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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

You don't happen to know a child who procrastinates, do you?

Every kid dawdles at some time or other. This is one of my favorite columns, from 1999, just because.

Dealing with dawdling

As parents, we all know that our patience will be tried. So you may not be surprised to find yourself standing at the bottom of the stairs, with five minutes to go before the school bus arrives, shouting to your third-grader that she will be grounded for life if she doesn't get downstairs this minute. But then it gets worse: When she doesn't answer, you climb the
stairs with your fury barely in check, only to find her quietly playing with her Beanie Babies,
oblivious to time, the school bus, or you.

This is dawdling at its best.

As frustrating as it can be when children don't do what they need to do when they need to do it,
procrastination is a phenomenon of childhood that won't go away. We can't eliminate it, but we
can keep it from getting out of hand. Unfortunately, we often inadvertently make it worse instead
of better.

The first way we get into trouble is expecting children to have the same sense of time as we do.

"When they are engrossed in something, they have no sense of time passing," says psychologist Lenora Yuen of Palo Alto, Calif. That accounts for why a preschooler doesn't put toys away when you tell her to, why a 12-year-old doesn't see what the big deal
is that he hasn't taken the garbage out yet, or why a third-grader gets sidetracked by her Beanie
Babies.


Most effective, she says, are gentle reminders -- "Five minutes until we leave!" "Dinner is in 20
minutes; did you remember it's your turn to set the table?" "What can do to help you remember . . . ?" -- even though you have to issue them day after day. Yuen is a coauthor of "Procrastination: Why You Do It, What to Do About It" (Addison Wesley).

Some children are more prone to dawdling by nature. "They're kids who move at a slower pace,
are slow to warm up to new people, have a hard time making transitions, and are easily distracted," says pediatrician William Coleman, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina. The more we beg, nag, and threaten, the more they tune us out, he says.

Children of all ages and temperaments also procrastinate for a slew of other reasons, from
practical to psychological:

- He's overwhelmed. When Yuen researched her book, she was surprised to have adults pinpoint when their procrastination started: second grade. That turns out to be typical. "It's in second grade that you have your first assignment to do a report, and it's scary,"
says Yuen. The job is so daunting -- How do I begin? How do I make it good? -- that it's easier
not to start at all. This child needs organizational help. Break the task into small pieces:
"Let's start with one sentence about your favorite person in the book."

Being overwhelmed can also come from having too many activities or too much responsibility, or from parental expectations that are too high.

"For overprogrammed kids, the only way to get downtime is to dawdle," says behavioral
pediatrician David W. Willis of Portland, Ore. If you think this is what's going on, ask: "I wonder if you feel like you don't have enough time to just play?" Willis and Coleman are contributing editors to the American Academy of Pediatrics' book "Caring for Your
School-Age Child, 5 to 12."

Chores and responsibilities can cause dawdling if they are inappropriate. "There's a tendency
today to think the 9-, 10-, or 11-year-old is more independent than he really is," Willis says. "The solution for a child who's stressed and confused from being asked to
do more than he's developmentally capable of is to avoid it by dawdling." He tells
parents to be sure expectations are appropriate; to talk to a child about his responsibilities; and to provide structure, feedback, and praise.

- She doesn't want to fail. This is the most prevalent motive behind procrastination, according to child psychologist Joseph Ferrari of De Paul University in Chicago. "A child would rather have other people look at her as lacking effort than lacking ability," he says. She may turn to dawdling if she perceives herself as always succeeding -- "What if I can't keep it up?" -- or always failing: "If I never do this, no one can see how badly I do it."

Yuen says many procrastinators are perfectionists, even in second grade: "They want every single letter they form to be perfect. That takes a lot of effort; they get frustrated and put off doing it."

She urges parents to be coaches: "The mantra is, `It doesn't have to be perfect,' because the
psychological task for this child is to learn to be forgiving of himself."

- He doesn't want to succeed. In a scenario that's common in fourth grade and above, a child may worry that peers will ostracize him if he's too smart. So he turns a paper in late and gets a B instead of an A. Or he worries about outshining an older, less successful sibling and dawdles as a way to diminish himself. Yuen suggests posing questions to get a conversation going: "I bet some kids who are really smart worry about what their friends think of them."

- She's angry. A child may purposefully procrastinate as a way to get back at you for something, says child psychologist Edward Zigler, Sterling professor of psychology at Yale University. Get to the heart of the issue -- "I can tell you're angry at me; let's talk"-- before you focus on the dawdling. Dawdling that's fueled by resentment may not always be tied
to something specific, however. Ferrari's research shows that a father who is highly
impersonal, cold, and stern is most likely to have a child who dawdles. "It's one of the few ways he can really annoy you," he says.

- He wants to be in control. The reason we so commonly end up in a power struggle over procrastination is because he wants to be in control of when he does what he has to do.

Sometimes it makes the most sense to facilitate that, says Yuen, as long as you establish limits and consequences and follow through with them: "It doesn't matter when you do your chores, as long as they're done before dinner at 6. Otherwise, you won't be able to ride your bike after dinner."

When we don't follow through, we reinforce dawdling: "It doesn't matter if I don't do this now;
Mom doesn't care." No matter what the motive for procrastination, researchers agree, we also
reinforce it when we continually rescue a child. Preschoolers, for instance, says Zigler, engage in a kind of magical thinking: " `If I don't clean up my toys, it will just get done,' as if there's a good fairy. If we do the task, we're the good fairy." He suggests being explicit: "The good fairy won't do this. I'll help you with it today but this is your job."

Yuen, who frequently sees adults who never suffered the consequences of procrastinating until
they got a job, says children need to learn not only that it can hurt them -- a lesser grade, a
reputation for being irresponsible -- but also that it is rude and disrespectful to others. The ultimate goal is for a child to learn how to manage time and meet external expectations in a responsible way. "What parents don't realize," says Willis, "is that this takes years and years to accomplish."

Yuen's favorite strategy is a time-trade, where a child pays you back in time or effort for the
inconvenience he causes: "When you don't take the garbage out in a timely way, the kitchen starts to smell. Every time that happens, it's an inconvenience and annoyance to me. The consequence is for you to owe me 20 minutes of extra chores." Or: "I have to leave the house at 7:30 to drop you at school and get to work on time. For every minute your dawdling makes us leave late, you owe me that minute in extra chore time."

Willis recomends joining a child in the chore as a guide. As you're working side by side, not only can you tell if he's overwhelmed and thus scale the job back, but you can also model how to do it successfully. For instance, if he has to clean his room and doesn't know where to start, you can help him see that everything doesn't have to be done at once: "We'll set the timer for 15 minutes and see what we can do in that time; then we can come back later and
do more."

Although children can dawdle at any time of the day over any responsibility, morning is prime time. "They have a hard time working up the momentum to get moving," says Yuen.

Last year, she found herself struggling with her dawdling 7-year- old, who was late for school
despite her best efforts. What finally worked didn't come from her but from the teacher: The
tardiness was reported on the report card.

Yuen is betting that morning dawdling won't be a problem this year.

SIDEBAR Tips about dillydallying

It's normal for procrastination to be typically sporadic, sometimes occurring at the same time each day (a likely sign of fatigue, hunger, or body rhythm) or around a particular issue (a sign he's overwhelmed).

Consider it a red flag if you're nagging about dawdling all day long about many different things; if you're hearing about it from the teacher and the coach; and if it's also accompanied by moodiness and irritability. These may be signs of depression.

Children with a risk-taking personality may leave things until the last minute for the thrill of completing it under the wire. If the effort is successful, there's a rush: "Whoa, am I good!"
If it fails: "Hey, I didn't have enough time."

Children who procrastinate over social decisions -- "Should I go to the sleepover or not?" -- will blame you if you make the decision for them: "I had a terrible time, and it's your fault!" Help them instead to take ownership: What are the reasons not to go? What are the reasons to go?

The more you battle over dawdling, the more the battle becomes part of the routine. Break the cycle by changing the pattern with either more guidance or more structure. Reward systems such as star charts can help preschoolers and school-age children be more timely.

Teenagers tend to procrastinate most at the beginning of a relationship. Afraid they'll lose the friendship, they put off responsibilities in order to spend more time with the person.

Posted by Barbara Meltz at 02:25 PM
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