Child Caring

What seems like procrastination may be something different
By Barbara F. Meltz, Globe Staff, 6/26/2003

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'' (Walker).

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 up.''

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 organization.

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 meltz@globe.com.

This story ran on page H3 of the Boston Globe on 6/26/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

 

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Rita Emmett, author of The Procrastinator’s Handbook and The Clutter-Busting Handbook, is a professional speaker who presents Keynotes and Seminars nationwide. She can be reached at 847-699-9950 and email is Rita@RitaEmmett.com

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