Q. Forgive me, but I had no idea raising small children involved so much boredom. It seems like we’re not supposed to admit this. Can you give me some solutions, and maybe a little solidarity?
Jeff: You mean, you’re not enthralled by hour after mind-numbing hour of Curious George misadventures and saccharine journeys to Candy Land? What kind of parent are you?
Allow me to answer that: You’re no different from most of us. As recently as a couple of years ago, my wife and I would quietly confess — just to each other, of course — that our young daughter’s 10,000th playing of those songs from “Frozen” made us want to take an ice pick to our eardrums. Still, we chilled with the girl endlessly because we aspired to be parents who are there for our children 24/7. That’s unrealistic, though, and even counterproductive.
Eventually, after hearing the same jaded grumbling in whispers from other parents, we came to appreciate the dual benefit of occasionally stepping out of a child’s world. For the kid, playing without Mom or Dad alongside can foster confidence in autonomy and even stimulate creativity — I’ve seen this in our son, who’s about to be a teen and is comfortable with and often productive in his alone time. And here’s the flip side: For parents, separating ourselves provides a necessary respite. It turns out that when I have a healthy chunk of my life to myself, I’m a lot more engaged with my kids during the times we’re together. Sometimes we’ve just got to heed the song and let it go.
Kathy: I agree that it’s crucial to let it go (the cold never bothered me, anyway) and that managing boredom is a fundamental — and unheralded — part of parenting. My kids are teens now, but when they were small it helped me to remember that children and adults reside on fundamentally different planets. They are on Planet Again and Again. We are on Planet Please Make It Stop. By repeating an action ad nauseum, kids are laying down neurological pathways; that’s how they learn. You can appreciate this cerebral wonder — and appreciate, also, that you’re neurologically evolved enough to know that it makes you crazy.
Back then, I found that black humor really helped, especially on the spousal front. You mentioned Curious George, Jeff, and it reminded me of how my husband, John, and I read our son “Curious George and the Bunny” 3,478 times. The Shakespearean plot hinges on when George’s “bunny ran off like a shot,” and then “all the fun was gone.” Even now, when John or I have a bad day, one of us lightens the mood by asking, “Was all the fun gone?”
Jeff: Wow, imagine all the couples therapy co-pays Sarah and I could have saved if only we had enlisted the Man With the Yellow Hat to enhance our supportive communication. Anyway, Kathy, I like how you bring up child development, because when our kids are young, that’s the lens through which we parents experience the world. In our house, the milestones — first word, first step, first bike ride, first time hitting the “off” button when “Frozen” is on — held more thrills than the Olympics. Though it’s hard for me to fathom now, there was a time when a diaper check was like an IMAX movie.
Then our children get potty trained, and it’s time for us to move on, too. But we get stuck in old habits, and boredom comes when the breathtaking milestones are fewer and farther between. So it’s up to us to become not just an audience. My wife and I invite the kids more deeply into our world, stretching their repertoire of movies and music, games and experiences. Only occasionally do we hear them mumbling what we used to say: “Not again.” Payback can be a positive.
Kathy: So let’s pay back our questioner with even more solidarity — by crowdsourcing the topic of boredom. One mom I know joked, “Oh my God, most of parenting involves boredom!” Another said this: “Boredom is probably the most universal experience in parenting — everyone feels it. Whereas the other emotions in parenting are determined by the specifics of our particular children.” The reader, in other words, is far from alone here.
My crowd doled out some additional solutions, too: 1) Playing outdoors is nearly always less boring than indoors; 2) Link up with other parents and kids, so you have an adult to talk to; 3) Decide not to be bored. My friend Laura, for instance, felt intense ennui around her son’s Pokémon obsession — so she resolved to study the characters as if cramming for an organic chemistry final. The result? Not only did her new mastery of Bulbasaur and Charmeleon charm her son, but it felt better to learn that, say, Wartortle swims with his ears for balance, than to feel unbalanced by tedium. I applaud her — and all of us — for getting un-bored by getting on board.
Katharine Whittemore and Jeff Wagenheim were founding editors
at the parenting magazine Wondertime. Whittemore now writes the “Four Takes” book review column for the Globe. Wagenheim writes about sports for the Globe, The Washington Post, and Sports Illustrated.