07/08/2013 11:22 am ET Updated Sep 07, 2013

My Son's Dreaminess Slows Everyone Down!


Dear Parent Coach,

My son, who just turned 4, is an observant and intelligent child who does everything slowly. When it comes to simple tasks, such as pulling up his pants or putting away toys, he moves at a snail's pace, often stopping to have a conversation, play with something or observe other things. Walking with him is an odyssey because he almost always needs to stop completely to observe and talk about what he sees. This is fun when on a leisurely stroll, but downright aggravating when we need to get somewhere in a hurry. His pre-k teacher told me that his class often has to wait for him when making transitions because he takes so long. And if I walk away when he tries to dress himself, I will come back to find his pants halfway on while he plays with a random object in the room. I would like him to learn how to move more purposefully through basic tasks before he starts preschool in the fall. Any suggestions?

While I appreciate your challenge -- and will offer some suggestions -- allow me to begin my response with this: Your son is a very young child who thankfully is enchanted with whatever captures his attention in the moment. In a different time and place, his behavior would be seen as entirely age-appropriate. In today's world, however, his slow pace is a problem because life moves so quickly. Here are my thoughts:

• Celebrate who he is. While it may be necessary to teach him to get dressed or put his crayons away in a timely fashion, I urge you to accept his dreamy nature and respect the temperament he was born with. Part of what makes the world an interesting place is that it is populated by all kinds of people -- those who are "drivers" and get things done, and those who notice the beautiful orange and golden stripe on the tip of a bird's wings and remind the rest of us to enjoy it, too. Your son needs to know that who he is -- as he is -- is a delight to you, rather than feeling like someone you are perenially trying to change or fix.

• Acknowledge his successes. Most of us are far more motivated by positive feedback than shame or blame. When your son manages to get his socks on by himself, let him know that you noticed. "I was only gone for a minute and you've already gotten both socks on! Look at you!" Don't make too much of a fuss, but do let him know that you recognize when he's making effort to do what you ask.

• Create conditions that engage his mind to stay alert. "Do you think you can get dressed before this song is finished?" or "I challenge you to only pick up two toys. Don't trick me by picking up more than two!" By introducing a more playful tone to your requests, you will help wake up his brain, making it easier for him to stay on task.

• Slow down. Dreamy children often feel that the world is rushing by too fast; they march to a drum that beats less quickly, becoming exhausted by demands to match a more frantic pace. Let him know that you understand that sometimes it's hard to keep up with mommy, and cheerfully slow down when you can.

• Make sure his school is a good match. Some children thrive on structured days and constant stimulation. Others need plenty of unstructured time to daydream, invent and imagine. If his preschool is constantly demanding, he will lag behind at transitions because he simply isn't capable yet of paying attention all day long. Make sure his school is a good fit for who he is, lest he feel he's constantly disappointing to his teachers and classmates.

• Notice who he reminds you of. Sometimes we struggle to accept a quality in our child because it reminds us of ourselves or someone important to us. Were you punished for not moving fast enough? Or perhaps you had a sibling who was always spacing out, getting you in trouble? Maybe you're married to someone who also moves very slowly and it upsets you to see the same behavior in your son. Consider whether your son is reminding you of someone, adding to your frustration.

Your son is a very little boy -- barely 4 years old. While I sympathize with your need to make it from the grocery store to the car without pausing nine times to contemplate the wheels on the grocery cart, it is important to set expectations that reflect who he is. Scolding him will only generate fear and anxiety, which may help him be more temporarily cooperative, but which will harm him over time.

Patience, positive reinforcement and a sense of humor are your best bet. Before you know it, this boy of yours will be another on-the-go big kid. Enjoy his slow and gentle pace, and let him help you smell the roses now and then, too!

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Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected. She is a family therapist, parent coach, and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting. To learn more, visit her Facebook page or sign up for her free newsletter.