Rabbi Ross. I have a 13-year-old daughter who is the world’s worst procrastinator. She pushes off everything and it never gets done. I’m not talking only about school work, even her personal life. I read your article about homework, that’s actually when I signed up for these emails. I’m talking about it affecting every aspect of her life. She’ll push off applying for a summer job until there are none left, and then she’ll be all upset. Any ideas? Sharon – Queens.
I believe that there is a big difference between a child who procrastinates, and a child who is a procrastinator. What’s the difference? Many of us procrastinate. We push off tasks until the last moment, or we do something more enjoyable. As a Rebbe, I would much rather call parents with positive reports about their children than grade twenty-five double sided tests. I push it off until I need to get them done. That’s called procrastinating.
When the procrastination routinely causes a child (or adult for that matter) not to fulfill a task or responsibility in a predetermined timeframe, then you have a procrastinator. Based on the email you wrote, “….and it never gets done”, I would agree with your assessment that your daughter is a procrastinator.
Why does it matter? If your child occasionally procrastinates, that means he/she is normal. Although it’s not a smart way of getting things accomplished, it’s not the worst thing. You can simply give gentle reminders to your child, or even leave a sticky note by her desk. I hate to write this, but you can even text your child a reminder occasionally. Not overbearing, just reminding. “By the way, you have that report due next week.”
On the other hand, if your child is a procrastinator, there are certain steps you need to take to help them out. Before we begin looking at solutions, let’s try and see why children become procrastinators.
I’m sure many of you realized that I left one out. Procrastination is frequently a learned behavior. If you procrastinate, your children will also. In any case, your child will hopefully not fit all of these descriptions. Even if it’s only one or two of them, it helps to understand what’s causing the issues. Let’s take a look at some solutions.
You need to speak to your child. Explain that you’re not upset, rather you want to help them deal with this issue. Let them explain why they procrastinate. While they’re talking, try to identify which of the above causes may be at play. Just as a doctor can’t effectively treat a headache without knowing the underlying cause—dehydration, allergies, stress, etc., you can’t effectively help your child stop procrastinating unless you understand what’s prompting the behavior.
Don’t punish or give consequences. The only consequence should be the one caused directly by their inaction. For example, if your child didn’t apply for a job, don’t do it for her and be the knight in shining armor. Let her deal with the consequence. Just don’t add on additional ones.
Don’t attempt solutions that aren’t matched up with the underlying issue. For instance, offering or withholding a reward for completing a task won’t help a child who is procrastinating because they don’t see why the task is relevant. While you might actually convince him to complete the task, it will begin a pattern of expectation that can spiral out of control. Your child might stop doing anything that he deems irrelevant, unless he’s offered a reward.
Make sure you are clear and realistic in what you expect from your child. For example, many parents may focus on the effort put forth on a school project or test, not the grade—but a child may think you expect them to earn straight-As in every subject. Try setting specific, achievable, expectations such as structured time to do homework, study, or do chores. In this way, your child will have a clearer understanding of what’s expected, and might find it easier to begin working on it.
Help your child break down the solution. There is something called catastrophic thinking. Here’s how it works. Your daughter might think, “I didn’t apply for a job, so I’ll be home in the summer. Therefore, I’ll end up working in a place with no friends. All of my friends will be in camp having fun and I’ll be left out. As a result, in school next year I’ll have no friends. I’m a failure. I give up.” You need to help your child break this cycle. Tell her, “Forget next year, or your friends, for now. Do YOU want to work in the camp? If so, take care of this today.” When dealing with younger children, actually break down the task. Don’t say, “Clean up the den”, rather, tell them to put away the train tracks that are on the floor.
Focus on the positive. Assuming your child has a book report due in two weeks, tell him the following: “Won’t it be awesome if you could complete this tonight? You could hand it in to the teacher tomorrow and she’ll be shocked. You won’t need to worry about this for the next two weeks, and you’ll get a good grade since you aren’t rushing!”
Tell your children that they’re not alone in this struggle – it’s real. Explain that you also procrastinate, and share what tricks you use to compensate. When children see that they’re not alone when dealing with a specific issue, it gives them a boost.
Help them get started. A large part of the problem of procrastination comes from feeling overwhelmed about the completion of the task. A science fair project takes hours of work — but the first twenty minutes will only take twenty minutes to complete. Just getting started is a step in the right direction. If your child knows that they only need to do twenty minutes of work, they are much more likely to start. You can help your child set up mini-goals in their overall quest to complete a larger goal. Achieving each step can give your child a boost, making them more likely to continue, or return to, the task positively in the future.
You may have to help your child manage time. Consider giving her a defined start time. For instance, “After dinner at 6:00, let’s get started.” You can also try setting some rules around the process, like working for a certain amount of time without interruption, or completing a specific amount of work before taking a break.
Give your child simple notes with what needs to be accomplished that day or week. It helps to stay focused on the task at hand if it’s constantly visible. A great trick is to leave the note on their chair as opposed to a desk, which can be cluttered. Another great spot is the bathroom mirror.
Positive reinforcement is fantastic. Reward your child if he/she finished a job ahead of schedule. Don’t only give a physical reward, tell them how impressed you are that they didn’t push it off.
Of course, some of these might work better than others. In most cases, following some of these suggestions can help your children get on track. However, if the procrastination is affecting every aspect of their lives, it may be a good idea to bring him to a therapist or psychologist for a deeper evaluation.
Wishing you all a good Shabbos.
Rabbi Yitzie Ross is a Rebbe and has been working with parents and kids for many years. You can read more about him in the "about" section.