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It’s part of the nature of childhood and adolescence to be disorganized, and one of the consequences is that you’ll see kids who are late a lot. Remember, we’re dealing with a thing called childhood, and let’s face it, part of growing up and maturing is learning how to organize yourself and your life in a way that fits in with the world. Think of it this way: when our children are young, they have nothing to do but play, go to school, do their chores and get their homework done. But as they grow and develop, kids need to learn how to take more responsibility to be organized and on time.
I do want to be clear here about something: parents have to be very careful about being excessively rigid with their children about time. Keep in mind that kids are highly distractible by nature and the development of the neurological system takes a long time. The rate of maturity isn’t the same for every child: some kids dawdle at three, some at five, some at eight years of age. And some might be more prone to dawdling than others because their brains haven’t matured yet, or because of other factors, like ADHD or ADD.
If your child is chronically late, a host of different reasons might be behind their seeming lack of motivation to get ready. It might be because they’re not committed to their schedules or to the activity they’re supposed to be doing next. Or they’re trying to avoid something they don’t like or that’s anxiety-provoking for them, like an exam at school. And sometimes they’re simply not yet able to organize themselves in a way that will help them get ready quickly and easily. Parents have to take these things into consideration when figuring out how to best manage their individual child’s schedule. For instance, if your child doesn’t seem to be able to get it together for soccer practice after school, you need to sit down and help him figure out what’s realistic and what’s got to happen—what his specific responsibilities are—in order to leave the house at 3:15 and be on time.
5 Ways to Get Your Child Moving and on Time
If your child is chronically late because he’s not taking responsibility for his schedule, I think there are a couple of simple things you can do to help him learn how to be on time more consistently.
State your expectations and let your child face the consequences of their lateness. You can say, “We leave the house at eight a.m. If you’re not ready, I’m going, and you can walk to school.” For kids who are older, this is the perfect thing. You may think they’re not going to go to school, but believe me, most kids want to be there; they’re just feeling disorganized and perhaps they don’t want to face the academics that they have to deal with that day. If you have a child who’s chronically late for school, leave them home, let them take the bus. Or let them miss the bus and walk to school.
Don’t excuse their lateness: If your child is tardy or misses school because he or she is not taking the responsibility to get ready and get there on time, don’t give them an excused absence. Don’t write them a note. Tell the school what happened and let your child pay the consequences for their lateness.
Use an alarm clock from an early age. Put an alarm clock in your child’s room from an early age. This will teach them that they have the responsibility to wake up and follow a schedule. By the way, I think it’s easier if it’s introduced when someone’s really young—it’s part of the message to kids that they have to learn how to organize their lives as they grow.
Make them pay for their lateness—literally. Another thing you can do, especially with younger kids, is to charge them for their lateness. So tell them, “For every minute we have to wait for you, you’re losing five minutes of video game time.” For older kids, it might be five minutes of cell phone time. And if you have to, make it ten minutes. This is effective because now, when your child makes other people late, there’s some cost to them also. They feel it a little more.
Let your child miss practice. It’s okay to let kids miss practices. If your child can’t get ready on time, he misses practice. If he misses practice once or twice, he won’t miss them anymore, and if his coach doesn’t like it, he can sit on the back bench for a while until he becomes better at organizing his schedule.
The important thing is to hold your child responsible in some measurable way. As kids get older, you really have to be very strong about these things, because later on in life when they’re employed or in college—when nobody’s keeping score or nagging them—they’re going to pay. If they haven’t internalized the need to follow a schedule and to respect the kind of structure it gives their life, there’s a greater likelihood that they’re going to fall behind and not meet their responsibilities.
If you’re playing the odds, hold your child accountable now. Help them develop that structure today so that later on in life, it’s just a natural part of their daily functioning.
James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with out of control teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James’ foremost goal was to help kids and to “empower parents.”