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The Truth About Children’s Procrastination

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

By Dr. Joanne Foster


Over the past several weeks, families have adjusted to lots of changes in routines, social situations, schooling, and day-to-day dynamics. Along the way, many children (and adults, too) have been struggling with a lack of structure and procrastination. With summer approaching, and people craving more time outdoors, procrastination continues to be an issue. Here’s what to do about it—and why.


WHAT IS PROCRASTINATION?


"Procrastination is no secret. Like caution, hesitation, and indecision, it’s a slice of life."

~ Not Now, Maybe Later, p. 19


Procrastination is a form of avoidance behavior. It involves willfully putting off tasks or activities or substituting them with ones that are more appealing. For example, instead of doing something that’s mundane or too challenging, children may prefer to do something that seems more interesting, exciting, fun, or readily doable. Procrastination can be recurring or sporadic. It may occur in certain situations or in relation to specific kinds of demands. It involves choice. Individuals choose whether to act, participate, create, say “no!” (or “later”), use their capacities, be the best they can be, or step forward, backward, or aside.


Is procrastination bad? Is there a positive spin to it? Read on…


WHAT’S THE UPSIDE?


"Procrastination can be a self-help mechanism that, for some people, provides a measure of control. Making a decision, even a decision to do nothing, may help them to feel calmer, especially if things around them seem to be spinning out of control."

~ Not Now, Maybe Later, p. 40


People who chastise a procrastinator may be too quick to admonish. Perhaps they’re not seeing the whole picture.


Children may put things off as a way to seize the extra time to plan, prepare, or ponder. This can be time well spent. Procrastination may be like a window of opportunity—a chance for kids to think things through carefully or creatively, prioritize, regulate emotions, gain self-control, or develop skills.


Children procrastinate for various reasons. For example, they may lack self-confidence or feel unsure about how to tackle something. They might think expectations are unfair, inappropriate, threatening, risky, or unattainable, so procrastination may seem to them to be a very reasonable response. Simply put, avoidance is how some kids cope with uncertainty and adversity. However, when people procrastinate, there are generally consequences. Young children may not grasp that.


IS PROCRASTINATION POTENTIALLY PROBLEMATIC?


"There seems to be a moral dimension attached to procrastination; dragging one’s feet is viewed as behavior to be criticized…"

~ Not Now, Maybe Later, p. 18


Procrastination can be detrimental to a child’s productivity, self-confidence, and learning. It can trigger feelings such as shame, guilt, embarrassment, worry, and anger. It can also lead to power struggles and conflicts and affect relationships with friends and family members.


Children may procrastinate when they feel bored, upset, disorganized, distracted, insecure, overwhelmed, or ill-prepared.


Procrastination can be difficult to eliminate and manage—regardless of age, but perhaps especially for children. Young people are still finding their way as they experience emotional upheavals, skill-related demands, various expectations, social interactions, and more. All of this can be stressful!

Procrastination can be frowned upon by others, particularly anyone who may be inconvenienced by it. There’s often an aura of laziness or disobedience attached to procrastination—for example, when children postpone complying with parents’ requests, resist following rules, or shirk responsibility for simple chores (like tidying up toys). Avoidance behavior is not always condoned or understood. There are negative connotations to it.


However, the reality is that children, like adults, are trying to get through all the demands of life, carving out their own approaches and time frames for meeting different challenges. The good news is that supportive family members can offer reassurance and help procrastinating children learn what they can manage and how to get things done. Fortunately, there are many ways to tackle procrastination!


NEXT STEPS?


"No matter how old you are, it’s important to steer yourself well. It’s also important to have faith in your ability to do whatever you set your mind to do."

~ Bust Your BUTS, p. 140


Parents can help kids deal with procrastination by co-creating an action plan that’s fair and doable. Here’s a procrastination-busting framework that’s easy to use.


1) What’s the reason? Help your child realize what underlies the procrastination. It may be something personal (such as fear), or skill-related (such as poor organization) or external influences (such as distractions). Validate children’s feelings and experiences. 2) Is it a problem? Determine together if or how procrastination might be compromising your child’s well-being. Does it impede health, emotional stability, personal growth, learning, or relationships with others? 3) Can children overcome procrastination? Yes! Explore resources and strategies together. (See the links noted for helpful suggestions.) Plus, here are ten starting points for parents: o Ensure a safe and comfortable environment. Keep distractions to a minimum. o Try to maintain some familiar and consistent routines. o Respect children’s right to indicate what they choose to do. Facilitate choice—within reason! o Encourage children to chat with those they trust. o Enable kids to get involved in co-creating, setting, or revisiting expectations for tasks and activities for which they’re responsible. This will help to ensure that they’re manageable and worth doing, and that timelines are fair. o Reassure children. They’re still learning to attend to and modify their behaviors, and cope with their feelings. (See the article on “Reassurance” in the April 2020 issue of First Time Parent Magazine.) o Model good practices like resolve, pacing, and resilience. o Stay calm. Lighten up. Don’t get into a battle of wills. o Reinforce children’s efforts, step by step. Offer genuine praise. Give constructive feedback for accomplishments. o Show kids that you have faith in their ability to succeed.

AND, FINALLY—FOR EVERYONE…


"At the end of the day, you are responsible for what happens in your life, including what gets done and what doesn’t get done."

~ Bust Your BUTS, p. 1


Even very young children can learn about responsible behavior. And, parents are well-positioned to help kids overcome procrastination and become more action-oriented and persistent. To that end, parents can find out about motivation (because kids who are motivated are less likely to procrastinate), time management (because using time effectively will help them get things done), and developing personal strengths (because this will empower children to be the very best they can be). Information on all of this, and more, are accessible via the resources listed.


Families are emerging after weeks of staying at home, and children are experiencing the outdoors—and increased latitude. Now (as opposed to later) is an opportune time to help children focus when need be and go from I “can’t” or “won’t” to I “can” and “will!”


READING AND RESOURCES


For more on procrastination, see Dr. Foster’s books Not Now Maybe Later and Bust your BUTS. Information about these books is available at www.joannefoster.ca.


Here are a few additional resources:


ABOUT THE AUTHOR Dr. Joanne Foster is an award-winning author, parent, educational consultant, and expert in child development and gifted education. She writes and presents on learning, productivity, creativity, and ways to support and encourage children’s well-being. Her most recent book is ABCs of Raising Smarter Kids: Hundreds of Ways to Inspire Your Child, and she has also written two books on procrastination. To learn more about Dr. Foster’s books, and for access to a wide range of articles and links, please go to www.joannefoster.ca.

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