By Justus Frank
“He could have done it, but he’s just lazy.”
How many times have we heard that type of phrase and how many times have we used it ourselves? I know that as a teacher I would regularly label certain children as lazy, sometimes just privately in my head, but also in the staff room and occasionally in a teacher-parent meeting. Lack of completed homework is a favourite for identifying ‘laziness’, as is lack of study and not getting good test marks. Children are commonly also labelled as lazy for not practicing instruments, not tidying up, not doing their ‘work’, and not helping, just to name a few situations.
Calling someone ‘lazy’ is tempting because it is such an easy explanation in assessing someone’s resistance to doing some sort of activity. In an ironic way this could be termed as a ‘lazy’ explanation. The term ‘lazy’ has a very negative connotation in our language, however, if we take away this negative perspective and just look at people from a more objective stance, ‘lazy people’ are simply unmotivated people. The question inevitably becomes, “why are they unmotivated?” To find an answer to this in every situation takes time, effort and thought. It also requires having a relationship with the person and understanding who they really are. That’s certainly not an easy path but it is a path that I am convinced is worth taking if we value knowing the truth of a situation.
Many times the first way we can use to identify why someone is unmotivated is to try a little empathy. Did we enjoy homework when we were school age? Do we find the homework that our children are meant to do stimulating and interesting? Did you care about always getting the best marks at school? If the answer to these questions was “no’, then why are we expecting anything different when it comes to our children?
However, sometimes there is an activity that is highly motivating for you but for some reason not for your child. The question to ask in this case is, “Does my child have ample and convincing evidence to show that this activity is valuable?” Again, if the answer is ‘no’ then we also shouldn’t be expecting anything different.
A third way to identify why someone is unmotivated is to ask, “Does this activity have any practical value to my child in the here and now?” Parents and teachers can get very obsessed about trying to gaze into the future and guessing what a child may need in twenty years time. It is often difficult enough to pack our bags when going on a trip based on a weather forecast a few days in advance. To think that we know exactly what someone else will need years in the future must surely be absurd. The simple fact remains that humans prefer to do those things where they can clearly see the benefit to themselves in the not-so-distant future.
A fourth thing to keep in mind is the simple fact that we are all individuals. Trying to figure out the full complexities as to why someone is motivated or unmotivated about a particular activity can be difficult.
The key thing is to simply recognise and validate the fact that your child is unmotivated and realise that there is a rational explanation for why this is the case. When we do this, we realise that there’s no need to get angry or frustrated but rather that we can approach the issue from a stance of curiosity instead.
So how should we go about these situations?
If your child is bored by homework or the music he is playing on his instrument and you agree that it is not actually exciting enough that you would do it either, then just recognise the fact that the activity may not be very valuable. Stop doing the activity. We have a limited time on this earth.
If your child doesn’t have ample and convincing evidence to show that the activity is valuable then simply demonstrate the value of the activity. The power of this can not be overstated. Demonstrating how something is valuable in your own life is a powerful motivator for others to become curious enough to try it for themselves.
If there is no great immediate or near-immediate benefit to the activity then recognise that now might not be the best time for your child to learn that skill. There is no need to panic. Humans are incredibly fast learners when we are motivated to learn. Trying to push children too early and too fast simply kills the joy of learning overall and generally produces sluggish and low-quality results.
Children really are fast and curious learners when motivated. Simply trying to cajole motivation is not effective on a continual basis. Real motivation is not something that we can control in people. However, we can be curious about our children when we seem them unmotivated and actually meet them where they are at. In doing so, we let go of our frustrations and open up the possibility of conversations on what is valuable and worth doing. If we do this, maybe as adults and children alike we might make better choices in how to spend our time? Maybe we will also find more of the activities that grow our relationships? Now wouldn’t that be worth doing?