Children are not lazy. Parents and teachers often complain about a child not ‘doing homework’ or ‘tidying their room’ and assert that this is because the child is lazy. When you ask the parent or teacher why a child should want to do their homework, the reply is invariably because it matters. Really? To whom does it matter?
If you ask an adult why they go to the gym or go for a walk they will usually reply that they want to, or they will articulate a goal they have. This goal may be to get fit, lose weight or be healthy. In their answer lies the motivator.
When a child is not motivated to do what an adult wants them to do, the child is not lazy. They are in fact as normal as an adult who does not want to mow the lawn, clean the toilet or repaint an aging doorframe. That an adult will do what they do not particularly want to do provides insight into an adult’s maturity, the capacity to understand trade-offs and the relationship between effort and reward (where the reward is personally valued). To learn these things takes time, self-understanding and experience.
If we treat a child as lazy, we devalue their intelligence. In the “lazy” characterisation we are questioning their authenticity. It is lazy to call children lazy because it takes effort to ‘unpack’ what motivates people to act or behave in a particular way. It takes effort to foster a love of effort.
Where to begin?
The beginning point must be to make things that are valued by parents and teachers be appealing enough to be desired by the child. Intrinsic motivation, or wanting to act on one’s own volition, is always preferable to extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is evidenced when a person undertakes effort because they personally value the result of that effort. It can be seen when a child is absorbed in reading and does not want to stop. A reading child is not a lazy child, but rather a learning child.
Making a child want to act, put in effort or do something, must be premised on making that effort or action intrinsically valued. This can be done by making even routine things enjoyable, fun, humorous and together.
A child is more likely to do homework when a parent is working beside them. A child is more likely to tidy their room when a parent is tidying beside them. An adolescent is more likely to pack the dishwasher when the parent is cleaning the benchtops.
Command and control approaches can compel action but are never as connecting or as fondly memorable.
Extrinsic motivators come in various forms from parents: rewards and punishment, threats, star charts and so forth. I do not place much utility in this approach as a starting point – for everything is premised on the reward being desired and the punishment or consequence being a thing the child wants to avoid. Reward and punishment approaches tend to be short-term, tiring and externalise motivation. They rarely lead to lasting change or growth and can in fact create demotivated children.
To motivate action, start by extinguishing the idea that children are lazy. If we begin with this then a child’s inactivity must stem from something else – a lack of relevance, a low priority, an incapacity to see value, a sense of being asked to do something others desire.
Own what you value
Since few children generally want to tidy their room or empty the bins, parents need to articulate what parents value (‘a clean room’) without assuming a child will also value this. Parents taking ownership of their need for tidiness is more authentic than asking a child, “Don’t you like a clean and tidy space?” When adults say things like this they are hoping the child will absorb or imbibe the parent’s love of order and sterility. In fact, it can have the reverse effect – causing distance, resentment, a feeling of not being good enough, a ‘go-slow’ or inaction.
Homework and “laziness”
If teachers or parents value homework then they should make it meaningful, interesting, engaging and relevant. If schools value homework, then teachers should follow it up. Otherwise it becomes a meaningless extracurricular impost on families. Homework should not be given to outsource learning or to impress parents.
Activity values action
Motivating action does not only occur in the realm of cleaning and studying. Children can be run with in parks, can play sports/games with parents, can do activities that encourage physical health and dexterity. Laziness can sometimes be seen when parents go to a park but do not get involved with any physical activity with their child.
Since it takes effort to generate interest and joy, the real laziness is that adults do not bother to understand how to motivate action.