My Son, the Procrastinator

May 17, 2010

6 min read


Finding that delicate balance between love and discipline.

Dear Rebbetzin Twerski,

Our 11-year-old son has a wonderful personality and is very sensitive. However, we have a difficult time with nighttime and morning routines with him. He goes to sleep very late and naturally has a hard time getting up on time. I have repeatedly attempted to make charts, incentive plans, include him in brainstorming sessions on how we can implement a more effective routine. But now as he gets older, I am becoming increasingly frustrated with his behavior, to no avail. I am becoming that mother who raises her voice and gets shrill in order to see progress. This has become such an ingrained routine with him, that I fear we will have little chance at success.

My husband, who I turn to when I need help, does get involved, but also ends up being heavy handed and impatient with him. Our son seems to dawdle a lot and procrastinate. I feel that he is doing this to get negative attention. I must also tell you that this is a child who receives plenty of daily positive attention as he is a very beloved boy and is kindhearted, giving and very talented. Yet, I am really worried about how this is affecting our relationship with him since this is a daily occurrence. As he grows older, I also worry that his lack of zeal will become an awful habit, God forbid.

Any advice, suggestions, tips, or personal behavior modifications that I can implement would be greatly appreciated!



My dear reader,

For whatever comfort it provides, your situation is ubiquitous, causing many frustrated parents similar feelings of distress and helplessness. Arguably, even as these dilemmas appear to be similar, every youngster is different, and parents need to assess and respond in ways that are appropriate and suit their individual child.

Having said that, here are some general observations:

1) Every human being is driven by the basic need for self- worth. We all need to feel that we matter and have something to offer. When that feeling is eclipsed by poor performance in school, lack of acceptance by friends, unrealistic expectations (either too high or too low) on part of parents or teachers, or self perceived inadequacies, the individual will resort to almost anything to fill the black hole within themselves.

The pathological extreme would be a state of mind marked by a break with reality that would impart psychotic delusions of grandeur -- thinking of oneself as a ruler, king or the Messiah. The thinking of psychologists is that often times the origin of this unfortunate mental state is a desperate attempt, even at the cost of one’s sanity, to gain a sense of self-worth. One cannot exist or function when he feels worthless and that life has no use for him.

2) What follows on the heels of the first point is what the Baal Shem Tov, master of the Chassidic movement, advised a parent who sought his counsel about a wayward child. The Baal Shem Tov exhorted him to “love him more.” Ordinarily this would seem counterintuitive, but in light of the above, we don’t want to confirm a child’s bad opinion of himself, nor make him think that to us he is unredeemable or a lost cause. Therefore, we should eschew or at least not visibly manifest a sense of disappointment or despair in our interactions with a young one.

Creating a safe, nonjudgmental environment is the imperative goal.

3) Whatever we do, the objective to bear in mind should be to keep the lines of communication open. As painful as it might be to resist rebuking, the last thing we want is for our child to feel that home and parents are not a safe place to share what is going on in his life. Creating a safe, nonjudgmental environment is the imperative goal. Hence, open conversations should be welcome.

Consider David, whose mother brought him in to discuss her concerns over recent behaviors. In private David shared that he could not communicate with his parents because they talked at him, not to him. There was no listening taking place. They had their preconceived ideas and impressions of what was happening and did not allow for openness in a hospitable environment. He could not share his feelings with them. Additionally he felt marginalized. He commented that there was no acknowledgement on their part at any time of any of the things he was doing right. The current situation, it seemed to him, cancelled out any good in their eyes. They saw him, in his estimation, exclusively as a “negative piece of work.”

4) At the same time, we do want to register our disapproval about the unacceptable behaviors displayed. This should be done without heavy drama. The conversations should focus on a reality check on the practicalities of the situation. It should be an exploration of where these behaviors are likely to lead -- the consequences down the line and the inevitable self destruction and lost opportunities that will in all likelihood result from actions that are not well considered and thought out. A very delicate balance has to be maintained. We must take care that the affect created by our interaction is one that carries the message of “You are too good, your potential is too great, you have too much to offer to stoop to this type of behavior regardless of what anyone else is doing."

My father-in- law of blessed memory raised five exemplary sons. One of his sons was questioned as to what his father’s magic formula had been. He replied that his father never belittled his sons. When they did something inappropriate, he would summon them and reprimand them with the words, “Es Past Nisht” -- It is not becoming of you. Disapproval was registered, but their dignity was left intact. A vote of confidence is a very powerful tool in forging positive relationships. My father-in-law's estimation of his sons provided ample motivation for them to move through life and its many challenges in a way that would not betray or disappoint their father’s faith in them.

5) Be aware as well, my dear reader, that your son, as a teenager, is groping for his identity. The phenomenon of the teenage years is being in that difficult and almost untenable place of still being a child, connected and enmeshed with parents, while at the same time seeking desperately to separate out and find one’s own place in the sun. It may appear to you as though nothing you say makes an impression, given the rolling of the eyes and shrugging of the shoulders. Be assured however that the words you speak will inevitably sink in and be a part of the innate wisdom that shape your child’s future life. Hopefully, that will happen before too much damage is done.

The words you speak will inevitably sink in and be a part of the innate wisdom that shape your child’s future life.

Our Sages explicate the verse in the Torah that states “And these words (teachings of the Torah) shall be upon your heart.” They ask the obvious question of why it is that the verse did not say “in your heart” but says “upon your heart”? After all, the Almighty’s directives would seem to be for us to integrate and to assimilate into our heart and not upon our heart. The explanation given is that the human condition is such that there are times when we are not ready or are downright resistant to truth and guidance, no matter how compelling it may be. Under these circumstances the words cannot enter or penetrate into our hearts. It is advisable therefore to simply put them out there upon our hearts so that down the line our hearts will hopefully open up and the wisdom will be there, ready to seep and inform our lives.

Similarly, dear reader, do not despair. Your words of guidance, given in a context of love, caring and affirmation of worth will down the line, resonate with your son.

6) Our Sages advise in dealing with children that need discipline that “the left hand should push away and the right hand should draw close.” Again it is about balance. The left hand that disciplines should take the form of establishing boundaries. Again, each case is individual but parents are entitled and should have rules in their home. They might include such things as smoking will not take place on these premises, curfews, etc. Whatever you think you can enforce without driving your son away should be done. The overriding objective at all times however should be to remain connected.

7) Seek professional help to support you and help you interact effectively with the situation. It would certainly be beneficial if your son would be open to talking to an objective party, either a professional or a mentor whom he admires.

As parents you might also network. There are many organizations that specialize in addressing the issues of potential children at risk.

As in all the many challenges of life, prayer is most powerful. Pouring our hearts out to the Almighty and enlisting His assistance has a dual purpose. It will be therapeutic for yourself as it will help you realize and recognize that you are not alone. And that just as we all care for our children, and you care for your son, our Heavenly parent cares about all of us, His children. And secondly, He is the omnipotent being who can make anything and everything happen!

I wish you much success!

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