Sitting with me and her mother on my porch on a hot summer day some years ago, the preschooler would run off to play and then return to her mom to announce, "I'm bored." The first time, the mom said, "Use some other words to tell me what you mean."
"I'm hot," she said.
"Do you want to run through the sprinkler?"
She did, returning moments later to plop wetly on her mother's lap. "I'm bored," she said again.
"You're bored..." the mom repeated in her best listening voice. "Do you want to water Barbara's flowers?" She returned even quicker. "I'm bored," she said.
"Hmmm," said the mother, impressing me with her ability to betray no impatience. "I wonder: Do you need to use the bathroom?"
As they walked away hand in hand, I could hear the preschooler chiding, "I didn't want to ask you in front of Barbara. Adults are really silly to think that children could be bored that many times."
I was reminded of that story during my boston.com chat today when a dad whined that summer has only just begun and already his kids are bored. Here's my advice: When your kids start to throw the B-word around, don't take it at face value. Consider it a cry for some kind of help.
Real boredom -- being uninterested or weary of an activity -- doesn't surface until children are 12 or older. Younger than that, children use the word to mean all kinds of things, from feeling out-of-sorts because he doesn't know what to to do now, to feeling guilty to have so much time on his hands.
In a world of over-scheduled children (yes, I'm on that side of the fence), a little boredom might not be a bad thing if it pushes a child to reach into her imagination. Sometimes all it takes is a little reminder or redirection to set him or her off in a direction: "Remember how you talked all winter about wanting to organize your collections?"
Maybe you have a summer idea jar where the two of you dream up all the various activities a kid might want to do over the summer, put them in a jar, and pick one out during a moment of alleged boredom. (Caveat: when you're loading up the jar, make sure they are activities you'll want him to do at any given time. If you think you're both miserable now, wait until he pulls something out of the jar, gets all excited, and you say, 'Ooops, too messy for today.')
I also like my friend's response, "Find another way to tell me what you mean," because it helps a child identify and label what she's feeling.