Slow-poke solutions

What your child's dawdling means—and how you can help.         

By June Solnit Sale, Kit Kollenberg and Ellen Melinkoff

Former editors of the UCLA Working Parents Newsletter and the authors of The Working Parents Handbook (Fireside, 1996).

Slow eaters. Slow walkers. Slow talkers. Slow with homework. Sooner or later, parents have to deal with dawdling. In some families, dawdling is a minor issue while in other families, it can be a source of friction.

Why do children dawdle?

There are many explanations for dawdling. One is an issue of control. Dawdling becomes a way for a child to get attention or throw a passive temper tantrum. Dawdling can equally result from distraction. Lost in the moment, children do not pay attention to what is in front of them. Children may also dawdle as a means to avoid what is in front of them; sitting at the breakfast table is easier than facing homeroom. Dawdling might simply be a matter of a child moving through the world at a slower pace.

Dealing with dawdlers

Consider whether your child’s dawdling is either a matter of manipulating situations or simply a matter of proceeding through life at a slower pace. Parents and children may not always share the same internal tempo, so parents must learn to work with their child’s individual pace. Here are some suggestions when dealing with dawdlers:

  • Be careful not to compare a dawdler to other children.
  • Avoid labeling your child as a dawdler since the label can become self-fulfilling.
  • So that he understands that you are not nagging him, explain to your child that you place importance on being on time and meeting your obligations.
  • Try not to hurry a dawdling child as it can cause him to freeze up from stress. If control is the issue, a child may dig in his heels and be even slower.
  • Note the specific situations that cause your child to dawdle, and try to identify whether your child is avoiding something or is simply distracted.

Prepare your child in advance

Once you have identified the typical dawdling-inducing scenarios, you can prepare your child in advance by giving him cues he can use to move himself along.

For example, let’s say that you want your child to be ready to leave the house for a family outing. Talk about the outing at breakfast and remind him exactly when you will be leaving. Connect the departure to something he can relate to, such as after he has finished watching a video or just after it gets dark. Explain every detail of the routine and in what order. Some children need to hear this many times for it to sink in. Ask your child if he is planning to bring anything and tell him to have it ready by the front door. Follow up before your departure to ensure that he has completed the preparation. An hour or so before you want to leave, see that he is dressed and ready to leave. Once everything is ready, let him play while you get ready.

On some occasions, you should plan to leave 20 minutes earlier than necessary. This will give you a window of time so you can avoid feeling anxious and tense. Working with your child on these issues can make family life more enjoyable.