfill my self-appointed role as entertainment director. Call it rebellion against my own “latchkey” childhood, or call it a rite of passage for first-time moms. In those early days of motherhood, the novelty of being a primary source of entertainment hadn’t worn off. Plus, with a flexible work schedule, genuine love of hands-on parenting, and most importantly, undivided attention to provide, I saw no problem with continuing that pace indefinitely.
Of course, that pace was not sustainable, which I quickly learned when I became pregnant with twins. The twins were born the week my firstborn turned three.
Almost overnight, being the President of Entertainment took a backseat to surviving the day.
Of course, my firstborn continued to receive love and attention from me and all the primary caregivers in his life. However, my approach to parenting changed drastically as I began to see the importance of cultivating creativity and independence in all my children. This realization only intensified as my kids got older and their need to develop life skills and independence grew.
While adding siblings to the mix helped me see the importance of teaching my kids to entertain themselves, the skill isn’t only important for children with siblings. It’s important for only children, too, and families of all sizes.
Remember: your kids can entertain themselves. Here’s how you can help:
1. Give your kids options (and make it fun!).
If you’ve never encouraged independent play before, the first time might feel a little like throwing your kid into the deep end. A gentle way of dipping your child’s toe into the self-entertainment water is to create options with your child ahead of time.
Make a list and post it somewhere prominent. Or, write activities down on pieces of paper your child can pull out of a hat. Then, when boredom strikes, let them pick an activity by choice or at random.
2. Give your kids something to work toward.
Almost every kid has a dream item or event they really want. Maybe it’s attending a mechanical dinosaur exhibit, or maybe it’s getting a fun new action figure. Create a boredom chart with a monthly agreed upon reward. Then, for every instance where your child is bored and actively initiates independent play, give them a gold star. At the end of the month, reward them for their initiative and effort.
3. Provide your kids with the tools to entertain themselves.
Another way your kids can entertain themselves: create a “boredom station” in your home where kids can go when the mood hits. It doesn’t have to be elaborate. A section of a closet, kitchen drawer, or other area of your home will suffice. There, you can store crafts, puzzles, books, and other tools your kids can utilize when boredom strikes. Labeling the activity as part of the boredom station will help preserve the novelty and differentiate it from the rest of their toys when they’re feeling uninspired.
4. Encourage your child to cultivate a new hobby or interest.
It’s easy to get bored when you fall into a routine. Adults are prone to this and children are no different. Encouraging kids to pursue an age appropriate hobby can help ensure they have an activity they are happy to pursue. Some (seasonally and age dependent) ideas: gardening outside or indoors, learning to cook or bake, reading a series, learning to code, subscribing to a magazine, taking up a backyard sport, launching a small business (mowing lawns, making jewelry, selling lemonade), and caring for neighborhood pets. The options are endless and can be tailored to kids’ individual abilities and needs.
5. Let them get creative.
As hard as it may be, leaving your child (safely) to their own devices is good for them once in a while. If they resist some of the suggested self-entertainment options, or if no activity sounds right to them, give them permission to figure it out themselves. Allowing your kids time to feel bored occasionally can be a good thing and help them foster independence and creativity.
Remembering that your kids can entertain themselves can be hard in our over-scheduled, ambition-driven society. However, giving your kids downtime to think and play is one of the most important gifts you can give to them—and yourself.
What’s your go-to strategy when boredom strikes in your house?