9 Ways To Respond To Kids When They Say “I’m Bored”

How to respond to the two most dreaded words in parenting: "I'm bored"

One sound almost every parent can instantly recognize is the lament of a bored child. It can come as a direct statement, “I’m booooored,” or you may discover your child’s boredom all on your own when they wander aimlessly around the house or silently hover over you

Boredom is not fatal, despite how it can feel sometimes. Instead it is a state of being "weary of dullness or tedious repetition."

And while it is not necessarily a bad state for your child to exist in (experts say that boredom is necessary for the development of creativity) it can create a void filled with unwanted activities like acting out or exploring things you'd rather have the kids (or spouses) stay out of. (Anyone who has ever watched a viral video of a toddler slathered in lipstick knows what we are talking about here.)

To avoid having to scrub lipstick off your walls or peel an older child’s phone from their hands, read through these nine ways to respond to your child’s boredom—and maybe find a cure for some boredom of your own! 

“Go put some salt on a bird’s tail” 

This is something that parents of yore used to tell their children to do when they had nothing better to occupy their time. It is believed that giving a small child a salt shaker to “put some salt on a bird’s tail” would not only give them something to do, but it would also tire them out. (Have you ever tried to get close to a wild bird?)

You do not have to take this one literally, especially in bad weather or if you lack an outdoor space—making any similar suggestion will work. You can ask them to catch a house fly or tame dust bunnies. As long as they are assigned a task that will occupy both their minds and their bodies, they should be entertained.

The choice of salt, a crystalline compound made up of sodium chloride, does not really seem to matter (other than the fact that it is probably less expensive than its tabletop partner, pepper), but for the sake of fun word facts, we'll focus on it for a minute. The word salt has been around since before the year 900, and stems from the Middle and Old English sealt. Makes you wonder how long parents have been handing their children salt shakers in an effort to cure their boredom. 

“That sounds like a good problem to have” 

If your goal is for your child to appreciate the fact that their biggest problem in life is being bored, responding, “That sounds like a good problem to have” is probably your best bet.

When some people (like Shakespeare) were bored, they created things. (You have no doubt been informed he wrote King Lear while quarantined during the plague.) And this makes a great story to tell bored kids—learning about other creative people that used boredom to make things can be inspiring. You can share the examples of the Italian painter Titian, who painted Pietà during a plague, and physicist Sir Isaac Newton, who came up with the laws of gravity while "social distancing" from school.

While using the word problem, which means "a question or matter involving doubt, uncertainty or difficulty," can sound like a bad thing, using it lets your kids know that if boredom is the worst of their problems, then they are in pretty good shape. In fact, the word problem has been around since 1350–1400 and stems from the Middle English probleme. Although you can probably save yourself the trouble of explaining to your kids that people back in the 1350s probably welcomed a little boredom ... since their days were most likely spent working on family farms or doing other physical work. 

“How about you go clean your room”

A bored child will suddenly find a million things they would rather be doing as soon as you utter the C word to them. This goes for cleaning their room, cleaning common spaces, or cleaning up after a pet. 

Cleaning is the "act of making clean," which is something that parents can often find themselves short on time to do, but bored teens are well equipped to help out with. The word cleaning, which has been around since 1655–75, probably came about the first time a bored child dared to tell his butter-churning mother he had nothing to do (just kidding, this has no valid evidence). But if the mere mention of cleaning doesn't suddenly cure your child of their boredom, it may actually get them to lend a hand around the house.

Hand them a broom, a mop, or a washcloth and set them to work.

WATCH: Why Is It So Hard To Keep Things Clean?

“Read (or write) a book”

For older kids who know how to read, suggesting they pick up a book may be a subtle reminder that there is a world of adventure at their fingertips … once they have tired of the worlds of adventure at their thumb-tips through their phone and tablet, that is.

The word read means "to look carefully so as to understand the meaning of something, specifically when it is written or printed." So try offering your reader a book or magazine and see if it cures their inability to find something else to do.

If your child has just finished a book, you can also ask them to give you their read, which in this case means to interpret what they have read. You can actually ask them for their read on any performance or artwork they have checked out lately, which is a great way to start a conversation. You can also have them write down their read of a book or write their own sequel or prequel to what they just read!

“Why don’t you see if X needs help”

Helping someone else is a great way to put an end to the aimless feeling of having nothing to do. Whether your child helps your partner, another sibling, or a pet, providing help will exercise their altruistic muscles.

Helping, which means "to render assistance to, cooperate effectively with, aid and assist," is a great way to pass the time and get your child out from under your feet as you try to accomplish tasks. Unless, of course, you're the one who could use an extra hand, in which case you get to now ask your little one if they would like to help you with what you are doing. Score?

You may both need to exercise patience, or "an ability or willingness to suppress mild (or major) annoyances," as little hands can sometimes have a hard time doing big tasks. If your child is struggling to follow directions, consider asking them to listen, or "to pay attention, heed, or obey," to directions and wait, or "postpone what they are doing," for further instructions.

Use small words and short steps for younger kids (like hand me that red bowl, pass me that bottle with the blue lid), and give bigger kids a little more freedom to make mistakes (and messes).

“Are all of your assignments done”

Ah, the sudden shift to online schooling. (We propose submitting a new definition for online: how so many of us are just doing our best in a time of staying at home and quarantining.)

While you may already know the answer to this question (Are all of your assignments done?) if you have younger kids and had to walk them through their daily online classwork, older children who are more independent and who have been in charge of their own learning may need a gentle reminder to keep up with their current assignments.  

If your kids answer "yes," and confirm that they are all caught up on their assignments, suggest they take some of their downtime and turn in into productive time by checking out one of the numerous free online activities available for students.

You can find an at-home learning program for everything from picking up a second language, to learning how to read music. Dictionary.com also offers plenty of online activities to keep your child busy during these unprecedented, or never before known, times.

“Why don’t you go stretch your legs”

If your bored child is old enough to be sent outside on their own, outdoor playtime is a great way to get them out of the house (as long as they still keep six feet of distance between them and others) and physically moving. 

By using the phrase stretch your legs, you are telling your child to go for a walk, especially after a prolonged period of sitting. They do not need to go outside to accomplish this, though. They can take a walk around the kitchen table (or wherever else you have designated as their online learning space), take a trip up and down a flight of stairs, or even just walk to and from another room. Getting your child moving and their eyes away from screens, even if it is only for a few moments, can help get their blood pumping again. 

The phrase stretch your legs is not the only thing you can say to get your kids moving, though. Try one of these synonyms on for size too:

“What do you want to do”

Maybe your kid is not bored after all. They're just not doing the thing that they want to be doing. Sure, that may seem like a silly problem to have, but you would be surprised how many times asking your child what they actually want to do will make them stop and think about it, and maybe even allow them to solve their boredom problem on their own.

You can try to phrase your question a few different ways:

  • What do you want to do?
  • What would you rather be doing?
  • Is there something that you would enjoy doing right now?

Each of those questions uses a variation of the word do, which is a verb meaning "to perform or execute," and has been around since before the year 900. It comes from the Middle and Old English word don

Of course, if you are letting your kid decide what they would like to do, be prepared to have to counteroffer if they name something you don't want them to do. For example, if they're bored because you told them they reached their screen-time limit for the day, and they tell you that the only thing that's going to cure their boredom is more screen time … just be ready for that. 

“Wonderful”

Sometimes you just need to let your child be bored. The idea of doing nothing* may seem a little strange in our overscheduled world, but it is something that is good for children (and us) to experience.

(Yes, we know how contradictory that sounds after suggesting you tell them that Shakespeare wrote King Lear while he was waiting for his quarantine to end 😂.)

Instead of making suggestions, offering up ideas, or flat out telling your kids what to do when they cannot figure something out for themselves, just let them be unproductive by not requiring them to produce, generate, or create anything at all. 

When your child tells you they are bored, and you want them to stay that way, consider responding with:

  • wonderful: which means "excellent, great, or marvelous"
  • great: which, when not used to describe size (like "large or giant"), means "very well"
  • terrific: which means "extremely good or wonderful"

Each of these words lets your child know that their boredom is a good thing. Sometimes we all just need to hit pause, or take a temporary stop or rest.

*It's totally up to you whether or not you let them know how short their supply of unstructured time will be once they grow up and have children of their own.