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Lazy Kids: What's Really Going On

Parenting expert Alyson Schafer sheds light on the reasons why kids act lazy.

Imagine having a child who is – take a breath – LAZY.

Idleness goes against North American family values, so as a society, we loathe the lazy. No one wants to raise a kid who is a slug, a slouch or a burden to society. But are your kids actually lazy?

I want to challenge the mainstream conception of lazy children. The common belief is that laziness is a trait. You are lazy. This perspective is referred to as "a psychology of possession." My training, however, is in Adlerian psychology. The main differentiating feature of this theory is that it embraces a "psychology of use." That means we don’t care what traits you have; our interest is in how you use what you've got.

So why would behaving lazy be psychologically useful to a child? What benefit can be gained from choosing to behave this way?

Since most of our psychic activity happens at a preconscious level, this means your child is unaware of their own goals and motivations. Luckily, as a parent and a clinician, we can sleuth for answers to the question, "If I was this child in this family with his or her unique beliefs, why might this behaviour help me?"

Here are some possibilities:

1) Alibi To Avoid Being Judged Poorly

Could it be that your child is trying to save face by being lazy and not giving things their best shot? If they try, it could reveal their inadequacies and inferiority. If they don’t try, however, they have an excuse for their poor performance. Here's their thought process: "I didn't even study for that math test, so my mark of 48 per cent doesn't mean I am stupid, because I didn't even try. If however, I really try and I only manage to get a 55 per cent, then everyone will know how lousy I am at math.”

2) Feeling Important

Could it be that your child's unwillingness to try hard stimulates a terrific amount of commotion and concern from parents, teachers and teammates? So much so that it keeps the child the topic of conversation and concern? Children feel important if this much energy is being expelled on them. After all, everyone is consistently talking about their math and study habits, and urging them on.

3) Pulling People Into Their Service And Evading Responsibilities

Could it be that your child enjoys having a nursemaid to take on all their responsibilities, so they feel superior and evade their own duties? One way to get at the usefulness of a behaviour is to ask the question, "What would happen if I waved a magic wand while you were sleeping and I made your laziness disappear forever? When you woke in the morning, how would you know it was gone?" Children might answer, "My parents wouldn’t get me up and out of bed" or "I would pack my own knapsack and walk to school instead of my mom or dad driving me."

So which of the three uses of laziness is it? The answer lies in the child's facial expression. There is a reflex called the recognition reflex that shows awareness, often in the form of a grin or smirk. It kind of looks like a devious child that realizes they've been caught. That smirk is actually the child learning their goal for the first time. It's the proof that information has shifted from their preconscious to conscious. Once in their consciousness, the child can make different choices for themselves.

Next Steps For Parents

Never do for a child something they can do for themselves. Refuse to take on the role of nursemaid. They can look after themselves. If they forget their knapsack or miss a ride to school, they can learn from the consequences of making those choices.

Help them see that effort and improvement is more important than perfection, and that mistakes are not failures, but opportunities to learn. Children tangle the idea that their personal worth is reflected in their performance, so they believe if you flub the math test you are somehow less worthy as a human than a classmate or sibling that gets an A. This is obviously not true, so parents need to help their children understand this.

Faith Instead Of Concern

One of the most encouraging things to say to a child is that you have faith in them. It's a salve to a soul to say, "I trust you to manage yourself. I'm sure when you put your mind to it, you have everything you need to be the student you want to be!"

Give attention when they're participating instead of when they're not. You will get more of any behaviors you pay attention to. Talk about their laziness, and you will get more laziness. Talk about how much you enjoyed and appreciated their helpfulness, and the more help you will receive.

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