"I'm bored!"

Those two little words are to parents what citronella candles are to mosquitoes: They spoil your fun. Not only do they mean your child is unhappy and whiny, but they invariably come at the moment you have settled into the hammock with a book and an iced tea.

There are times when we can take our child's complaint at face value -- he really is tired of the activity at hand. But more likely, there's more to it.

" 'I'm bored' can have a whole variety of meanings," says Melanie L. McGrath, a pediatric psychologist. "It can mean 'I'm depressed' or 'I'm not doing anything exciting.' It can mean 'I don't have enough structure to my summer' or 'I don't know what to do next.' Plain and simple, it can just mean 'Help!' "

Most often, that's the message we should hear, especially about now, when the novelty of summer has worn off.

Children are accustomed to a lot of structure, explains Jim Van Horn, professor of child development at Penn State University. For 10 months they have a proscribed wake-up time, a proscribed bedtime and neat chunks of regimented activities in between: school, piano, hockey, gymnastics. With the absence of that regimen, they feel lost.

"A child may be feeling more panic than boredom," says Jeri Robinson, an early childhood program director. "He's feeling lonely, at wit's ends."

Children also don't understand that summer is a time for rejuvenation and relaxation. In the winter, when we find them fooling around or being lazy, we're apt to spur them on to some goal-oriented activity. When summer comes they feel guilty, unhappy, unsure of themselves, even worried about this time on their hands.

"We need to give them permission to just chill out," says Robinson. "It's almost like you have to schedule time for them to do this."

With a child 8 or older, Robinson suggests a conversation about the benefits of unstructured time. Tell her it's okay to take a walk with no destination, just because you feel like it. That it's okay to sit under a tree and watch the day go by, just because you feel too lazy to do anything else.

Robinson actually thinks boredom can be good. "It makes a child utilize his inner resources," she says. "That's a joy of childhood that gets lost in our busy world."

Do children today get more bored than we did?

Robinson thinks it's a possibility. "There's so much structure in a child's world today. When do they get time to learn to make decisions by themselves? When do they learn to sit back and write poetry and be creative?"

Rather than seeing summertime boredom as a problem for parents, Robinson sees it as an opportunity. "We can help them hone their problem-solving skills, help them learn to use their own ingenuity. 'Okay, you're bored. What can you do about it?' "

This does not mean that you leave the bored child entirely to his own devices. "That's when kids go off and end up doing something unsafe," says Robinson.

Instead, acknowledge the child's feelings, all the time trying to figure out what's behind her boredom. "All your friends are gone; do you miss them?" "Boy, it's been raining for three days. I'm running out of things to do; how about you?"

Then help problem-solve. Says McGrath: "It's not your job to entertain, but it is your job to help her learn how to entertain herself."

McGrath says you can start this process early, with 2- or 3-year-olds, by limiting television viewing. "Then a child will be less passive. She'll be used to relying on her imagination."

McGrath also tells parents of preschoolers to encourage them to play alone. "You can start off being very involved when you play with him. But gradually, you should remove yourself and increase the time he can play without you."

When a normally self-sufficient, school-age child gets bored, you probably need only to step in and remind him of his options -- "Remember how you talked all winter about wanting to organize your rock collection?" -- or to set him up in a task -- "How about if you sort out all the winter clothes that don't fit you?"

Some children need more routine than others. Van Horn says a set time for breakfast and lunch provides structure. Having a planned activity each day -- a trip to the library, a swimming lesson -- helps a child to build around the day.

The most trying child is the one who is bored not once a week, but several times a day. If you think this is an indication of another kind of problem -- short attention span, peer issues -- consult your pediatrician. It's likely, though, that "this child is too dependent on you for ideas," says Robinson.

You need to take a firm hand with him and be willing to spend time planning options for him, but not, she stresses, implementing or orchestrating them.

"Have an idea jar stuffed full of activities on scraps of paper, ideas you've generated together. Let him keep pulling out scraps until something strikes his fancy."

When no idea pleases him, Robinson says that's the time you need to stand back and not feel responsible for him having a good time every minute. "Tell him, 'You know, there are lots of good ideas here and most of them are your own. You really need to sit quietly and think about what you want to do.' " Now What Can We Do?

When they're "bored":

Sit down together and write a list of indoor and outdoor activities. Make sure they are ones your child wants to do, not just ideas that sound good to you.

Have another list of ideas that need your supervision or involvement for the time together.

Sometimes "I'm bored" becomes habitual. Ban it from an older child's vocabulary, says Joan Bergstrom, author of "School's Out -- Now What?" (Ten Speed Press). "That forces him to find some other way to express his feelings and to understand better what it is he'd rather do."

Real boredom occurs mostly in children over 12. Their summer needs more structure. How about some "volunteering" -- running errands for an elderly neighbor or having a daily walk in the neighborhood to pick up litter? Earning spending money by helping around the house with weeding, mowing or other garden chores?

You can make a potentially pedestrian activity more exciting simply by anticipating it together. "It seems like each day when we take our walk, something new is in bloom. I can't wait to see what it will be tomorrow!"

If your normally good-humored child is cranky and bored, it may be because he is more tired than usual. Have you stretched his summertime bedtime too late?

Children are apt to get most bored when friends go away. Find out who is home and plan for alternative playmates. Have a cousin come to visit.

Don't wait long to deal with a bored child. Boredom is contagious and can lead to sibling fighting.

Barbara Meltz