Always late

How to teach your teen the consequences of lateness

For Karen Marsh* it was especially tricky — 14-year-old Ashley (now 16) was her stepdaughter, and that can be a challenging territory to navigate at the best of times. Ashley was a good kid most of the time, Marsh says, but she was always late. Always.

“I spent a lot of time fuming in the car, waiting for her to come sauntering out of the house at her usual leisurely pace,” Marsh says.

She wanted to help, but her suggestions were rarely received positively. “It seemed like help quickly turned into conflict,” says Marsh. “If I said, ‘You’d better get your stuff together. You have to leave for school in a few minutes,’ she would get irritated with me and go even slower and leave even later. If her dad hassled her about it later, instead of thinking, ‘Dad has a point. I should try to be on time,’ she’d get angry and focus on ‘Dad is so mean. He’s such a jerk.’ So that wasn’t working at all.”

It’s an all-too-common problem: teens who tend to be late for school, family events, even get-togethers with their friends. Beverley Cathcart-Ross, a Toronto parent educator and founder of parentingnetwork.ca, says she sees three typical causes. Read on for the causes.

Differing priorities Friends, peers and social activities take precedence. Kids this age are more internally focused. They are going through, or have just finished, the hormonal turmoil of puberty and are beginning to be primarily concerned about relationships and connections with peers. The things that are important to the adults in their lives — being home in time for dinner, being ready when the carpool arrives, etc. — may not be showing up on the radar.

Overscheduling Class schedules and after-school activities can be too much to track. Many kids this age have busy schedules and new responsibilities. “Depending on their age and the local school system, they may be moving to a junior high or middle school or high school, and they have to worry about lockers and class schedules and a bigger range of after-school activities,” Cathcart-Ross explains. For some kids, trying to manage all this can be overwhelming, and they end up losing track of time and showing up late.

Poor time management Kids may not have the skills to organize their time. Parents may have handled all the organizing and scheduling for their children up until now, so that their teens haven’t had the chance to learn responsibility for managing their time. “I don’t like to blame parents,” says Cathcart-Ross, “but we do see many parents who do too much and over-protect their children.”

The good news about her last point: “If parents have a role in the problem, then parents have more opportunity to solve it,” she says.

The solution? Take a deep breath, Mom and Dad, because this might be harder than it seems. Cathcart-Ross says parents should “step back and let the child make mistakes. One of the most wonderful ways for kids to learn is through natural consequences. If she’s late for school, she’ll have to go to the office and get a pink slip, and maybe even go to detention. That’s not life-threatening, and she’ll learn something from the experience.”

This was exactly the approach Marsh took with Ashley. “I let her be late, and I let her deal with the consequences.”

But that didn’t mean being callous. “Ashley was about to fail one of her required classes because she never got around to handing in any of her assignments,” says Marsh. “She’d gone beyond getting them in late to not getting them in at all. When she told me, I said, ‘Boy, that sucks, you’ll have to take it again next year.’”

The next day, Marsh suggested Ashley talk to her teacher and see if there was any way she could still pass. The teacher gave her 48 hours to complete all the semester’s assignments. Ashley thought it was hopeless. “I felt it was doable,” says Marsh. “I looked at them with her, gave a few suggestions, and left her to her work. She finished them, and passed.”

Strategizing with your child can also help, says Cathcart-Ross. If you’ve been waking your child up and nagging him as he dawdles through his morning routine, it’s not fair to just stop. “Find a calm time to talk,” says Cathcart-Ross, “and ask how you can make things better. Tell him that you don’t think the nagging is a good thing for either one of you. Then brainstorm. There are dozens of options: Maybe he needs an alarm clock, maybe you could give one 10-minute warning, maybe he could prepare more the night before.”

Parents should also expect their teens to respect their schedules and time, and Cathcart-Ross says she was very firm about this with her own family. “If I wanted to leave at 8:15 a.m., I might wait until 8:16, but if my child wasn’t ready then, I left,” she says. “I only had to do that once or twice and they caught on. It is not respectful to make people wait for you.”

While this chronic lateness can be a stage that’s outgrown as the child learns more time-management skills and responsibility, Cathcart-Ross adds that personality is also a factor. “Some people are perfectionists and hate ever being late for anything,” she says. “Others are more laid-back and don’t mind being the last to arrive or missing the first five minutes of the movie.” You won’t change your child’s temperament from one type to the other, but you can help her understand when being on time is important.

Much of that learning, though, may have to be through experience. As Marsh says: “Letting kids figure this stuff out for themselves is less painful and more effective than trying to teach it to them.”

It’s not about you!

Marsh says she realized that one barrier to solving her stepdaughter Ashley’s chronic lateness was Marsh’s concern about what people would think.

“I always felt as if it reflected badly on me as her parent for not getting her places on time.” When she was able to step back and see it as Ashley’s responsibility, it felt like a huge weight off her shoulders — and Ashley began to make progress toward managing her time better.