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Frequently asked question: “What can we do to motivate our wait-until-the-last minute child to get things done earlier?”

Procrastination is annoying to parents and, carried to extreme, can be harmful to the child.

What causes procrastination?

I sometimes think people come into the world with a built-in way of approaching a task. Some people, like me, don’t feel “right” until all the things which have to be done are done. Others, like my son, put things off until the last minute and seem to both need and enjoy the ensuing adrenaline rush.

Young children dawdle because they don’t yet understand time or the need to hurry. They are also both distractable and curious which means they may decide to look out the window instead of getting dressed.

The best way to help a child become time competent–and it takes a long time for this to happen–is to PLAY GAMES rather than lecture about how late the child will be. You can make it a race–”Let’s run to the car!” if the child is moving slowly or you can use the old “Let’s see if you can beat the timer” routine when the child is dawdling about getting dressed. (All parents of young children need a timer handy for both time-outs and beat-the-timer. The timer is neutral and toy-like; it’s not just for kitchens anymore.)

Another good strategy especially with chores is GRANDMA’S RULE: When you have done X, then you can do Y. “When you have taken out the trash and swept the patio, then you can play with Bob.” Never get so exasperated you do the child’s chores yourself. This gives the message that if your child stalls long enough, he or she doesn’t have to do the chore at all!

Always NOTICE AND REWARD “TIMELY” BEHAVIOR. “You got dressed so fast we have time for a surprise tea party–you get the dolls and I’ll get the cookies.”

It also helps to INTERPRET THE CONSEQUENCES OF BEING LATE ( “We missed the start of the game because you didn’t get ready in time”. or “You would have had time to listen to your new tape if you made your bed right away”.)

What about procrastination in older children and teens? A more complicated picture. Some kids avoid tasks until the last minute because they are afraid of not doing well and, if their self-fulfilling prophecy comes true, they can then tell themselves they didn’t have enough time to do a good job.

Others get into the habit of putting things off until the last minute and relying on anxiety to push them into doing the work. This “brinkmanship” has two flaws: it’s not the healthiest way to motivate oneself and the day will come when the child miscalculates and will not be able to finish the assignment.

Then there are a group of teens that procrastinate so long they do not finish any tasks with disastrous results: failing grades. Some procrastinate to get parental attention or to annoy their parents.

Some children are overwhelmed by a task and do not know how to break it down into manageable segments.

Parents can help in two ways. If the child is truly overwhelmed and can’t figure out how to start a big task, SHOW HOW TO BREAK A TASK INTO SEGMENTS. Show your children how you tackle an onerous task like paying bills (you can teach the kids how to keep papers organized and how to complete the task in a timely fashion and avoid paying late charges.)

Most important, parents can help their children learn how to start and complete tasks on time by LETTING THE CHILD OWN THE PROBLEM and experience the consequences. If you keep reminding a teen that his or her book report is due, you give two messages. One says that you don’t trust the child to keep track of assignments; the other tells the child that you will likely perform some kind of “rescue” or, at the very least keep reminding the child of the assignment. In other words you now own the problem. Your child can now settle down in a comfortable laid-back position!

One of the hardest lessons a parent has to learn is that as long as you take the child’s responsibility on your shoulders, you are prolonging the procrastination. Children don’t get up by themselves until you say, “You have an alarm clock. I will not wake you for school. If you miss the bus, it’s your problem.” Obviously you have to mean what you say!

When you say, and mean, that you will not remind the child of any assignments then the child has to assume the responsibility and take any consequences that may ensue if this responsibility is not met. Only when you do this is it likely the procrastination will diminish.