Something that plagues nearly every parent I have encountered over the years is getting your children to entertain themselves. We all hear “I’m bored” or “There’s nothing to do” many, many times a week. Getting kids to figure out how to keep themselves amused for a tiny chunk of time so you can clean up, hop on a conference call, or just take a few minutes for yourself is actually great parenting. While it is absolutely our job to ensure their safety, it is not our job as parents to entertain our children every waking moment of the day.
So how do you do that without just turning them over to the screen of the hour (TV, tablet, phone)? Here are a few tips:
Start Young if You Can
Just like many other aspects of parenting, teaching kids to entertain themselves is much easier when you start early and create the habit. When they’re little, provide a couple of simple suggestions, then carry on with your own task while they play. Don’t interrupt or redirect. If they interrupt you, reinforce the point that you aren’t available to play with them at the moment. They aren’t going to feel alone or abandoned. They’re actually going to learn life skills like self-reliance and problem solving, which will serve them well as they grow older.
Have a Place They Can Get Ideas
It can get a little more difficult if you didn’t start early with encouraging independent play, but there is still hope. You may want to create a list of games and projects that older children can work on by themselves to refer to when they’re asking to be entertained. “You’re bored? Go check the list and choose something to do. I am cooking dinner right now, so I can’t help you.” I have several friends who have a jar of popsicle/craft sticks that have different activities on them.
Give Them a Head’s Up
Have you ever noticed that odd phenomenon where as soon as you get on the phone, suddenly every child in the house seems to need your attention? It’s magical…and not necessarily in a good way. Let children know that in 5 minutes you are going to be on the phone (or getting in the shower or whatever other task is on the list) and that you need them to stay on-task and not interrupt you during this time. It may not work perfectly, but with older children, you’ll increase the likelihood that they will respect your time and at least reduce interruptions. This is often when I’ll tell my kids to read or play a game in their rooms with the door closed.
Manage Your Own Expectations
Rigid structure and scheduling are key for some children. It may be difficult for these kids to simply be given a block of time to fill without any guidance. You can still encourage them to play independently, but you may need to take some extra time to get them settled into an activity. For example, instead of just telling them to grab paper and crayons to draw for awhile, you might try setting up the materials for them and assigning them a couple of different scenes or objects to draw. Adapt your tactics to suit your child’s strengths and weaknesses.
Offer Rewards and Consequences
Incentives and consequences can be great motivators to help encourage children to entertain themselves. Let your child know that if they keep themselves amused for an hour, then you can play a game together. Or remind them that if they keep interrupting your task, you’ll not have enough time left in the day for a promised trip to the park.
It can be a challenge to get kids to entertain themselves, but it can be done. It takes some trial and error and a little persistence, but before long, you’ll be hearing “I’m bored!” a lot less often. Or at least when they tell you they’re bored, it doesn’t take as long for them to find an activity.