Don't put off child's procrastinating

Seattle Times

Last Updated: Nov. 30, 2002

Many parents tire of nagging their children to do their homework, clean their room, write a thank-you note to Grandma or get dressed for school on time.

Some dawdling is expected. But a chronic "I'll do it later" attitude is a bad habit parents should - and can - eradicate, says Rita Emmett in "The Procrastinating Child: A Handbook for Adults to Help Children Stop Putting Things Off" (Walker & Co.; $10.95).

"Children are considered to be procrastinators if they frequently need to be reminded, yet they still don't do what they're supposed to do or they finally do it only after a nightmare of tears, arguments or some other kind of emotional upheaval," Emmett explains.

Her book looks at the root causes, such as lack of motivation, feeling overwhelmed, hating the task, disorganization and perfectionism.

While what kids balk on may differ, the whys remain the same regardless of age, notes Emmett, who also wrote "The Procrastinator's Handbook" for adults.

"Procrastination is neither a personality trait nor a character flaw," she says. "It is simply a habit, and we can all change our habits."

Parents need to be willing to set rewards or penalties for kids who might otherwise be indifferent to a task. "Your response has to be, 'I'm not asking you to care. If you want the privilege of watching TV, get your chores done. If you want the privilege of driving a car, get your homework in on time and have it done well. That's the deal. You don't have to care.' "

Besides making life easier for themselves, parents who help children overcome procrastination probably will see a rise in their kids' self-confidence.
Some of Emmett's tips for curtailing kids' procrastination:

  • Set rules requiring children to finish chores and tasks right away. For example, "No TV until homework is done."

  • Reinforce positives so kids don't procrastinate in order to receive negative attention. For example, a child might learn that if he does his homework when asked, it goes in his backpack with little comment. If he waits, he knows he'll get Mom's attention when she helps him finish at the last minute.

  • Let children suffer the consequences of procrastination. Don't stay up late completing a science project they put off, for example, or do their chores for them because it's more work to hassle them about it.

  • Give them motivation for completing a task or list of tasks without reminders. Let the child brainstorm rewards, which could include TV or computer time, car rides to activities, time with an adult, a trip to the park, telephone time, toys or clothes.

  • Brag about your child's new behavior of getting things done when he can overhear you.

  • Don't become defensive when your child's school or other organizations enforce rules. If the band requires members to practice and your daughter doesn't, then help her either make that a priority or accept the results.

  • Help children break down a large job into smaller tasks to do one at a time. A child faced with a messy room is easily overwhelmed. Suggest he start by picking up all the clothes, then toys, then papers, for example. Make lists and encourage kids to cross items off when done.

  • Reward the steps. If a child has a long-term project, such as reading a book and doing a report, reward him for starting well ahead of time by taking him out for a small treat when he's halfway through the book.

  • Set a timer and work on one priority for a given amount of time. No breaks allowed, but reward your child when he's done.

  • Let children do it their own way, even if it's not your style.

  • When possible, make the task more fun. Sing, work together, make it a game ("How many toys can you pick up in 10 minutes?"), videotape or record a practice session, etc.

  • Address their excuses. They don't know how to do something? Show them how or hire a tutor. They forgot? Buy a calendar or post a list of duties. Too busy? Help them set priorities - schoolwork before playing with friends, for example.

    A version of this story appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Dec. 1, 2002.

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