How To Hurry Up A Slow Kid Who Keeps Dawdling

Kids dawdle because they can get away with it. Oftentimes taking a few extra seconds to engage them directly is enough to speed them up.

by Matthew Utley
Originally Published: 
A girl in her messy bedroom, throwing a tantrum.
Justin Paget/Getty

Little kids are selfish by design. If they weren’t, Sabretooth Tigers would have taken them all out eons ago. The downside to this bit of evolutionary wiring? They have a tendency to be more interested in what they want to do than what their parents want them to do, slowing the gears of the family life to a frustrating crawl. They’ll dawdle a few seconds splashing in the sink water before brushing their teeth, or linger with that interesting bug on the sidewalk rather than getting in the car right away. It’s enough to make a parent yell, “C’mon already!” But instead of getting loud, parents need to get low and close to their slow kid, and maybe be a better role model.

“You might need to change your approach,” says behavior analyst Wendela Whitcomb Marsh. “Parents don’t enjoy being the bad guy; they just don’t know what to do. How can you get out of the endless cycle of reminding them, being ignored, and ultimately shouting or threatening to ground them for the rest of their natural days?”

The first thing parents may want to consider is putting the phone away before engaging their kids. Kids are poor listeners — notoriously so — but the ugly secret is that parents can be just as bad. Modeling engaged behaviors for kids helps them learn those behaviors themselves. Looking a child in the eye when giving them instructions maybe adds two seconds to the process, but seriously focuses the child’s attention.

Regular responsibilities — taking a bath, going to bed, or getting ready to leave — benefit most from sticking to routines. Routines help a little kid remember what’s coming up, and remembering what’s coming up gives them some semblance of control over the process. Parents might even consider making a checklist their kid can consult or follow along with.

“A system like this will take more time up front for parents; making the lists and figuring out the timing, then explaining it to your child, all take time, but it will be worth it,” says Marsh. “It’s best if you can make a visual chart of the things that need to be done — either a list for older children or a series of pictures for a young child. After all, you want them to be independent and not rely on you telling them what to do.”

Sometimes, though, those kids are just a-dawdling. Even the simplest request can be stretched out to intolerable lengths. That’s when parents need to challenge their child directly. Marsh advises parents to turn the task into a race against the clock where extra minutes can be earned for fun activities by beating a parents expectations about how long a task should take.

“Start the timer on your watch. Cheer them on, and be sure to keep track of their earned minutes and pay up later,” Marsh says. “This can be used for anything that they are capable of doing independently, but they often do slower than necessary.”

This can spur slow kids to finish their tasks, provided parents give them a reasonable window to succeed the first time. The whole point is for the kids to win and want to do things faster, not get discouraged and quit trying. Extra minutes can be used to stay up later, added for extra screen time, or banked until they have enough to watch a new video. Parents who don’t want to negotiate rewards for normal tasks can simply race their children to a countdown, with bragging rights the only thing at stake.

What all of these techniques require, however, is that parents engage more directly with their children. Parents are busy, and between waiting for the spaghetti to boil, checking on the garlic bread, and emptying the dishwasher, it is tempting to simply shout instructions from the kitchen. But those kinds of instructions are much less likely to be followed than ones issued by a parent who looks their child in the eye, gives instructions, and then follows up to make sure it’s done.

As Marsh puts it, “You will need to be present, and willing to follow through on your part of the bargain.”

How to Hurry Up a Slow Kid

  • Make a connection: Parents should shut out their own distractions and take a few seconds to capture their child’s undivided attention.
  • Make a checklist: It pays off for regular, multi-step tasks. Kids know what’s expected and feel a sense of satisfaction when they finish a step.
  • Make a challenge: For easy tasks that are dragged out, parents should challenge their child to accomplishment it within a set time frame, either for extra minutes or for bragging rights.
  • Make them a priority: Parents should show that they care that the task is completed. Gentle follow-up questions can focus a child’s wandering attention.

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