Barbara F. Meltz writes the Globe's Child Caring column. She is author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes, Understanding How Your Children See the World," and a frequent speaker to parent groups. Join her chat on the first and third Monday of the month at noon.
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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
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,
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
Some children are more prone to dawdling by nature. "They're kids who move at a slower pace,
Children of all ages and temperaments also procrastinate for a slew of other reasons, from
- 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,"
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
Chores and responsibilities can cause dawdling if they are inappropriate. "There's a tendency
- 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."
- 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
- 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;
Yuen, who frequently sees adults who never suffered the consequences of procrastinating until
Yuen's favorite strategy is a time-trade, where a child pays you back in time or effort for the
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
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
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!"
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.