Your child has a school project due in two weeks. He casually mentioned it when he got home from school the day it was assigned, but you see no signs that he’s actually working toward that deadline. You gently remind him that he can’t leave it all for the night before, and then you remind him again. Over the next week, your efforts intensify, but no amount of cajoling, begging, bargaining, threatening, encouraging, incentivizing, fear mongering, privilege revoking, chart making, consequence predicting, or indignant insisting has any effect. Until, of course, it’s the night before, and suddenly, there it is, as surprising as the sunrise: a long, stressful evening of last-minute effort, complete with frustration, tears, and begging for assistance.
All of our kids, it seems, have been there. And if we’re being honest, we should admit that we grown-ups have all been there, too. Faced with a task that is unpleasant, however necessary, or maybe just feeling stuck, unsure how to even begin it, we just delay it, making excuses to ourselves, even as we know it’s no use putting it off any longer.
Or is it?
Is it possible, just maybe, that procrastination is actually practical? Helpful? Productive?
The Good News About Stalling
Indeed, research suggests there might be some benefits to putting off until tomorrow what can be done today. Waiting may actually spark better, more creative ideas. Allowing yourself time to think can result in new thoughts and approaches that you wouldn’t have hit upon had you completed the task immediately and moved on. Time allows you to consider different options, see the good and the bad in each, try out different scenarios, and synthesize all this thought before choosing a course of action.
There’s some intuitive sense to this argument. How many times has that great idea come to you in the shower, or on vacation, or some other time when you are thinking about anything except whatever project that idea pertains to? Or have you ever finished a task or even a conversation only to look back at it weeks later, cringing because of what you omitted or got wrong, mistakes you may have avoided had you given yourself more time to think and allow the ideas to flow in their own time?
So what’s a parent to do? Enable, even encourage, procrastination? Or push your kids to finish their projects ASAP, before that last-minute panic sets in?
As with so much in parenting, it seems like a classic no-win situation. You want your child to respect deadlines and take her responsibilities seriously, to understand that achievement takes work and can’t be left for the eleventh hour. You want her to understand that procrastination may bring unintended consequences, not least of which is that she may fail to finish the project on time if it takes longer than she thinks it will.
On the other hand, you want to respect your child’s creative process, work style, and desire to manage his own time. You want to give him time to let those ideas percolate, to allow his thoughts to strike when they will and produce a successful result. You want your child to take ownership of the project, feel joy in creating it, and a sense of accomplishment in having done his creative best, in his own way.
You want to respect that process, even as you want your child to just put down that iPad and get to work.
Finding the Right Balance
Setting aside, for a moment, the supremely consistent failure of parental nagging—no, it doesn’t work for any of us—perhaps there is a middle ground between pressuring a child to get the task done and being completely hands-off. Perhaps the expectations we set around a school project should be less about getting it done and more about ensuring that the child has a plan for doing it, that she is taking the assignment seriously, and knows it is her responsibility to get it done. Doing so would show that we respect our children’s decisions about how and when to do their work (after all, it is theirs), and would allow them to suffer their own consequences should they choose poorly.
This focus on the effort rather than the results could lead to conversations about what the assignment entails and how long he thinks it will take; whether he needs any supplies that he doesn’t have at the moment, and what his plan is for acquiring them (i.e., does he need Mom or Dad to take him to a store or library, and if so, when will he be making that request?); what he will do if the project takes longer than he expects.
In addition, ask what ideas she has for it, what about it interests or excites her, as well as what is challenging or difficult about it. And make her understand that you are there to help in appropriate ways if she needs it—as long as she is taking the assignment seriously and making the request responsibly (politely and not demanding, and with enough time to respect your schedule). Depending on your child and how she works and responds to your involvement, perhaps you can encourage her to make a checklist of what she has to do to complete a major project. But stay away from asking when she will start it or why she hasn’t done so yet.
And if all this fails, if he resists all your attempts to spark initiative, then the consequences are his: You will not run out at 11 p.m. the night before the due date to buy supplies, nor can he skip out on other responsibilities—family events, piano practice, household chores—to finish it. And if he is late handing it in, or does a poor job, well, he—not you— will have to answer to the teacher for that poor effort.
Of course, not all assignments are the same—in difficulty or the creativity level they demand—and sometimes procrastination is just that. But the beauty of this more measured approach is that it removes from us parents any need to make a judgment call about how essential or difficult a given project is, and puts the responsibility where it belongs, on the child to whom it was assigned. It allows schoolwork to be an issue between your child and her teacher; after all, you’ve got enough to nag her about without being on top of her to finish that book report. And understand that sometimes, just maybe, her procrastination is less about laziness and more about her working out the solutions or approaches she needs to do the best report or project she can.