Is Your Dawdling Child Making You Crazy?

Posted July 24, 2009 by

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I don’t lose my temper too often, but one thing that drives me through the roof is when my son dawdles. It seems that the more behind schedule I am, the more he goes into super-slow-mo, taking the opportunity to start finger painting, perhaps wander down to the basement to visit his sled, or go sit in his hide-out in the backyard. I’m not sure why Alex does this, but it seems to me that the faster I try to hurry — and the more frantic I am — the more he takes his time.

Case in point: the other day we were blasting out of the house for day camp, his camp gear swirling around us in a mini-tornado as I attempted to herd my child out the door. I made one last stop to brush my teethย  and asked Alex to put on his shoes and get in the car so we could be on time for the bus for his field trip to the water park that day.

I emerged from the bathroom and looked at the clock — a minor miracle! We were actually 10 minutes ahead of time. (This is an unheard of feat in my house!) I sauntered confidently over to the front door, happy that we would not have to rush — or break the speed limit — on the way to the community rec center.

But what was my little dilly dallyer doing? He was sitting in our front hall, happily tying his shoe laces into tight little knots an Oriental rug dealer would have been proud of. Not only that, but he’d tied both shoelaces together — so he could not actually walk without falling down. And did I mention that he needed to wear those shoes (and only those shoes) in order to play basketball later on in the day at camp?

Truly, I wanted to scream. I wanted to tell him that I wouldn’t take him to camp. I wanted to yell, “Why are you doing this to me?” In fact, I did shout, “Why did you do that? Don’t you know we’re going to be late for camp now, and you might miss your field trip? What were you thinking?!”

My son looked at me, dumbstruck, and said in a quiet voice, “I wasn’t thinking about anything like that.”

The look of utter honesty on his face made me realize that I needed to calm down. I thought of all the EP articles where we tell parents not to personalize things, not to ask “why” questions, and not to yell… and realized I had made those three mistakes, all at the same time. So I took a deep breath and said, “OK, I’ll help you, but we might be late.” I didn’t make it better for him, I didn’t promise to drive him to the water park myself even if we missed the camp bus. (Natural Consequences, right?) Instead, I let him sit in his discomfort for a good ten minutes while I took out the knots.

When the shoes were finally unknotted, I drove to day camp (going the speed limit for once) and watched his worried little face in the rear view mirror. Then I said, “OK Honey, let’s talk about this. What can you do differently next time?”

“I can wait for you in the car?”

“That’s a good start. And do you think when I say it’s time to go, that you could try doing helpful things…and not do things that slow us down, like tying your shoelaces into knots?”

He nodded solemnly.

“OK, that’s great, Honey. Let’s try that,” I said, breathing a sigh of relief as we pulled into the rec center. “And you know what, I think we’re going to make that bus after all.”

And you know what? We did.


Elisabeth Wilkins was the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of an 10-year-old son. Her work has appeared in national and international publications, including Mothering, Motherhood (Singapore), Hausfrau, The Bad Mother Chronicles, and The Japan Times. Elisabeth holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.

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  1. maisie27 Report

    Yes! My dawdling child is driving me to the edge of sanity! I’m so glad I came across this article and the comments. I know I’m not alone in the frustration, anger, and (puts head down in shame) yelling. I’ve tried sticker charts, marble jars, emphasizing the negative consequences (i.e. missing circle time at school), yelling, not yelling. I’m at a loss. It’s not always easy to remember, but adding a little humor to a frustrating situation can help. Maybe I’ll adopt “Rawhide” as my theme song and sing it as I head out the door in the morning to wait in the car for my little duckling to follow ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Patrice Report

    I can actually relate to your sentiments. My daughter is also taking her way very slow to the point that we sometimes missed some important occasions. But I learned to calmed myself and explained everything. Good thing she has now improved.

  3. Jan in AZ Report

    I make it a contest. Sometimes, I offer an incentive for being ready before I am–and even increase it for every minute he is early. For example: “We need to leave at exactly 12:00. For every minute before 12 that you are TOTALLY ready, I will give you double that many minutes extra play station time. So if you are ready 10 minutes early, you get 20 minutes extra play station. Don’t forget–that means TOTALLY ready–no sudden last-minute scrambling for a toy you want to take along, no bed-head, no breakfast dishes STILL out on the table, etc. Of course, that also means that for every minute we are late because of your dawdling, you will LOSE double the time on play station. If it is more than 10 minutes, I will make it TRIPLE the time you lose.” I use other incentives as well, but that is an example.

  4. Elisabeth Wilkins, EP Editor Report

    Mom to a Pre-schooler: I’m with you. I could definitely use some good ways to get my child out the door without a drama! And you’re right, it is really stressful. Anyone else out there have some good ideas on how to get out of the house in the a.m. without a scene?

  5. Elisabeth Wilkins, EP Editor Report

    Kathy, I agree — it’s priceless to have other parents and friends who get where you’re coming from — and who you can laugh with! (Otherwise, I’m not sure how I’d survive. ๐Ÿ™‚ )

  6. Elisabeth Wilkins, EP Editor Report

    Annita, I like how you’re handling the dawdling in your house. (I set my clocks ten minutes ahead too, by the way.) (Also, “Load ’em up!” makes me want to sing the Rawhide theme song, which would put me in a better mood than yelling usually does!)

  7. Mom To A Preschooler Report

    I totally understand your sentiments. My daughter is always on a slow motion mode every morning! When she has activities to do, we are always rushing or we end up showing up late! And she hates it when her routine is disrupted. Sigh! I guess that there’s a lot that we need to learn as parents. I just hope that we can both find ways on how this will be better soon. It stresses me out. LOL

  8. Kathy Pride Report

    Oh my, my life again…are we twin sisters separated at birth? You make me laugh and realize that parenting is a journey, in fact sometimes a LONG journey in which fellow travelers help lighten the load.

  9. Annita Woz Report

    Elisabeth, you have told a story of many a mommy morning at our house. Thanks for sharing it.

    My place goes like this. One kid, always ready. One kid needs a list to check off to get out the door. One kid cannot tell time, doesn’t understand late and has a smile that makes me want to just forget that the big world exists and sit down with him in the front hallway and let the day get away from us.

    But that can’t happen can it!? Well, once in a while it is necessary to declare a mental health day. I call in sick and cancel morning appts. My kids get called in sick and we skip school, stay in our jammies and eat ice cream for breakfast and watch our favorite movies.

    But most mornings, mine run just exactly like yours.

    I used to set our clocks at the house and in the van 10 minutes ahead so we had a window of lateness…lame trick i know but it kinda eased that continuous morning panic. I’d be brushing my teeth and telling the kids to get in the van and they would see me brushing my teeth and commence another round of tag or doodle with a hairdoo a little longer.

    I’ve tried to give up the yelling cuz it really hurts my throat and I hate that guilt inducing silence that sucks the air out of the vehicle after I’ve ranted about being late AGAIN.

    Now I just yell at the top of my lungs, primarily to myself, a thunderous roar of, “Load ’em Up!”

    I scream this out about 10 minutes earlier than necessary – eliminating the need for the clock trick – and then I go directly to the car. I get in. I sit there. I am ready. My kids follow me like little ducklings across a busy road. Sometimes it takes the full ten minutes to get all

    I guess the old do as I do and not as I say rule has a strong foothold in my house…I’m the dawdler. I must drive my kids crazy.

  10. Elisabeth Wilkins, EP Editor Report

    Dear Me too: I’m with you — I always feel so horrible after I lose it. I usually apologize to my son for yelling at some point afterwards, and that is often a good time to talk about “what he could do differently next time.” (And sometimes he even asks me: “Mom, what could *you* do instead of yelling? LOL. Not a bad question, though!)

  11. Elisabeth Wilkins, EP Editor Report

    Dear Marie: It is hard, isn’t it, when kids don’t listen. It seems so easy to us as parents — I mean, what’s so difficult about getting ready and getting out the door, right? (In my case, I have to admit that what really irks me the most are the traits my son and I share. As a kid, I was also a real dawdler.) The fact that you’re here asking questions shows what a caring mom you are. I think if you stick to your guns and start using some consequences for the dawdling, her behavior will improve.

    Here’s an article on dawdling kids that might be helpful for you. (I’m going to reread it now myself! ๐Ÿ™‚ )

    Hang in there!

  12. MeToo Report

    Yes, I go through this with my 9 year old as well. In fact…just this morning. Sometimes I am calm but this morning I blew up. I felt horrible. We do discuss him trying to be helpful but it just doesn’t stick. Hopefully one day!

  13. Kemuel Ronis Report

    LIke a lot of parenting anecdotes, it is serious when it is unfolding and funny when you re-tell it. With little kids it is often useful to find out what is going on in their heads. I loved your son’s line, “I wasn’t thinking about anything like that.”

    Your description of the oriental rug knots made me laugh and smile…brought back memories of when my kids were little-

    Your advice to be calm is probably the first rule of parenting.

  14. Jen Report

    prior to camp today and just about every school day, my 9 year old girl does not stay on task, and then the frantic scenario begins as you described. once again i find myself in a state of anger and exasperation. can i compel her to change? granted, she is the daydreamer, the one who doesn’t “hear” you, and won’t (can’t?) answer questions posed the first time. i hear daydreaming can be a good thing, but it seems to get in the way too much. should i just accept this personality trait and always plan an extra 15 minutes for departures? are there any media you could recommend on this issue?

  15. Marie McMullen Report

    wow, do totally understand how you feel.
    there is so much going on in my life with my daugther and i feel that we are on the same page. My daughter drives me crazy at times, because i don’t feel that she ever thinks about the choices she makes or what could come from on choice? Trust when i say that i’ve been at the edge of losing my mind because she struggles with following direction. I wish there was a miracle but i know that things will not always be the way i want or would like it to be but in a pefect world everything would be fine.



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