When only children have trouble with entertaining themselves

Meghan Leahy

THE WASHINGTON POST – Q: I have a second-grader (seven-year-old son) who is an only child.

He is very active and loves to be constantly moving and playing sports, building forts, etc.

He is not the type to pick up a book to read by himself (but will do it at bedtime), or create art, or even play with Legos. He really is a very physical child.

He has lots of friends and is usually with them, but when he is not playing with a friend or is not in an extracurricular activity, it’s like the world is coming to an end.

He’s bored, angry and needy, and he doesn’t let us (his parents) do something like housework for five minutes without complaining.

I tell him that he should be able to play by himself for a while and that it’s okay to be bored.

We do play with him, but it is never enough.

What should we expect from him?

He is a good boy, does well in school, is well-liked and is well-behaved, but I hear about other only children who will play by themselves for an hour, and ours won’t even do it for 10 minutes!

A: Thanks for your question; I hear from many parents who desperately want their children to be able to entertain themselves, so you are not alone.

Your essential question of “What should we expect from him?” is a good one.

I don’t know exactly what to expect when it comes to your specific son, but we can take a look at the developmental norms for a seven-year-old.

Seven is a great, yet intense age for many children. Leaving young childhood, the typical seven-year-old is well on the way to maturity (the ability to be patient and understand others’ perspectives), but seven-year-olds also can display moodiness, whining and an attitude of “I can’t do it!”

Parents can often feel confused by a seven-year-old; the child may prize privacy yet still be needy for the parent, and if you take a seven-year-old too seriously, you may end up in a rabbit hole of complaints and storytelling.

Now we have your son, who is utterly unique and very much his own person.

He prefers to be active (no red flag there), doesn’t like to self-entertain (still no red flag for me) and struggles with boredom (okay), so I look for other clues as to what might be going on with your son.

How is he doing in school? He is well-liked and well-behaved, and there are no complaints from teachers.

How is his social life? Thriving and full of fun.

He prefers to move, but he picks up a book at night. He prefers to be active rather than to build Legos or create art, but that’s for now, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

I have no reason to believe that your child has sensory, attention or executive functioning issues, but if you truly believe that something is afoot, always check with your paediatrician.

What I do see is something that many parents of singletons face: helping only children tolerate frustration.

Before I go on, I want to be clear: I don’t buy into the oft-repeated stereotypes about only children.

Like every human, singletons are complex and wholly their own people.

However, I have empathy for parents of single children because how can you hold all of the boundaries you want to hold when you have only one child pulling on your leg?

How can you show your child how unfair life is when you can make life pretty easy for one child?

I cannot take care of all three of my children’s needs all at once.

One child needed to be fed while another child was bored, tears were shed, and that was that. Frustration tolerance was built!

Parents with many children don’t set out to create frustration; it just naturally happens.

When you are parenting one child, you have to mindfully create situations where you allow your child to suffer. Yup, you need to help your son suffer with purpose.

This means that you allow scenarios to play out where his whining, refusals and general bad attitude don’t grab your attention or change your mind.

His whining and denials will reach a fever pitch, but if you toe the line and remain calm, your son will eventually run out of steam.

He will not have gotten his way, and this path through the tantrum is the frustration tolerance you want.

With repetition, your son will be able to be on his own a bit more.

To make this frustration more palatable, create an environment where the routines and rules set the boundaries.

Chore charts, rewards, consequences, family clean-up and meetings, timers and clear expectations will not solve all of your parenting woes, but your son will not be able to claim that you are being unfair or arbitrary with your boundaries.

As a family, you will have agreed upon them, so yes, he will still hate the rules, but you will escape a bit of his ire.

Finally, don’t go full tilt on holding all of the boundaries and forcing independence.

If you have been giving in to his demands or listening or changing your rules for seven years, this is not an overnight change.

It is perfectly acceptable to start small (in fact, I would recommend it) because incremental success tends to build on itself with children.

Good luck.