Rita Emmett calls herself a recovering procrastinator. She remembers
once in high school staying up all night to study for a test. Slowly but
surely she whittled the night away, calling friends, sorting through
papers, daydreaming, taking breaks, reading a novel.
By morning, she hadn't opened the text.
''That pretty much describes my childhood,'' says Emmett, who lectures
nationally on procrastination and is author of ''The Procrastinating
Child: A Handbook for Adults to Help Children Stop Putting Things Off''
Procrastination is one of those behaviors endemic to childhood. As
parents, we can't make it go away, but we aren't powerless in its
wake. The relaxed atmosphere of summer may be just the time to fix
problems before they get out of hand again in the next school year.
The trick, say Emmett and other child development specialists, is
recognizing that while there definitely are times when children
deliberately put off something for no reason other than personal
pleasure, there also may be times when what looks like procrastination
is something else entirely.
4- to 8-year-olds. Young children are masters at dawdling but they
aren't true procrastinators because they have no cognitive understanding
of timeliness, says psychologist Lenora Yuen, author of
''Procrastination: Why You Do It and What to Do about It'' (Perseus).
It's strictly the pleasure principle that fuels their delay tactics,
she says: ''They like what they are doing and don't want to give it
Dawdling may also be a learned response to parents who set consequences
(''There'll be no story if you don't pick up your toys!'') but then
don't follow through. This child becomes like a gambler, says Yuen:
''He's willing to take his chances that he doesn't need to take you
seriously.'' Setting fair expectations and following through
consistently is likely to thwart the procrastination.
Rather than nag, scold, or punish a young child who delays, Yuen
suggests finding ways to give him a greater sense of control (''Do you
want to put your pajamas on before or after your story?''), and to
depersonalize the struggle by using a timer (''We need to leave the
house in 10 minutes. I'm going to set the timer for five minutes. That
way, we'll know we're getting very close to when we have to leave.'')
Clinical psychologist Linda Budd of St. Paul recalls that from a young
age, her youngest child functioned on what the family called ''Kimberly
Time.'' ''The more I would try to hurry her up, the more she would slow
down,'' says Budd.
This can look oppositional and deliberate but Budd quickly realized
her daughter simply had a slower processing speed. ''It's not a
learning disability or attention deficit, but a disability all the
same,'' she says. ''When this child is pushed to perform faster, she
gets overwhelmed and freezes.'' Parents may first notice this as early
as 4, when a preschooler is able to do just about any task competently
but consistently takes longer than peers. Typical delay tactics are
more likely to be random.
For this child, Budd advises allowing more time for a task and
breaking directions down into small pieces so he doesn't get
overwhelmed. The third edition of her book ''Living with the Active
Alert Child'' (Parenting Press) is due next month.
School age. Procrastination can become a bad habit as early as second
grade when the first book report is due. What begins as a problem of
not knowing where to start (''What do I write? How do I make it
good?'') can mushroom in a few years to not wanting to fail (''If it's
late, no one will see that it isn't perfect.''). This child would
rather that others see her as lacking in effort than in ability.
Emmett says her procrastination colored her whole childhood, often
leading her to lie to cover up for herself. Teachers thought less of
her for it, and eventually she did, too. ''I procrastinated because I
didn't know what else to do. I assumed it was the only way I could do
things,'' she says.
Help this child with time-management skills. ''If he has a project due
next Tuesday, get out a calendar. Break it into small, daily steps,''
says Yuen. ''Once he sees that works, it becomes a skill he can build
on.'' She urges parents to remain matter-of-fact and supportive. Bite
your tongue or leave the room rather than express your frustration.
With procrastination around chores, Budd says, ''If he gets it done, but
just not on the time frame you want, place different boundaries around
the chore.'' If a child consistently puts off a specific chore, maybe he
has an aversion to it, doesn't know how to execute it well, or feels
caught in a power struggle with you. Are you micro- managing?
''Procrastination can be a signal to parents that you need to back
off,'' says Budd.
Teenage. This is prime time for procrastination but maybe not for
reasons you think. ''The body grows, but the brain may doze,'' quips
Budd. What she means is that between 10 and 16, there are developmental
spurts when the
body's growth outdistances the brain's.
''There are cognitive lapses,'' she says. ''He's been walking the dog
every day for six years and now, all of a sudden, he doesn't have a
clue. As a parent, you just want to say, `Huh?!'''
Two other aspects of adolescent development contribute to
procrastination. (1) They tend to feel invulnerable, so they think
they will escape negative consequences. ''I can turn the paper in
late, the teacher won't care.'' (2) They are so self-absorbed, they
don't see that their procrastination impacts others. ''The trash is
overflowing and smelling up the kitchen and he wants to know what the
big deal is,'' says Yuen.
She tells parents to treat procrastination as forgetfulness: ''Looks
like you need reminders to walk the dog. What would help you?'' Budd
would allow for natural consequences: ''We have to call a cleaning
service because the carpet is ruined where the dog peed when you
didn't walk her. How do you want to pay for it?''
Fear can be a cause of procrastination at all ages. ''It provides a
temporary respite from the anxiety,'' says Yuen. A seventh-grader who
delays homework by playing video games, for instance, may be putting so
much pressure on himself to get all A's that when he sits down to work,
''all the weight and import of it crashes in on him,'' she says.
Procrastination can also be a respite for the child who has a hard time
making decisions. It's not that the child who puts off cleaning her room
loves clutter, says Emmett. Rather, she may not be able to decide,
''Should I keep this or throw it out?'' She needs help with
Emmett is big on reward as an antidote for procrastination: ''If you can
remember to walk the dog every day this week, I'll take you to miniature
golf on Saturday.'' She would offer reminders - not nags - along the
way: ''I'm really hoping you remember to walk the dog. I don't want to
go without you.'' If push comes to shove, though, she would.
She's sure a strategy like that might have helped her as a child.
Afterthought - A nice ritual to add to your child's bedtime: ''sweet
dreams: 36 bedtime wishes,'' compiled by Cooper Edens and Sheryl Abrams.
Not a book but 36 illustrated cards, each with a verse or thought on the
back. The idea is to pick a different card each night, read it aloud,
and tuck it under the pillow in the hope that it will bring sweet
dreams. Available at www.chroniclebooks.com
Contact Barbara F. Meltz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story ran on page H3 of the Boston Globe on 6/26/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.