In her book, ‘The Culture Map’, Professor Erin Meyer talks about how different cultures value time. According to her, time is viewed differently across cultures as either ‘linear’ or ‘flexible’. On the linear end of the spectrum are the Germans and the Swiss, for whom punctuality and structure are paramount. So, it’s no surprise that the Swiss are famous for their clocks. A linear concept of time is also quite important to American and Australian cultures. We have all heard the phrase ‘time is money’, and this is particularly relevant in American culture, where profit, wealth and productivity are highly valued.
So, where does India feature in the spectrum? Professor Meyer places us in the ‘flexible’ group, along with Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Kenya. According to her, those who grow up in these countries prioritise adaptability over productivity. They and derive more value from their relationships with others than from adherence to routines and schedules.
Both ways of relating to time has its own benefits, and a key lesson for our children is to find a healthy balance between the two. If we adhere too much to the linear concept of time, we risk becoming inflexible and incapable of responding to unforeseen situations. On the other hand, if we lean towards the flexible mode, we run the risk of becoming unproductive and incapable of structure. Since, most Indians are inclined towards the ‘flexible’ concept of time, this article will focus on the other end of the spectrum to balance the views.
Benefits of punctuality
Punctuality and good time management skills are vital for children to be successful in life. With being punctual, children get a sense of stability, security and self-confidence.
An article titled, ‘A Study on Time Management and Punctuality Issues among Students at Secondary School, Kedah’, by A M Sultana was published in the American Journal of Economics in 2013. The study found that punctuality plays an important role in ensuring success in academics. Children who attend school regularly, and on time, get better grades and have a greater sense of well-being and confidence. Toddlers whose parents manage time well, experience a sense of ease and predictability in early life, which helps in shaping their view of the world. They perceive the world as a stable and safe place. Teenagers with a keen sense of punctuality tend to be more goal-oriented and successful in multiple areas of their lives. Their risk of developing mental disorders is also low, as they keep themselves busy, have long-term goals, and are more likely to exercise regularly. Let’s look at some ways of teaching punctuality to children.
1. Toddlers – safety, predictability and broad structure
Toddlers and young children aren’t as conscious as adults of time passing by. However, they are sensitive to patterns and consistency, and respond to circadian rhythms. Parents can develop a sense of routine and consistency in toddlers by fixing times for eating, napping and playing. They can help consolidate a toddler’s relationship with time by placing certain activities in relation to others. For example, a child can develop an association that every day after his father leaves for work, it is time for his first meal. He can also form the association that when it gets dark, it is time for him to read a story and then go to bed. Routines like these are important for young children to develop a sense of comfort within their environment.
2. Young children – drawn up schedules and appropriate modelling
By the time children start going to school, they develop a heightened awareness of their external environment and begin to learn how to tell the time. At this stage, you should teach your child how to read time from both digital and analogue clocks, as both provide different experiences of relating to time and engage different areas of the brain. With the introduction of scheduled homework, children begin to understand the importance of planning and managing their time. Therefore, establishing a routine will help them. The popular reality TV show ‘Supernanny’ advocates introducing a clear routine for misbehaving children as the first measure to bring them under control. Supernanny suggests placing timetables at prominent positions in the house so that the child is constantly reminded about following the specified routine. This is an effective and enjoyable way of helping children manage and finish their tasks on time, and striving to be punctual.
During the primary school years, it is also crucial for parents to model the behaviours they would like to see in their children. At this age, children unconsciously internalise both good and bad habits they see in adults as they are unable differentiate the good from the bad. So, parents should inculcate good habits in children by setting an example themselves. This involves practices like going to bed and waking up early, and exercising self-control with use of technology.
3. Teenagers – values, accountability and independent time management
With the onset of teenage, children start developing their sense of self, and thinking about how they fit into the world. It may be difficult to inculcate routine and punctuality at this stage unless it has been done earlier. Teenagers can be rebellious and may not obey directives unless they understand the reason behind them. They may question the need to follow certain instructions, especially if they perceive that there is hypocrisy or bias. For example, a teen might question why she needs to wake up every morning at 6 a.m. for school, when her parents frequently oversleep and miss their own alarms. Parents can solve this problem by beginning to model the behaviour they would like to see in their teenager, and by acknowledging that they don’t always practice what they preach. They should make an agreement with their teens to learn from mistakes and work towards being more punctual.
Teenagers also tend to reflect on their personal values. So, parents can talk to them about the importance of punctuality as a value. They can explain how being punctual is a way of showing respect for others and also ensuring personal success.
Teens can also be encouraged to independently plan their schedule to balance their studies with hobbies and other commitments. To help them do this, parents can introduce teens to organisational tools such as diaries and to-do lists.
Some dos and don’ts
Do include unstructured play in your child’s daily routine. Daniel Siegel, a US-based professor of Psychiatry, talks about the importance of downtime and playtime in maintaining healthy brain function. Play allows the brain to de-stress and take in new information, and stimulates and strengthens the cognitive processes. This, in turn, helps a child carry out structured tasks more efficiently.
Do explain the importance of time management for maintaining social relations. For example, if your teenager is running late for a dinner at his grandparent’s house, insist that he take responsibility for the delay and call them to explain the reason. Such experiences will help him understand how his time management skills, or the lack of it, can directly affect others.
Don’t ignore the importance of adequate sleep, exercise and healthy diet. These factors are crucial in helping your child gain energy to meet his daily commitments and stay focused. They also ensure high levels of motivation and clarity of thought, which will help him manage his time better.
Don’t underestimate the effect of screen time. Emerging research shows that usage of interactive devices like tablets, smartphones and laptops affect children’s sleep, cognitive development and emotional states. Use of these devices reduces their ability to focus and pay attention. Discourage your child from using these devices before bedtime as they can keep his brain in a hyper-aroused state and prevent restful sleep. This can make him feel lousy during the daytime.
The author is a psychologist working in private practice. She is experienced in working with children, adolescents, young adults and families.