Why Kids Procrastinate

diane sitting on steps with three kidsSee if any of these words sound familiar:

“What do you mean you haven’t even begun this report that is due tomorrow? You’ve known for a month!”

“You went up to your room to clean it an hour ago and you haven’t even begun!”

“We only have a day left to submit the application for summer camp. Why did you wait so long?”

Parents are often frustrated with their children because they procrastinate frequently.

Their procrastination puts their parents and them under what feels like unnecessary stress to complete something, submit something, do something.

“You are just so lazy!” “You should have thought about this yesterday… last week… last month. What’s wrong with you? There’s no way to get done now!”

When children procrastinate, frustrated parents can yell, shame, demean, and otherwise verbally accuse and attack them because it can seem so illogical…why should parents keep waiting for children when something inevitably needs to be done.

As a frequent procrastinator myself, I often communicate some of these recriminating messages to myself; it seems so lazy and illogical to postpone projects or tasks.

It was a relief to discover some reasons other than laziness or unwillingness to take responsibility that can explain procrastination. A powerful one is how procrastination is often about the anxiety created around perfectionism.

Perfectionism?

Yes! It turns out research shows often the procrastinator is a perfectionist who is so afraid of diving into a project because it most likely will not be perfect.

It seems the fear of failing to be perfect often outweighs the fear of repercussions around not starting or completing something. Sometimes a procrastinator can create a mental image of what they want the final product to look like only to quickly realize they will not likely achieve all their image contains.

Think about a time when you wanted to draw or paint a picture. You probably had an image in your mind of how you hoped it might look—think Rembrandt or Rockwell. The results are often far from that mental image.

For someone who procrastinates, the pain of feeling like a failure overrides the drive to at least try. That person would rather not try than risk coming short of perfection, though still having an end result to have appreciated after their efforts.

Other reasons to procrastinate?

little boy, leaning on one hand, looking up, thinkingCertainly, there are times when one procrastinates because of disliking the task. Sometimes we are distracted by other things more fun and rewarding to do. Sometimes we are resentful, and procrastination is a form of rebellion.
But I suspect many times children—and even adults—procrastinate because of this anxiety around being perfect.

It’s hard for children to turn off messages that are tormenting them inside:

“You have to do this just right or you’ll be in trouble.” “Why bother to even try—you’ll never get it right.”

Parents and caregivers can be intentional about transmitting messages to reduce the fears around perfectionism:

  • “I know it can be hard to start something when you are sure you’re going to be able to do it exactly right. It’s okay if it’s not perfect.”
  • “Sometimes it helps to write down a few notes about your ideas, knowing you can throw all of them away or only select one or two of them. You don’t have to do every single thing you think of.”
  • “Would it help you if I stay with you for a few minutes while you get started? Sometimes it can feel so intimidated before we start something!”
  • “It’s fine to do just an average job here without it having to be perfect. In fact, sometimes we learn more by doing something and making mistakes than doing it just right.”

In a weird way, procrastination can sometimes be a form of claiming power around being criticized. Instead of following the axiom, “it’s better to have tried and failed then to have never tried it all” the procrastinator driven by perfection doesn’t have to face the failure of missing the mark and I, in fact, in charge of evoking blaming and shaming messages.

Parents and caregivers can be careful about placing excessively high expectations on children which promote fears around having to do something exactly right.

Having the freedom to fail (or somewhat miss the mark) can promote greater willingness to get started, to stick with something, and to finish it.

It can help when parents and caregivers share some of their own anxieties around needing to be perfect, and how that can sometimes get in the way of doing a task. Avoiding being overly critical or demanding perfection also are important to keep in mind.

It’s funny—when I thought about writing this particular blog, I considered putting it off until the very last minute because I wasn’t sure whether it would have any real value. That seemed a little hypocritical, so I actually completed it a good day in advance! I’m sure it’s not perfect but if it provides a little food for thought, which basically is the main goal for my blogs, I am giving myself permission to feel okay about what I have written, feeling comfortable that it most likely in NOT perfect!

This link provides a set of interesting quotes about procrastination.

Invitation to Reflect

  1. If you frequently procrastinate, are there times the motivation may be around a fear of failing which leads to inabilities to start or finish something? How does it make you feel about yourself when you procrastinate?
  2. What kinds of messages have you transmitted to your children about having to do a perfect job with some of their tasks and responsibilities? Are there ways you might now consider transmitting messages that invite your children to experience positive feelings around at least trying, even if what they do is not 100% on target?
  3. Diane Wagenhals, Director of Lakeside Global Institute


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