How not to raise a procrastinator

Supporting children in achieving goals
Olichel,, CC0 1.0
Olichel,, CC0 1.0

In a recent blog article, Niko Steinbeis wrote about self-control and its links to success later in life. In a nutshell, self-control is the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to achieve long-term goals. Poor self-control is associated with negative outcomes such as lower performance, impaired health, and lower well-being.

Procrastination is one particular but very widespread example of a failure of self-control. What can parents and other significant individuals in a child’s life do to prevent a child from becoming a chronic procrastinator? I will identify a number of factors that research has linked to lower levels of procrastination and touch on evidence-based suggestions on how to promote resilience in childhood.

Support autonomous motivation and self-efficacy

It is well established that motivation in childhood predicts motivation later in life. Intrinsic (or autonomous) motivation is driven by personal enjoyment and interest, whereas extrinsic (or controlled) motivation is governed by reinforcement contingencies such as punishment for bad behavior and rewards for good behavior.

Children are highly intrinsically motivated to explore and learn. They are naturally curious and need little in the way of extrinsic rewards. Extrinsic rewards (e.g., money) for behaviors a child finds intrinsically interesting (e.g., practicing an instrument) can even undermine intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is not necessarily a bad thing, but empirical evidence clearly suggests that intrinsically motivated children are less likely to procrastinate.

However, fostering intrinsic motivation by, for example, allowing children to make autonomous choices is not sufficient to prevent procrastination. Katz and colleagues have shown that even with strong intrinsic motivation to do homework, children with low confidence in their ability to do the homework (i.e., low self-efficacy) are more likely to procrastinate than intrinsically motivated children who have a great deal of confidence.

So how can self-efficacy be increased? Not by protecting a child from disappointment! Understandably, parents want to protect their children from negative experiences, but doing so prevents a child from learning to face and cope with setbacks. It is therefore more beneficial to teach children how to “fail better” (“What can I do differently next time?”) instead of preventing them from failing at all.

Praise effort and be honest

In groundbreaking studies, Carol Dweck found that how we praise children can shape their mindset and, in turn, their tendency to take on challenges, persevere, and succeed. Praise such as “You are intelligent” may induce fear of failure, which is a predictor of procrastination. That kind of praise suggests to children that intelligence is innate and immutable, making them more likely to avoid challenges that test their abilities. In contrast, children praised for effort or process (e.g., “I can tell you’ve been practicing”) will try regardless of the outcome.

“How we praise children can shape their mindset and, in turn, their tendency to take on challenges, persevere, and succeed.”

It is important for praise to be authentic. As kids grow older, they become sophisticated enough to discern the intentions behind praise. When parents encourage a child by praising poor performance, the child may perceive the praise as inauthentic and interpret it as a sign of failure. This, in turn, may engender negative self-beliefs that promote procrastination.

Set realistic and concrete short-term goals

Teaching a child how to set realistic short-term goals helps to prevent procrastination. Why? Because these goals are more manageable, require frequent feedback, and – again – help foster strong self-efficacy. However, goals should still be challenging. If the bar is set too low, children will adjust their behavior to those low expectations and too quickly stop trying.

In a similar vein, Sean McCrea and his colleagues showed that people act in a timely way when given concrete tasks, but dawdle when they view the tasks in abstract terms. Encouraging a more concrete mindset can have powerful effects on a child. A parent might say, for example, “Please pick up the toys and put them in the box” (concrete) instead of “Clean up this mess” (abstract).

Prepare responses to temptation

Procrastination is often about giving in to temptations such as a distracting toy or, later, a mobile phone. Luckily, children can learn to regulate cravings when they encounter them. Walter Mischel demonstrated that it is possible to mentally push aside a temptation and instead focus on a future reward. In other words, learning to imagine the future as if it were the present can reduce procrastination.

By rehearsing if-then plans (i.e., implementation intentions), children can prepare automatic responses to tempting situations. For example, a child might support the goal of staying on track while doing homework by deciding: “If I am in the middle of doing my homework, then I will ignore incoming text messages on my mobile!” When a text message arrives, the child no longer has to think about whether to read it or not.

Be a good role model

Children also learn by observing. Watching parents and other important figures in a child’s life deal with stress and emotions, observing their willingness to work towards a goal, and witnessing their procrastination can have a profound influence on the child. Parents are children’s primary role models and teach them a broad repertoire of possible responses to challenges. When parents continually express confidence in their own ability to succeed and can be observed overcoming obstacles, children learn that they, too, can successfully achieve their goals.

Authoritative parenting

Different parenting styles may have different effects on a child’s tendency to procrastinate. An authoritarian style, which is characterized by a high level of control and a low level of warmth, tends to have negative consequences. Children whose parents have high expectations and criticize them for failing to meet them risk developing socially prescribed perfectionism and learn to avoid tasks rather than risking failure. When children do only what they’re told, they don’t internalize the value of an action and can come to depend on external control.

“Procrastinatory behavior is a learned habit that starts early.”

Procrastination may then become one of their only tools for rebelling against that control, a form of passive aggression. Authoritative parenting, in contrast, is beneficial; children whose parents are strict and have high expectations, but also recognize the child’s independence and demonstrate warmth and responsiveness, are less likely to procrastinate.

To sum up, procrastinators are not born. Instead, procrastinatory behavior is a learned habit that starts early. To prevent children from becoming chronic procrastinators, parents and caregivers should help them develop resilience to procrastination.