The Expert Dawdlers

Probably the two complaints about children I hear most from mothers have to do with getting out in the morning and going to bed at night.  In the morning there is always that rush, rush to get going.   At night, after who knows how many books read and whatever else, mothers are really ready to say goodnight.

But children are not that eager to get ready to leave their home or go to their bed.  We can all identify with such feelings – it would be so nice just to hang out at home in the morning.  Unfortunately, as grown-ups we do what we have to do.  We’re not as expert at dawdling as our children.

Actually, these two parts of the day – beginnings and endings – have something in common.   Both involve transitions, which are always difficult for young children.   Morning means leaving home for the outside world.  So much nicer to stay in your pajamas and play.  Night is even harder, having to leave play for bed, having to leave wakefulness for sleep.

Something else these two transitions have in common is that they are both separations: leaving home and parents in the morning, leaving parents – and whatever they are still doing – at night.  Even as adults, there are situations that evoke for us feelings about separation.  Some people call that the Sunday night blues.  For children, who are still very much engaged in dealing with separation, these feelings surface readily.  So these two difficult times of day mean transitions and separations.  No wonder they’re hard.

At a recent workshop with parents, this topic came up for discussion.  One mom told us something interesting about her four year old.  When he first learned to dress himself he was proud as could be and would rush to get dressed in the morning without even being told.  Now that he has mastered it, however, he is completely disinterested, dawdles, and finds any excuse not to get dressed.  Mom has tried many ways to deal with this to no avail.

In our discussion, I asked if her son ever asks her to dress him, and she said he does.  This is interesting, because it tells us something important about a process children go through.  They love to master new skills and feel very good about themselves when they succeed.  On the other hand, there is a downside.  Every step toward independence means a step away from dependence on – or help from – mom.  Children are not altogether sure they are ready to give that up.  The road to independence is not a straight line forward. It zig-zags back and forth a bit when taking next steps.

The problem, however, is that as mothers we are delighted when children master new things and are capable of doing more for themselves.  But once children show us they are capable of doing something, we begin to expect it and can feel resentful when suddenly they resist doing what we know they now can do on their own.  What we once did for them happily, can now feel like a burden and become a source of conflict.  A child may feel this resistance from mom and meet it with resistance of his own.

This is one of those situations where we really can meet children part way.  We can say, “Let me help you get started”, without going down that slippery slope of just dressing him,  which sometimes feels as though it would be easier.  But it’s not, in the end.  Children, at times, may be all too happy to slip back into being taken care of – at least in this area.  So help needn’t mean to “do for”.  But your willingness to help can go a long way in overcoming his resistance – and can also reassure him that his own growing capabilities don’t mean losing Mom.     

Another approach that can be helpful is something I call changing the subject.  When your child starts protesting when you try to hurry him along, instead of getting into a back and forth of “you have to”, “I don’t want to”, start talking about something else, such as which friend will get to school first today, or what you will be doing together after school or tonight.  Usually, if you keep up the “hurry, hurry” commentary, children just tune you out.

Mostly, the difficulty we have with children and routines, is an expression of their resistance to being pulled into meeting the demands of the adult world.  They want to be in that world – but on their own terms.  It’s something we all struggle with as parents, but to the extent that we can lead them, rather than pull them, we’re that much ahead of the game.  The suggestions here may help, but I have found in my work with parents that once you understand your child’s behavior, you yourselves come up with the best solutions.