Parenting Solutions: Helping Children Overcome Procrastination

Caught early and addressed in childhood, the frequent delaying of doing things can be corrected so that it will not develop into a lifelong, negative habit.

When the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla (1876-1946) received news of the death of the painter Ignacio Zuloaga (1870-1945), he was visibly distressed and lamented to a friend: “What a pity. He died before I answered his letter, which he sent me five years ago!”

That incident is a drastic example of the problem with procrastination—delaying doing something habitually. It is a character defect that plagues many adults and one that usually begins in childhood. Ask children to mow the lawn, make the bed, complete their homework, or clean their room, and they will find all sorts of reasons to delay the task. At one time or another, every parent has heard his child say, “I’ll do it later!”—only to discover afterward that the task was not done.

Although procrastination can be viewed charitably as a small and harmless human weakness, left unchallenged it can grow into a habit and major liability eroding the quality of life. As William J. Knaus, Ed.D., observes in his book Do It Now: How to Stop Procrastinating (Prentice Hall PTR, 1979): “Time lost in procrastinating can take years out of a person’s life. It saps enormous amounts of energy, emotion, and time. But worse yet, the fears, self-doubts, and low tolerance for the unpleasant that are part of the procrastination pattern can lead to alcoholism, depression, and anxiety.”

Here are some ways to help children start early in overcoming procrastination.

IDENTIFY UNDERLYING ISSUES

Study your child’s behavior patterns for the reason(s) he or she procrastinates. Generally, there are five basic issues:

  1. Difficulty— the task appears hard, and there is a natural tendency to avoid it in favor of doing something more pleasant.
  2. Time consumption— the task requires a large block of time that can be found “later,” as on the weekend.
  3. Lack of knowledge— there is hesitation to begin until one has gained more information.
  4. Fear— if the project requires a child to do something different and move out of his or her comfort zone, the very thought of doing it can freeze the youngster into immobility.
  5. Perfectionism— many children fear falling short of their own very high and often unrealistic standards. For example, a child may not audition because “I’m not talented enough to be picked.”

DEAL WITH THE ISSUES THAT ARISE

The “cure” for these five issues begins in a relatively simple way as parents help children respond positively and optimistically to the issues. As a parent, you need to become your child’s most important cheerleader.

If a child’s issue is one of difficulty, tell him it isn’t so hard, that he can do it. If the issue is one of time, tell her it won’t take that long and she has the time. If the problem is a lack of knowledge, remind the child he can find the information and you will guide him.

If the issue is fear, remind her this is an opportunity to expand her comfort zone and move in a new direction. And, if the issue is that of perfectionism, remind your child that seldom is anything accomplished that is completely perfect, and that completing a task is far more preferable than leaving it undone.

TEACH CHILDREN TO SET PRIORITIES

Help children discipline themselves to use their time wisely by establishing priorities. Even the youngest child can learn this.

Some simple examples include these types of comments: Before you play with your friends, you need to clean your room. You may watch television, but first let’s be sure that your homework is complete.

Establishing priorities ensures that tasks are completed in a timely fashion, thereby creating time and opportunity for more pleasant activities. Also, keep in mind that prioritizing is something that parents must model for their children. Many values are as effectively caught as they are taught.

A good example comes from David Baker, commissioner of the Arena Football League. Baker works out of New York City during the week, but his family lives on the West Coast. Despite the fact that he flies some 200,000 miles per year, mainly for his job, it’s been a priority for Baker in the past to fly from New York on Thursday nights or Friday mornings to be in Southern California to watch his son Sam play high school football. In order to do this, the father has had to carefully manage his time during the week so that he could be away from his office to enjoy time with his son at the games.

Even though Sam Baker told his father that he really did not have to do this—especially if the elder Baker wasn’t feeling well—David Baker made it a point to be at the games.

Mr. Baker has set an excellent example for his son in that he has clear personal priorities, abides by them, and refuses to procrastinate or tell himself, “I’ll watch Sam play next week.” He knows that a task put off once can be more easily put off again and again.

COUNTER PROCRASTINATION WITH TASK-COMPLETION TOOLS

Parents can help children move from task avoidance to task completion by utilizing these simple but effective tools developed by the Student Academic Services (SAS) office at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, and included in the study skills improvement information about procrastination on the SAS Web site (http://sas.calpoly.edu/main/services.html). Although developed with college students in mind, the tools can be modified by parents for children of any age. Specifically:

  • “Make the tasks look small and easy in your mind.”
  • “Do only a small part of the task each time.”
  • Use the “five-minute plan: Work on something for just five minutes. At the end of five minutes, switch to something else if you want to. Chances are, you’ll get involved enough to keep going.”
  • “Use a good friend as a positive role model. If you have trouble concentrating, study in the presence of someone who doesn’t.”
  • “Modify your environment—if you can’t study at home, find a place where you can study; or, change your study situation at home.”
  • “Plan tomorrow and establish priorities—some students find that simply writing down reasonable starting and stopping times helps them get going.”
  • “Expect some backsliding. Don’t expect to be perfect, even when you’re trying to get rid of perfectionism! So occasionally, your plans will not work. Accept setbacks and start again.”

REMIND YOUR CHILD OF THE BENEFITS OF NOT PROCRASTINATING

There are many benefits that come from overcoming procrastination, and they include peace of mind, a feeling of personal power, more freedom, and the pleasure of knowing that one is in control of his or her life. On the other hand, procrastinators often feel weak, helpless, incapable, anxious, frustrated, and depressed.

TAP INTO THE POWER OF MOTIVATIONAL STATEMENTS

One father helped his 13-year-old son deal with his chronic procrastination by utilizing positive, motivational sentences. He explains: “My son and I agreed there was a procrastination problem, so we put together some positive statements. Then we printed them on colorful sheets of paper and taped them to the wall of his bedroom.” Some of the sentences that father and son used included these:

“Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today.” “Later never exists.” “There’s no time like the present.” “The sooner I finish, the sooner I can play.” “What may be done anytime will be done at no time.” “Do today what you want to postpone for tomorrow.”

REQUIRE ACCOUNTABILITY

One mother of three children explains: “I negotiate with my children as to when things will be done, and then I leave them alone until the deadline arrives. I let them know from the start that if they don’t carry out the responsibility by the time agreed upon, there will be consequences. For example, my 14-year-old son recently procrastinated on doing a biology report and didn’t get it to the teacher on time. Not only did he get a zero grade, but I grounded him for the entire weekend. That meant no friends over and limited time watching television or playing video games.”

ENCOURAGE PATIENCE

It’s not easy to break a habit, especially one that may have become deep-seated. The procrastination habit can neither be broken overnight nor with a single act. “Change is a process,” says Dr. Linda Sapadin, a psychologist and author, with Jack Maguire, of It’s About Time! The Six Styles of Procrastination and How to Overcome Them (Penguin USA, 1997). “You have to see it [procrastination] as a pattern you have learned and you can overcome,” she adds.

Finally, parents and other significant adults should remain encouraged, optimistic, and persistent. While procrastination is a bad habit, it is a curable one. Dealt with in its earliest stages, it can be short-lived.

Victor M. Parachin is a freelance writer in Tulsa, Okla.

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