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Ask Dr. Sears: Dawdling Toddler

Q. My three-year-old loves to dawdle. In her terms, itis "exploring," "examining," or "daydreaming." I know these explorations are important, and sometimes I can be patient and allow her to take her time. But sometimes we simply have to get somewhere. How do I move her along without sounding like a shrew?

A. At all stages of development children go through normal  -- yet quirky  -- behaviors. Dawdling is one of these typical quirks. It can surely be exhausting to deal with, but it's good that you see the value in these youthful explorations. In fact I have noticed that quirky kids tend to be more interesting children and grow up to be more interesting adults. Dawdlers, in particular, tend to have two traits that can later work to their advantage: They are able to concentrate intensely, and they are able to amuse and busy themselves so they are less likely to get bored.

When her dawdling becomes frustrating, it helps to get behind the eyes of your child. When you start to understand why she dawdles, you can better cope with it. The key is not to squelch her quirks, but to try and channel them to work to her advantage. At the same time you can enable her behaviors to fit into the family agenda. Or at least fit as much as possible.

When our son Matthew was three, he was a dawdler. He would become so engrossed in an activity that we had difficulty getting him to take a break for anything else. We came to realize that what he had, really, was a capability to go into a state of hyperfocus. So, instead of risking a tantrum by pulling him away from his activities  -- a lose-lose situation for both of us  -- we tried some tricks to win his attention. You may wish to try these with your child:

Help her sign off from her activity. Around five minutes before we needed to go somewhere, we would tell Matthew, "Say bye-bye to the trucks, bye-bye to the toys, bye-bye to your friends (naming each one)..." This gave him time to break away from his state of hyperfocus and ease him in to going with us. He learned to associate our cue "go bye-bye" with signing off.

Set a timer. By three years of age, children can begin to learn the concept of "time to go." Set a buzzer, a timer on the stove, or whatever signal you have that lets her know she needs to start winding down. This time delay respects her concentration abilities and lets her ease out of them.

Give incentives. Make it attractive for her to get out of her agenda and into one that fits more into your schedule. Help her to see that other fun activities await her. Try: "Finish dressing so we can go outside and play" or "As soon as you've put away your toys, we can go have some fun by helping mommy shop and go out for a treat..."

Helping your child work through these behavioral quirks will also enrich your relationship with your child and helps you better get to know her. It seems like a chore now, but this parenting perk will serve you well years down the road when behavioral issues can be even more challenging.