Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007

A Father’s Place: Hurry up and dawdle

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When people get uptight about time — they don’t have enough of it or it’s passing too quickly — philosophers like to point out that there is no such thing as time. They say time is a concept invented by humans, like the Pythagorean Theorem and the cable company’s customer service.

Apparently, my 4-year-old is on the path to becoming a philosopher.

She will get there slowly, especially if the trip requires getting in a car. Jaycie climbs into a vehicle with all the hustle of a woman dipping into a warm bubble bath. Thus, I often can be found tailing her down the driveway and issuing commands like, ‘‘Jaycie, walk!”

‘‘I know!” she says.

Yeah, she knows what she’s doing. I used to buy the line that little children have no sense of time, but I suspect that Jaycie understands time perfectly and uses it for entertainment. She thinks dawdling is a fundamental life skill.

This is typical of so-called ‘‘toddlers.” I say ‘‘so-called” because once our kids master the art of walking, we should call the next stage ‘‘dawdler,” which reflects what most of them do. Stroll through a family neighborhood as people try to leave for work and school in the morning, and you can hear the pain emanating from the homes: ‘‘Put on your shoes!” ‘‘You haven’t brushed your teeth yet?!” ‘‘We are not going to be late again!”

Which raises the question: How can we teach our children to panic about time like the rest of us?

In truth, I frequently feel guilty when I catch myself pushing Jaycie to get a move on. In a typical scenario, we are leaving our community pool when she sees a bird, stops, points and instructs me to look at the bird. I respond in a way that I don’t like even as I hear myself: ‘‘Yes, bird! Let’s go!”

I know that her stop-and-smell-the-roses approach is healthy. She should pause to take in the wonders of the world around her: leaves tumbling across the lawn, a plane overhead, a fat guy in a Speedo. Developmentally, whatever she wants to focus on at the moment is probably more important — and certainly more interesting —than my schedule.

But we have a conflict here. I’m in charge of getting us places on time, while Jaycie has been assigned to sabotage those plans.

To be fair, Jaycie sometimes moves along quite well. But it would sure help if she could tell time. ‘‘We have to leave by 8:30” means little to her. I might as well say, ‘‘We have to go at 30-teen caboodle.”

There is hope, however. Jaycie fully understands the passage of time in the present. To wit: She came home from a friend’s house one recent evening and was told to get into the shower and ready for bed. Naturally, she fell into dawdle mode. She baby-stepped around the house, froze to stare at who knows what, got distracted by a simple toy.

A series of ‘‘get movings” and raised voices failed to impress her. But when I said she had to be in the bathroom ‘‘by the time I count to 60,” she stripped and ran to the tub before I reached 30 — giggling, no less, because winning the countdown game is fun.

One can pull that stunt only so often. And there’s only so far we can go with getting her started far earlier than necessary. Kids eventually adjust to such tricks; they slow down to the point where they consume whatever extra time you give them. Some kids would be late for school even if you woke them up at 3 a.m.

I’ve read that making headway against dawdling requires preemptive strikes, like setting routines (such as bedtime rituals involving toothbrushes and pajamas); becoming involved in their tasks (such as going to her room when she gets dressed so she doesn’t disappear for a half hour); giving one instruction at a time; removing distractions, such as TV, when a task is at hand; and not giving into the ‘‘I’ll just do it myself” urge, because it rewards her pokiness.

Perhaps the most essential tactic is the most difficult of all for me: adjusting my mindset to be more like my daughter’s. What’s the big deal if it takes eight extra seconds to get somewhere because Jaycie wants to look at a bird? Sometimes when I pressure her to pick up the pace, I think I’m the one with the time management problem.

Which reminds me: I have to go now, because Jaycie wants to get to the pool. When something really important is at stake, she finds parental dawdling so frustrating.