If you’re a parent, the likelihood is you have a child who procrastinates. Why? Because procrastination is part of the human experience. Most people procrastinate because they are not enthusiastic about a task, or because there’s no shortage of more interesting, exciting, or pressing things to do.
“Everybody procrastinates, but not everybody is a procrastinator,” says Dr. Joseph Ferrari, Professor of Psychology at DePaul University. For 20 percent of the population, procrastination is a chronic problem. “These are people who have a maladaptive lifestyle,” Ferrari says, “individuals who are chronic or habitual procrastinators. They don’t pay their bills on time, their refrigerator is empty, they lose jobs because they don’t get their work done on time.”
The good news is that when it comes to children, procrastination is only worthy of attention from a therapist or psychologist when it permeates every aspect of their lives—“when they’re doing this at home, at school, with their friends,” Ferrari says.
Dr. Sean McCrea, Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Konstanz in Germany, recently released findings from his procrastination study that show the significance of the way in which tasks are presented: people act in a timely way when given concrete tasks, and they dawdle when they view the tasks in abstract terms. “The focus of much of my research is on examining reasons why people undermine their own performance,” McCrea says. “I think the most interesting aspect of the findings is that subtly putting people into a more concrete mindset has such powerful effects.”
Perhaps parents can help their children by presenting tasks in concrete terms (for instance, picking up the balls versus cleaning the playroom). More importantly, though, parents can help by recognizing that parenting style is significant. Ferrari, who has been researching procrastination for more than 20 years, says there is no gene for procrastination; it is learned. “We have found that chronic procrastinators report having parents who were cold and demanding—authoritative,” Ferrari says. “It’s the child who can’t really rebel, so the only way to rebel is to delay doing what the parent is asking them to do.”
Ferrari suggests that parents reward their children for being early rather than punish them for being late. “We often expect 100% or 0%,” Ferrari says. “No, no! If the child meets 80% of the goal, you reward them for that!”
Dr. Timothy Pychyl, Professor of Psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, agrees that parents have to be careful not to be too hard on children who procrastinate. “We understand that there’s a certain amount of cognitive development that has to go on,” Pychyl says. “We see a young person that’s not regulating his or her behavior very well, and we become so punitive.”
Pychyl cautions that children of authoritarian parents are in for a tough time later in life. “It’s important for parents to be gentle and encourage the development of self-regulation,” Pychyl says. “It takes time and maturity.”
Pychyl’s recent research examines the relationship between identity formation and procrastination. The study found that young people who hadn’t achieved their identity yet were more likely to procrastinate. “Ego identity is all part of just having ego executive functioning,” Pychyl says. “You have to be able to monitor your own behavior and choose to commit your resources to it.” Pychyl points out that people who don’t know themselves are not going to commit.
Metacognitive skills such as goal setting, breaking down tasks, and monitoring progress are all skills that parents can teach and model for their children—skills that can be learned. Pychyl says it’s more than just a matter of developing will: it’s also necessary to develop skill. “Skill and will together lead to self-regulatory success.”
Teaching Kids Not to Procrastinate: 10 Tips for Success
- Reward, don’t punish.
- Have realistic expectations. Don’t expect too much.
- Change your parenting technique as your child gets older. (Don’t be stern with a 12-year-old in the same way you would be with a 3-year-old.)
- Give your child choice and responsibility. Don’t always tell your child what to do.
- Model positive, self-regulatory behavior. Teach goal setting, breaking down tasks, and monitoring progress.
- Be understanding of your child who is still trying to find his or her identity.
- Let your child fail or learn the consequences of his or her actions: don’t rescue your child.
- Help make your child’s tasks concrete.
- Recognize that procrastination is not laziness; people who procrastinate are generally very busy doing things they’re not supposed to be doing.
- Remember that procrastination is learned behavior.
For more thought-provoking information on the psychology behind procrastination from Dr. Pychyl, take a look at his Psychology Today blog.