Want your kids to stop whining? Wish they had the imagination and creativity to come up with something to do on their own? It’s easier than you think.
So easy in fact, you might second guess yourself. Here goes….YOU DO NOTHING. Nothing at all. Don’t give ideas or suggestions. No facilitating, no projects, no “why don’t you play on the swingset or build a fort or take these toilet paper tubes and make a sculpture.” Don’t force imagination or facilitate creativity. At first you’ll want to kill me because the whining will reach record levels and you’ll wonder why you even tried in the first place. And honestly, don’t try if you’re not willing to tolerate the complaining and utterly pathetic helplessness that precedes children’s imagination formation. You have to be willing to “push past bored” as a parenting mentor of mine used to say.
To have patience for them and compassion on them, it might help you to understand what is happening for your children. You know how when you try to vacation, it takes you a full day to unwind? To shut off your brain and to let the noise spill out. Even if there isn’t noise present, it’s all still whirring around in your brain. The people and tasks and just NOISE. Or even when you take a mini vacation-for those of you who meditate, practice grounding or just take small moments for re-centering or relaxation. It takes a minute (at least) to re-orient. Much longer if you don’t vacation much or meditate often. This is what your kids are experiencing, that overstimulation and general restlessness that comes of not having your internal experience match your external environment. Except, unlike you, they are external processors and they are going to tell you ALL ABOUT IT. Because, if you think about it, a child’s life is often very overstimulating. Maybe it’s screens, noise, crafts, boards games or spelling worksheets. Maybe it’s crowds of noisy children if they’re in school or daycare or sports. They are in high gear and probably have been for a while, and are desensitized to slow thoughts and subtle noise.
For those of you who don’t even know what doing nothing would look like, here are a few suggestions for minimizing distractions so they can reorient:
- Minimize their physical boundaries. Allow them outdoors, especially if you have a park or preserve nearby that allows them to wander a ways without hitting fences. Don’t tell them what to do or where to go, let them push their own internal boundaries of exploration. If they stay indoors, don’t send them to the basement or their bedroom or the playroom, let them decide. If they want to make a fort in the bathtub, or bring a flashlight under the covers of your bed to read, let them redefine new spaces.
- Minimize time restraints. If they have soccer practice in 30 minutes, or dinner at your mom’s house this is not the time to try this. Can you imagine if you were finishing up a company report, had painted half of your bedroom wall, or were mid session with a client and someone yanked you out and told you that you had to go to spin class? You may like spin class, but nobody likes to be disrupted when they’re in their work groove. Exploratory play is the work of children. I try to remember that disrupting them before they feel a sense of completion in their task or process is like someone barging into one of my therapy sessions.
- Minimize toys and tools. The question I ask when deciding whether or not to keep a toy is “does it have infinite uses?” I looked up, as an example, the hottest toys of 2019 and two top ones were “Baby Alive Potty Dance Baby Doll” which, I assume, pees and dances, and “Jurassic World Jurassic Rex” which is a dinosaur that eats racecars. Besides the fact that whatever noises those toys will make while my kids ARE enjoying them will be enough for me to wish I had more eyeballs to stick forks in, my kids will not enjoy them for long because they ONLY SERVE ONE PURPOSE (ok, in the case of babyalivepottydancebabydoll, two). A set of blocks, on the other hand, has infinite configurations and can be repurposed for any range of imaginary worlds. Want that block to be part of a fortress? The wall of a bakery? Do you want it to be a telephone? Or a juicebox? So rather than the paint by numbers sun-catcher, just have watercolors, lots of blank paper, and plenty of space (remember the minimizing boundaries here. Watercolors and finger paints are only fun if you aren’t hovering). My kids have a big box of loose legos, wooden blocks and magnetiles. We also have imaginary-imitative stuff like play food, toy animals and baby dolls. I suppose it could be argued that there are not infinite uses for these, but there are a whole lot of variations that kids will come up with themselves, when the object does not have limited designated purposes (i.e. dancing and peeing). Since you are DOING NOTHING only they can decide when to use them and how.
Last but not least, pay attention to yourself in this process. Why in the world is it so difficult to sit by and do nothing? Do we trust them so little to cope with challenging feelings that we can’t tolerate them experiencing boredom? Do we feel guilty or responsible for them having any challenging feelings at all? Are we too exhausted as a parent to have patience with their complaints? Do we feel guilty for not being an active/engaged/fill in the blank parent? Are we resorting to the path of least resistance that’s so common for many parents… “oh I’ll just fix it for you. It’s easier for me to handle it than to trust you to figure it out”.