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Tips for Beating the Homeschooling Boredom Blues by Examing the Nature of Boredom

Beverley Paine, 2007

"I'm bored."

This statement exasperates parent. They remember their frustration at feeling bored as children and inability to find something - anything - to relieve the apathetic state in which they wallow. As parents nothing they suggest to their children captivates the imagination or generates enthusiasm. Everyone ends up frustrated and short tempered.

Daniel Macintyre in his Key Words blog The Blessings of Boredom believes that boredom is a necessary step in learning new things and lists the steps how this tends to happen. When I examined my own bouts of boredom I found the same process at work.

Children naturally go through growth transitions. We all do. Did you know that we aren't fully 'adult' until around 21 years of age? That's when our brains are fully formed, but throughout the rest of our lives our bodies change and this means mental and emotional growth occurs - we can't avoid it!

I've always found growth transitions are accompanied by periods of confusion. Mild confusion can look a lot like boredom and is accompanied by much frustration. It's often simply an 'in-between' stage where I've finished, or nearly finished, one project or activity or phase of life, and am not quite ready for the next. I usually don't have a clue what the next passionate interest will be, or all-consuming activity. It's a matter of impatiently sitting around waiting for something to happen but not knowing what it will be, or sometimes, especially before I became aware of the process, not even knowing I was in a transition stage at all.

I recognised this first in myself, and then realised it's what my children seemed to suffer from fairly regularly. Life was chaotic and unpleasant when two or three family members were in a transition phase like this at the same time!

You know how it's almost impossible to overcome boredom by offering, or being offered, activities to do? We can bribe our children or ourselves with enticing activities or treats, but ultimately this process fails, as once the treat is over, we're bored again. I'm with Alfie Kohn in his beliefs about the futility of reward and punishment as effective motivators for behavioural change. The effect is usually short term: remove the external motivator and the problem still remains.

So, my number one treatment for boredom, is to sit it out. We all seem to move through this phase faster if we simply accept it, instead of fighting it.

I had a young friend who was bored every time she visited our house. This went on for years, from age 5 to 10 . As far as she was concerned, although she never said it, she didn't like coming as nothing here interested her. It would have been better if I owned a horse or two... Sometimes we say we're bored when there is actually something else happening - we don't want to do what we have to do or are made to do. Once this misuse of the word 'bored' was recognised and discussed we felt empowered to change either our attitude to what we had to do or the the activity itself. Now most of the boredom we experience is due to transitions and not because we're doing something we don't want to.

It's hard to do things we don't want to do when we have to, and that becomes an issue of how to motivate ourselves, which requires the development of self-discipline. All of these take time. It's unreasonable to expect a child under ten years of age to show much ability in these areas! My advice is to keep a positive eye on the goal and acknowledge that it's a journey, a very long journey! Most of us haven't mastered these skills as adults yet insist that our children be competent. :-)

A second, and most important, look at boredom. And why I asked that second question...

School children have been trained to be bored. They've been directed for most of their waking hours. They haven't been given the opportunity to know what to do with their time when left to their own devices. The only cure for this is to simply sit it out, wait for them to get bored of being bored. Don't rescue them. They want and crave and are addicted to being rescued - that is, having someone direct them.

Modern education is contaminated with the idea that learning has to be fun: thus education becomes entertainment. Our children are addicted to entertainment. We mostly blame television and video/computer games, but if our children have spent any time in child-care, preschool or school they've been indoctrinated in the cult of entertainment. When we're addicted to harmful substances (alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, fast foods, etc) we're advised to abstain. It's hard to avoid entertainment, but it's probably worth trying to reduce availability and incidents of passive entertainment. I wouldn't tell my kids not to use the computer or television, etc though - that's like telling me not to eat the mudcake on the kitchen bench. Forget it, I'm going to cut a slice, and then another, and another. I'm hooked. I need a supportive environment to overcome this addiction. Remove the cake. Remove the computer/television. Ouch!

Okay, we've handled that hurdle, but the kids are still bored. So am I! We can sit and do nothing, and that's an excellent idea, as it will fast track the whole process. Any distraction at this stage (at any stage) will only postpone the healing process. We crave distraction in our lives. From birth we've been trained to accept distraction as a temporary solution to whatever problem we face. If we're unlucky, we're ployed with one distraction after another until we learn that problems are to be avoided and ignored until they no longer seem to effect us. I've often wondered if a lot of chronic illnesses are actually created as a result. We're given food to distract us, giving rise to the risk of obesity in adult life. We're given toys to distract us, giving rise to credit problems in adult life. We're given activities to do, giving rise to the workaholic...

What we really needed back then, and what we need when we're bored, is for the need that gave rise to our distress to be identified and addressed.

Reflective observation is the method I used, plus asking my children what they needed, rather than what they wanted, to feel okay. I'd watch my children a lot and talk about what they did and why with whoever was handy. They didn't need to listen - I always listen to what I say. Talking (and writing) is my way of reflecting on my thoughts. Occasional feedback was great as it always offered a different perspective. An objective and critical perspective was especially valuable, but was always challenging and I didn't always value the opinions when they were given!

Most of the time our children's needs aren't as apparent as their wants. Like us, children get confused between needs and wants. Once we help our children learn the difference they rarely become 'bored'.

We don't need to remove the distractions - including entertainment - from their lives to help them overcome this uncomfortable (for everyone) boredom. It helps to let them know that being bored is their problem, not everyone elses, and that they aren't to bug others.

At times, when I'm feeling low or bored, I'll over-indulge. I do the same with mudcake. And the result is the same. I get sick. And bored of mudcake, or bored of being bored. The result? I eat nutritious and healing food. I do something that makes me feel better about myself - I find something I'm interested in doing. If someone gives me healthy food or an activity to do it doesn't fix the problem, it postpones it.

This has nothing to do with 'will power' by the way. It's all about brain/body chemistry, so don't give yourselves a hard time if you can't 'win' or be 'perfect' all the time. These words are loaded with emotional baggage: it makes sense to chuck them away, at least for a while, if not forever.

Begin by accepting that boredom is often a symptom of growth and that it's natural and okay. Identify the need, don't feed the wants. Keep distractions as a last resort tactic. Experience the full depth of boredom and let it pass, because it will, everything does. Keep an eye on it, don't let it slide into depression, but if you're tending to need, not want, this isn't likely.

Creating a stimulating, educational environment: I've covered this pretty extensively in my $2.50 booklet Learning Materials for the Homeschool, and in a chapter of Getting Started with Homeschooling. But organising a learning enviroment isn't going to work unless we accept that our children are responsible for what they do with their time. If we become directors of their time we rob them of the opportunity to take on this role for themselves. I've met kids who are in charge of their own time from toddlerhood, and I've met kids who need direction, even in play, at 18...

As usual, it's our attitudes and beliefs about life and how we manage it that are more important, especially to our children. It's the way we approach choices - the underlying ethics and attitudes - that matter. What are doing and why? What do we need? What do we want? Sometimes we need to be still and just allow the subconscious to work on these important questions.  Ultimately, sometimes we need to be 'bored'.

Some quick tips for setting up the enviroment to engage children:

  • a garden. Pay attention to creating the kind of garden your inner child would delight in.
  • access to the kitchen. Encourage the children to cook. The kitchen is a science lab too. Teach the kids how to play and clean up safely.
  • lots of busy shelves. I hate cupboards and drawers. If I see it, I will use it. If I can't see it, I forget it's there.
  • be prepared: stock those shelves. Have the stuff on hand, anticipate the children's needs.
  • go out, for a walk. This is totally underrated in life.

You might also like to read Tired of hearing "I'm bored"? Do away with those boredom blues with this bumper list of suggestions!

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Beverley Paine with her children, and their home educated children, relaxing at home.

Together with the support of my family, my aim is to help parents educate their children in stress-free, nurturing environments. In addition to building and maintaing this website, I continue to create and manage local and national home educating networks, help to organise conferences and camps, as well as write for, edit and produce newsletters, resource directories and magazines. I am an active supporter of national, state, regional and local home education groups.

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Welcome to the World of Home Education
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We began educating our children in 1985, when our eldest was five. In truth, we had helped them learn what they need to learn since they were born. I am a passionate advocate of allowing children to learn unhindered by unnecessary stress and competition, meeting developmental needs in ways that suit their individual learning styles and preferences. Ours was a homeschooling, unschooling and natural learning family! There are hundreds of articles on this site to help you build confidence as a home educating family. We hope that your home educating adventure is as satisfying as ours was! Beverley Paine


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