One night recently as I was doing the bedtime routine with my daughter, I heard Jay raise his voice to our 12 year-old. When I came down to investigate, I discovered that they were having an issue with homework. Noah was given an assignment five days prior and it was due this morning. He did not have the papers he needed from school, and he was having trouble logging on to the website that would give him access to those papers. He was asking Jay to write a note to his teacher explaining why he would not be turning in his homework. The three of us got into a somewhat heated discussion that did not go very well about the fact that Noah is a procrastinator. He was defensive and unwilling to listen or agree with us, and we were upset with him for getting himself into this position. In the end, it turned out that he was typing the web address wrong and Jay was eventually able to get him to the website he needed to get the work done. But our discussion ended with Jay pointing out that Noah was not understanding us and we were not understanding him and we all agreed that the discussion was over; unresolved, but over, and Noah went up to bed. Jay and I continued to discuss it after Noah left the kitchen. I felt very disconnected from my son and uncomfortable that things were left in that unfinished manner. I know that sometimes this is unavoidable, but in this situation, I was not willing to leave it that way.
When Jay and I discussed it further, we realized the following:
Noah is a procrastinator and he is not going to change.
Nor are we going to change him.
Nor do I think we should.
That is a key acknowledgement for us as his parents.
I very quickly knew what I needed to do; I went up to Noah’s room and sat in his bed with him. I told him that we had talked further about it and I do not like to leave things tense and unfinished the way we did. I told him that he is a procrastinator, mostly because of the way he is wired. He has a gift of being able to see the big picture and very quickly assess how systems work. He understands how the system of school works. And seeing that also gives him the ability to see where there are cracks in the foundation of a system. He quickly figured out that if he doesn’t finish his math at home, he has time to finish it in lunch before he gets to math class the next day. His methods usually seem to work for him. But eventually, something will happen and it will not work and he will get burned. He was asking Jay for the note in case he did not have time to finish this math work during lunch the next day.
It is important to point out something about us and Noah. He is a very responsible young man who gets his work done and performs well. But he is not an overachiever, a teacher’s pet or a star student. He rarely does things well ahead of time and in fact, usually puts things off until the last minute. But he does what he needs to do. He gets mostly A’s in school with very little assistance or oversight from us. Knowing that about him and understanding that he is the type of kid who likes to be in charge of managing his own obligations, we allow him that freedom. And most of the time, it works out for him, (and for us). He usually manages to successfully do what he needs to do, so we do not check over his homework. In fact, we don’t even check to be sure what homework he had and whether he did it or not. We simply ask him if he has homework when he gets home, and then ask him later if he has finished his homework. This is not neglectful parenting; quite the opposite, in fact. This relatively low level of involvement (or rather, oversight) usually works well for him and it is something we do intentionally for him. (Our other kids need slightly more involvement from us, but that is what works well for them.) For those of you who have read my prior posts, you will know that one of the biggest goals I have as a parent is to raise my children to become independent, happy adults. Allowing them as much responsibility for their own schoolwork as they can handle is one thing that continually moves me closer to my goal. And Noah has been a wonderful teacher to me in reaching that goal and in even identifying that as my goal.
What I told Noah is that he is a procrastinator and we will not attempt to change that fundamental part of him. It’s just the way he thinks. And usually, it helps him to be very efficient – by putting off his homework until the evening (not doing it right after school which I would prefer) he gets to spend a great deal more time having fun than other kids I see. But what he does need to understand is that while that usually works out fine for him, eventually life will happen and he will not finish something by a deadline and he will get burned. If he chooses to be a procrastinator and wait until the last minute, he needs to be willing to accept the consequences when things do not work out for him. I told him that when he finds himself in that dilemma, we will not bail him out. He does not even need to ask for a note to take to his teacher, because the answer in that situation will always be “no.” I reminded him, however, that we are always here to see him for who he truly is, to honor his true nature, to support him and help him solve problems and get the supplies he needs. But we will not support him when his procrastination lands him in a hole. At that point, he needs to face the consequences of his choices. He was much calmer, paid close attention to what I was saying, was not defensive and completely understood and accepted what I was telling him. (And again, all of this was accomplished without the need for “punishments” from us.)
This conversation went a lot different – and a lot better – than the one we initially had at the kitchen table a short time earlier. I felt very good about how he and I left things after I walked out of his room. And I also know that we are now just a tiny step closer to my goal of raising him to be a happy, independent, responsible adult. Here is what was highlighted for me as a result of last night:
- Sometimes it helps to take time to process a situation before you really know how you want to respond to it. Reacting in the moment, especially if the situation is emotionally charged, is usually ineffective and counterproductive.
- Revisiting an issue with your child when you are clearer and emotions have settled is a great idea. You are not sweeping issues under the rug but rather, are addressing them when everyone is calmer.
- Being able to calmly express your position to your child in a respectful way and staying true to your own parental values is a great way to interact with your child. S/He may not like what you have to say, but will be more likely to respect you.
- Trying not to leave a tense interaction unresolved is important. The stronger the emotional charge in the situation, the more time you may need to calm down and get clear on it, but it is so important to go back and revisit the topic with your child in order to come to some sort of conclusion or compromise.
- Some things with your child will be non-negotiable. Other things will be negotiable. It is important for you to get clear on what falls into each category and be willing to compromise on those things that do not fall into the non-negotiable category. My son is fundamentally a procrastinator. Trying to change that about him will not only fail, but it will create distance and disconnection between us. He will have to find a way to learn how to be a successful procrastinator in his life and I understand that that is where our work needs to be instead of working to try to make him stop being a procrastinator. I know that I have saved myself a great deal of stress, frustration and negative interactions by coming to this realization.
- You can almost always find something positive, or at least find a strength in a situation. I was able to find the positives in being a procrastinator, which is something that is generally viewed negatively.
Parenting from a more conscious place helps me to continually deepen my relationships with my children (who are pretty “good” kids just because they were born that way – as all children are – and I am simply getting out of their way and allowing them to become who they are meant to be) and for that, I am a firm believer and eternally thankful to Dr. Shefali Tsabary.