Dear Dr. Erika,
I love my kids, but I find playing with them to be very boring. It’s very hard for me to sustain attention when we’re playing, and I find myself drifting away and playing on my phone, or, worse, getting irritable with my kids. I want to spend time with them and I don’t want to make them feel like I don’t like being with them. How can I get myself to focus better on playtime and deal with the boredom?
Bored Mama of Two
Dear Bored Mama of Two,
I’m going to guess, like me, you dreamed of what parenting would look like. Snapshots of family life — playing pretend with pink sparkle tutus, hula hooping until everyone falls down in a fit of laughter, and snuggling under the covers with favorite books about characters who help, grow and heal. Oh, the miracles that would take place in playtime!
Also like me, you get some of these moments in playtime. And you also get, well, a lot of boring. Because that’s what life is: big sparkly highs, devastating lows, and a lot of boring in between.
I’m going to rock your world when I tell you my advice … don’t try so hard to be someone you’re not. Don’t try so hard to sustain your attention when you’re bored. Feelings are not toxic little viruses that we need to repress and manage. They are our superpowers: a spidey sense that underlies our instincts and guides our choices. Working against ourselves by trying to manage them, rather than embracing them and working from them as one would high-quallity data, is like trying to clean while your 5-year-old is baking. It’s a lot of labor for very little impact — and energy spent diverting your attention from behaviors that could in fact matter.
So, let’s discuss what boredom means.
1. Boredom, as you are describing, sometimes tells us something about our capacity for slow, restful and unproductive — think the journey and not the destination — activities. Playtime is for playtime’s sake. Often our mind drifts because we are in the habit of being anxious and multi-tasking, and playtime is an experience in single tasking without the burn of deadlines or problems to solve.
As my husband likes to say, “practice makes permanent.” We practice this maladaptive behavior all day long: a dozen windows open on our computer, sending emails in the carpool line and hitting send even as our car is in motion, cooking dinner while coaching homework and also texting colleagues to push back meetings for the next day. The list goes on.
We have limited capacity for “single tasking” and, when we do it, we need something truly immersive to drown out the pull to be more productive. Screens tend to serve this need for immersion as do a few select activities: exercise for some people, for example, or a favorite hobby. If you want to simply be still and enjoy play, you may practice new habits. Recognize multitasking for what it is: required by this life and all of its complications and also simultaneously bad for our mental health and relationships.
In other words, you can’t stop doing it in every scenario, but there are plenty of places where you have choices to focus on a single task. Practice doing so. Persistent multitasking is really split tasking — the many tasks are only receiving your mediocrity, draining your energy and capacity, and ultimately feeding your perception of yourself as not enough. Playtime thus may trigger this self-defeat and you assume the response is to do more. Recognize that doing less is a better antidote.
2. Boredom is also the emotional experience of disengagement. Are you playing with someone who you are in a relationship with? I realize this may sound like a silly question. “It’s my child, obviously we are in a relationship with one another.”
From many years of experience working with parents like you, I can tell you with certainty that this is not a given. Relationships are defined by bidirectional human-to-human connection. If you exist in your parent-child relationship in a service mindset, you are likely not in a real relationship with your child.
Boredom is a great clue that this is the case. If this is the case, get comfortable saying this to your child, “I don’t enjoy playing this particular game, but I know how much you love it. I’ll tell you what: let’s play for about 10 minutes. Then, I’d like to either bake something with you, paint, or clean up the kitchen together.”
You can also say, “I love being with you. Thank you for inviting me to do something you love. I’m not sure it’s my thing, but I’ll give it a try for a little bit.” That’s a powerful way to model for your child that agreeing to play what they want to play is not a necessary ingredient for a healthy relationship. You can show them that healthy relationships involve two whole people with similar and different interests. Forced compromise or performative politeness is the enemy of real engagement.
You have to build this kind of a relationship on an ongoing basis. Show up as your real self in your family and share your thoughts, feelings and preferences. Be proactive about engaging with your children in activities and conversations where you come alive. These experiences are vital to helping them to humanize others. They also will buffer your own fears that your boredom will impact your child’s self-esteem. If they have experiences interacting with you involving a range of emotions, they will understand your boredom is disengagement with the activity in the moment — not with your overall relationship.