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Susan Stiffelman Headshot

'There's Nothing to Do!'

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Now that it's summer, my 9-year-old son is constantly complaining that he's bored. He will start camp soon, and we'll be taking a family vacation, but in the meantime, all he wants to do is watch TV or play video games, even if he has a friend over. Summer has barely started and I'm already tired of his whining!

Children are born with an almost unlimited capacity for having fun. Until recently in human history, kids happily figured out how to enjoy themselves without mountains of toys or electronic devices -- playing hide and seek, making mud pies, or pushing a wheel along with a stick. Sadly, with the abundance of gadgets and structured activities laid out for them, many children complain that "there's nothing to do" unless they are plopped down in front of a television or video game, or given mom's iPad or cell phone to keep them quiet.

As parents, we have to be willing to endure our chldren's complaints if we want to wean them from the constant stimulation we have unwittingly helped them become accustomed to. Here are my thoughts:

• Be clear. If you genuinely want your son to develop the ability to entertain himself, you'll have to be willing to resist his campaign to change your mind. Most kids prefer the ease of electronic diversions to the seeming "work" of generating their own fun. Your son is likely to whine, get mad or tell you that you're the meanest mom in the world. Be prepared to acknowledge his frustration without caving in. "I know you wanted to watch that show. I get it -- it doesn't seem fair."

• Don't lecture. "In my day, we walked twenty miles to school and played happily for hours with a rock and a stick" is not likely to make your boy feel better.

• Increase unstructured time in stages. If your son seems lost without direction, begin by inviting him to do things on his own for ten or fifteen minutes, providing options to get him started. "I'll be busy for the next few minutes. Here are some colored pencils and paper. The Legos are in the living room. There's a hose and a shovel out back, if you feel like getting messy. I'll check in with you soon. Have fun!"

• Provide materials for artistic expression. Most children love to manifest their creativity when given the basic ingredients. Instead of spending money on a new video game or toy, invest in supplies that will help unleash your son's imagination. Make sure you're okay with him doing his own thing; if you offer lots of advice or create too many restrictions, he may lose interest.

• Rotate activities. Most kids are attracted to novelty, and will be more willing to play with something that feels new. Put aside some of your son's toys and games for a few weeks. When you reintroduce them, he may find them more appealing. You may also swap toys with friends; for some kids, other children's stuff seems somehow more interesting than their own.

• Remember: Necessity is the mother of invention. Don't feel obligated to call a playmate or flip on the TV if your son mopes listlessly around the house. Without your intervention -- and unless he has a legitimate disability -- he will eventually find something to do. Just be prepared to tolerate his wandering the house until he lands on something that engages him.

Downtime is crucial for kids, especially in today's highly stimulating world. Children who have lost their ability to entertain themselves become restless adults, constantly searching for stimulation and distraction. By giving your son the gift of unstructured play, you'll help him discover that life is always interesting, and that we can create our own fun.

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Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected. She is a family therapist, parent coach and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting. To learn more, visit her Facebook page or sign up for her free newsletter at