What is Boredom?
“Mommy, I’m bored….” How many times have you heard that whine? What effect does it have on you? Do you quickly make ten suggestions of things to do (which are usually rejected?) and then get irritated, or do you feel guilty because you’re not doing enough for children? Maybe a different way of hearing this complaint will make it easier to respond with patience and understanding. It helps to ask, what is the child really needing? What is boredom? And as adults, what do we mean when we say we are bored? Let’s get into the interpersonal neurobiology of boredom a little before we talk about what to do about it….
According to Allan Schore’s Regulation Theory, affects (which is to say, feelings) must be managed in some way by the person (or other organism), and there are two qualities to consider in looking at and regulating feelings: valence and arousal. Valence refers to the pleasantness or unpleasantness factor, the tone, and arousal refers to how low- or high-key the experience of the emotion is. For instance, the emotion one feels at seeing a pretty flower while taking a walk would be pleasant/moderate, compared with the ecstatic/high one feels when a lover comes home from war. Every feeling comes in a whole continuum of levels, and life is a constant flow of crescendos and decrescendos of one feeling or another that tie our bodies and our minds into some sort of integrated way of being.
How much energy must be expended to regulate any emotion depends upon how highly aroused the person is and what the tone of the feeling is. The most energy-expending feelings to regulate are strong unpleasant ones, like fear or grief. It takes a well-functioning parasympathetic nervous system to down-regulate these, and we sometimes need the input of another person, a co-regulator, to help us get back to some tolerable base line. Children need even more interactive regulation than adults, and getting enough help from adults actually allows them to grow up more able to self-regulate in a healthy way. This is obvious for negative high-arousal states, and we also have the need to share our joys, too. But what about low arousal? Can that always be handled independently, without help? Apparently, as we learn from whiny children (and depressed adults), it cannot. But do we need to entertain them out of boredom? I don’t think so….
Balancing Boredom and Engagement
To be engaged and interested in life and the world around us, we need to maintain a certain level of arousal. If there is not enough energy flowing through our synapses, we sink into a kind of fugue state, where we feel lethargic and…bored. We also seem uninteresting (or boring) to others. An optimal state of arousal makes us open to experience, ideas and people, and makes us more interesting to them, too. There are pleasant low-arousal states, of course, like falling asleep in a cozy bed at the end of a nice day, or just lying on one’s back looking at the clouds pass by. But boredom is a low-arousal state that has a mildly unpleasant valence, and a child who whines, “I’m bored…” (like we’re supposed to do something about it!) is actually asking for some interactive (co-) regulation. They’re asking, “Could you please help me be more aroused so that I can find things to be interested in, to satisfy my need to connect and explore?”
There is nothing wrong with children who ask for help when they cannot easily self-regulate. Too much auto-regulation can be a problem when trying to have intimate relationships. We don’t want children to be too independent, any more than we want them to be overly dependent. Furthermore, it’s important to be aware that our reaction to a child’s calls for co-regulation are going to be affected by how our requests for such help were or were not responded to when we were children. The expectations of the culture we were raised in will also have an influence.
Can we give children a head start in learning to manage their own arousal – and also have time to ourselves because we don’t have to constantly create activities for our children? As I learned from infant/toddler expert, Magda Gerber, it is possible to raise interested, engaged, self-initiating children right from the start, with surprisingly successful, and child-specific results, without the constant pressure to stimulate and entertain them.
Allowing babies and young children to move freely in a safe space from the very beginning gives them ongoing opportunities to satisfy their need for pleasure, discovery and optimal arousal. If they can control their bodies they will actively stimulate themselves and also learn when it’s time to rest (a skill that needs to be learned and practiced, too).
If, while they are learning the various ways they can move, they encounter some simple, interesting objects with various attributes, which is to say, if they are playing in an adequately interesting environment, they will create their own lessons. And when they fuss, it will not be because of boredom, as so many people think, but because they have tapped out their emotional, and maybe even nutritional energy supplies, and are needing to refuel. If they don’t need food, maybe all they need is some close contact with a parent or caregiver, to give them a sense of energy-boosting connectedness and warmth. Love is a nutritional supplement that keeps them growing and developing. They refuel on love during a cuddle, a friendly diaper change, or just a little back and forth conversation, with or without words. Babies who are sure of adequate time to move and explore, as well as time to connect as needed with interested, important people in their lives can often entertain themselves for a surprisingly long time.
Of course, the older a child gets, the wider they want to roam, and it gets harder to provide for. Some places children are still free to run and play outdoors without much adult interference, but if we are raising children in what seems like a more dangerous world, and they have less freedom because of that, they may need more help in staying optimally aroused. Being outside in nature actually provides the perfect setting for children to learn to keep themselves interested in life, but so many families cannot provide this for their children most of the time. The nature, where I grew up in Oklahoma, was pretty flat, treeless and monotonous, with extremes of weather…but just the wide open space and access to playmates usually offered inspiration enough to keep us busy most of the day. If I could make a wish for bored children, I would wish for safe and accessible natural places for them to explore with friends, monitored by caring but non-intrusive adults. Parks, community gardens, reforestation of cities, open land and natural spaces are essential to the well-being of children everywhere. ####
Thinking About...Baby Talk
Has anyone ever told you that you should speak to your baby like you speak to an adult? Did that make you wonder if you can take ‘respect’ a bit too far? I’ve been thinking about that….
The primary question is…does respect look and sound the same regardless of the age of the person, or the nature of our relationship? Aren't we more subtle than that? We show respect to our bosses and grandmothers by using different language and tones of voice than we do with our buddies, certainly. One of the hallmarks of respect is communication that can be understood by the other person, so teenage slang doesn’t usually play with grandmothers. And…adult tones of voice are actually not what babies respond to as they learn about social communication. They need something called ‘motherese,’ ‘parentese,’ or ‘infant-directed speech.’
This kind of communication is actually adopted unconsciously by most adults and older children when speaking with a baby, and is characterized by elongated vowels, higher pitch, musicality and repetition. These qualities of speech are offered up automatically, out of the right side of the brain, as a time-tested way of making the communication understandable and engaging to the baby. And what is it that the baby is learning from this ‘baby talk?’ He is learning about love, that communication transmits emotions, and is an avenue for building relationships.
Of course he is also learning vocabulary, syntax, and sentence structure on some level that won’t show up for many months, so even in infant-directed speech, we can use the proper words for things and decent grammar. But if you’ve ever been made to feel like you shouldn’t call your darling Snookiekins, relax and appreciate her joyful, wide-eyed interest. Mother Nature would approve!
What About Baby Talk? Part 2
If “motherese” or “infant directed speech” sets the tone of the conversation with a baby, there is still the issue of actual content. Why talk to little babies? They can’t understand words, right? The parts of the brain that process and produce speech are undeveloped, but somehow, being spoken to early on in specific ways sets up a baby for success in literacy and life…so it’s a good idea to ponder a bit about what we are saying to them.
There are so many reasons people talk to each other, and that is true of our communications with babies, too. Perhaps this is stating the obvious, but it is worth consciously considering for a moment. What are the subjects of dialogue with a baby that are meaningful to both participants? How much information should we give? How simple or complex should the language be? Should we project meaning onto their utterances? These are all variables that are usually “answered” in an unconscious way, as adults tend to speak to babies as they were spoken to at that age, based upon implicit memory, history repeating itself. Here, I want to bring to light a few apparent assumptions about babies and young children that ways of addressing them indicate….
There are grownups who speak to children in a really exaggerated, even loud, voice, with pronounced facial animation and overly simplistic language, who seem not to expect the child to answer or understand, who don’t actually expect to learn anything from the child. By contrast, there are those who speak to children as the intelligent beings they are (though in a nicely musical and inviting way) about things that are actually of interest to the child…and who sincerely listen or watch for a response before proceeding. There is authentic turn-taking in these conversation. These are the grownups that children seem to gravitate towards, whereas they tend to hang back from the first, especially slow-to-warm-up children.
As I learned from Magda Gerber, respecting babies includes some specific ways of speaking with them (and there has been lots written about this in the RIE® literature that is helpful) but you can’t refer to a script of what to say to children while you’re actually having the conversation. If you just make a point of operating out of open curiosity to understand what the child is feeling and experiencing, which entails listening, observing, and slowing down, you’ll find yourself in a dialogue that may not feel like you are talking to a baby, but talking with a person. Next, we’ll explore relevant conversational topics and timing.