As a proud dad to two young children, I love my kids.
Most of the time.
But there’s a specific set of circumstances that proves especially challenging for my wife and I: going out to eat with friends–who don’t have kids.
Whenever we’d head out to a restaurant, it was almost impossible to have a conversation. Basically because after a few minutes, we were always faced with the same complaint: “I’m bored.”
So, like many other parents I know, we’d resort to what we knew would keep them occupied and give us the best opportunity at salvaging the evening: We handed over the iPhone.
I always felt a little guilty doing it, like I was cheating. I’d even defend my actions to my friends, saying something like: “It’s the only way we’ll get to talk.”
Of course, it only started with these dinner outings. Once my children realized that there was the potential for instant entertainment, they started asking for the phone (or tablet) more and more.
At the doctor’s office:
“I’m bored. Can I watch a cartoon?”
Long car trips:
“I’m bored. Can I play a video game?”
Waiting in line, anywhere:
“I’m bored. Can you give me something to do?”
Many times I gave in…but deep down, I knew it couldn’t be good.
Then, about a month ago, I read this great New York Times article by Pamela Paul: Let Children Get Bored Again.
“Boredom is something to experience rather than hastily swipe away,” Paul argued. “Boredom is useful. It’s good for you.”
“Of course, it’s not really the boredom itself that’s important; it’s what we do with it,” she continued. “When you reach your breaking point, boredom teaches you to respond constructively, to make something happen for yourself. But unless we are faced with a steady diet of stultifying boredom, we never learn how.”
Turns out, there’s lots of research to back up Paul’s argument.
For example, this Quartz article cites a 2014 study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology that found bored people “are more likely to engage in sensation seeking–that is, to look for activities or sights that engage their minds and stimulate the brain’s reward centers.” Such people were “more prone to ‘divergent thinking styles’–the ability to come up with creative new ideas.”
I also thought back to my own childhood days. There were no smartphones, no tablets. Heck, the Game Boy hadn’t been invented when I was my son’s age.
“If you complained about being bored back then, you were really asking for it,” writes Paul. “‘Go outside,’ you might get, or worse, ‘Clean your room.'”
“Was this fun? No. Was it helpful? Yes.”
Yes, yes! This is what I needed to hear! It was time to let my kids get bored again.
The next time we went out to eat, it didn’t take five minutes.
“I’m bored. Can I play a video game?”
“No,” I responded.
“Then what should I do?”
“I don’t know. Figure it out.”
Then, something interesting started to happen.
My son, who’s learning to read, started looking around. He began sounding out words, wherever he could find: posted signs, the menu.
This was amazing. Despite my wife and my efforts to make reading fun, my son hates reading homework. This kind of practice is invaluable. On the weekend, no less.
Wow, I mumbled to myself. It works.
Of course, that only lasted a few minutes.
“Now I really don’t know what to do,” my son told me.
“Maybe you can try talking to our friends,” I suggested. “What can you learn about them?”
What followed was a great conversation between my children and our adult friends. They learned about each other, about their likes and dislikes, their upbringings, what they shared in common.
There were lots of laughs in between.
Best of all, my children were no longer the distraction, or the obstacle standing in the way of a great evening with friends. They were part of that evening, playing a role just as large as the rest of us.
It may have started with boredom, but it ended with resourcefulness.
And I guess my kids got something out of it, too.
Enjoy this post? Check out my book, EQ Applied, which uses fascinating research and compelling stories to illustrate what emotional intelligence looks like in everyday life.
A version of this article originally appeared on Inc.com.