Ages & Stages
Disarming the Dawdler
by Lynne Ticknor, M.A.
If parents had unlimited time and patience, dawdling would not be an issue. But when mom needs to get to her office to meet a deadline, dad has a phone call to make or the whole family must get to the pool on time for swimming lessons, dawdling can be frustrating.
Why Toddlers Dawdle
Dawdling is a normal part of development during the toddler years (and beyond!). It serves the important purpose of providing young children with the time they need to learn. "Children need time to explore their surroundings, to play and to investigate the natural things that go on in their lives," says Linda Jessup, founder of The Parent Encouragement Program in Kensington. Children need time to watch a leaf blow along the ground or feel raindrops fall. "Adults don't always give children the time they need to experience things because 'big people' are frequently in a hurry to get somewhere," Jessup explains. That's not the case with young children who can make an entire afternoon out of digging in the dirt or collecting pebbles.
In addition, toddlers tend to do whatever catches their attention at that particular moment. "Their ideas on how to spend their time are far more interesting to them than adhering to a schedule, so they are easily distracted," says Shari Steelsmith, author of Go to Your Room: Consequences That Teach. In most cases, a child isn't intentionally trying to irritate mom when she goes to her room to get her shoes and spends the next 10 minutes playing with her toys. She just got distracted by her favorite toys and forgot all about the shoes.
Finally, time is an abstract concept to children. "Saying, 'We need to leave in five minutes,' means nothing to a toddler," Jessup says. That doesn't mean you shouldn't begin teaching them about time, however. Setting a timer or using a play clock to demonstrate the concept of time helps build the foundation for learning about time. But experts agree that most children don't understand the nuances of time until somewhere between ages 6 and 8.
To deal effectively with dawdling, prevent it from happening in the first place. Consistent routines often prevent unwanted behavior. "If Kelsie knows that she always brushes her teeth after breakfast and that has become a habit, then she will be less likely to drift off into another activity," says Steelsmith.
Parental involvement can keep a child on task. Instead of making Kelsie go to her room to get dressed alone, Kelsie and mom can dress together.Racing to see who can get ready first provides entertainment while preventing dawdling. "Gradually, as Kelsie becomes familiar and comfortable with such tasks, mom can trust her to do them alone in a timely fashion," Steelsmith says.
Using likely dawdling situations as a teaching opportunity is another effective technique for preventing dawdling. For example, toddlers often feel overwhelmed by tasks that adults don't think twice about. When Kelsie's mom says, "Go clean your room," and finds her 20 minutes later sitting on the floor playing with toys strewn everywhere, it may just be that Kelsie needs to be taught how to clean her room. By breaking tasks into manageable pieces (such as, "Let's pick up all your books and put them on your bookshelf," followed by, "Now let's put your Legos into the green bin"), Kelsie is more likely to comply.
Why Some Children Dawdle More than Others
No two children are alike. Even children who grow up in the same household and live by the same routines have different personalities and temperaments. Temperament plays a big role in how much or how little a child dawdles. "If a child is easily discouraged or frustrated
she will be more prone to dawdling," says Steelsmith. Similarly, a child who has a low energy level may be more apt to dawdle, while her high-energy sister hops around enthusiastically picking up the toys in her room as soon as mom or dad asks her to.
A parent's response to a child's dawdling can play a significant role in increasing or decreasing the behavior. If Billy learns that mom will eventually clean up his room if he just dawdles long enough, he will keep dawdling. She has "taught" him that procrastination pays off.
While there are ways to prevent dawdling behavior, there will be days when it just doesn't work. Those might just be the times when you just have to appreciate the slower pace of children and take time to stop and smell the roses yourself.
Do's and Don'ts of Dawdling
courtesy of the Parent Encouragement Program
Don't: Give dawdling attention.
Do: State what you want your toddler to do.
Don't: Allow your child to watch TV when she needs to be focused on something else.
Do: Maintain consistent routines so that your toddler knows what to expect when.
Don't: Bark orders at your child while simultaneously putting on lipstick, cooking eggs and checking voice mail.
Do: Get your child's attention, maintain eye contact and make physical contact (like putting your hand on your child's shoulder) while explaining what needs to be done.
Don't: Rattle off a list of four or five things for your toddler to do.
Do: Give one simple instruction at a time.
Don't: Remind, cajole, beg or plead.
Do: Tell your child what will happen when she doesn't cooperate. ("Put your shoes on, or you'll have to get into the car in bare feet and carry your shoes in a bag.")
Don't: Label your child a "slowpoke" or "lazy."
Do: Encourage positive behavior by making it fun. ("Let's see if you can get your shoes on before I count to 10.")
Don't: Expect your toddler to happily go along for the ride while you run errands for two or three hours.
Do: Tell your toddler what is coming next in her day. ("First we are going to the bank, then to the post office and then we'll go to the park to play.")
Don't: Ignore your child's signals. Is she feeling too tired, hungry or sick to cooperate with your requests?
Do: Predict behavior by staying in tune with your child's needs.
Lynne Ticknor is a parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP) in Kensington. She writes frequently about parenting and child development for national and regional publications.
PEP teaches classes to parents of children from birth through the teen years. Contact PEP at 301-929-8824 or view the calendar of classes at www.parentencouragement.org.