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The Stigma of Lazy

Parents and other adults who interact regularly with children and teenagers throw around the word “lazy” so often that I think we have collectively forgotten what the word means and connotes to those whom we label as such.  The word lazy is defined by Oxford Dictionaries as “unwilling to work or use energy.” I have never met a child in all of my years who fits that definition. Children innately want to work, learn, explore, engage, and be active. Some of the best anecdotal evidence of this can be seen at the beach, where children can be readily observed eagerly shoveling sand, filling and lugging buckets of water, painstakingly sculpting sand creations, practicing swimming skills, and digging holes to reveal different layers of sand, all the while working cooperatively towards their objectives. This is hard work! Yet children naturally gravitate towards such work, which of course goes against the very nature of being “lazy”.

Why, then, do so many loving and well-meaning adults call children lazy on a frequent basis? I suspect that most parents don’t fully realize that they’re essentially “name-calling” when they tell their child that he or she is lazy. Calling another person “lazy” is vague and does not let them know what you want them to do; it does, however, send a powerful message that they are somehow lacking in value, as the word lazy applied in this way carries the connotation of worthlessness. In general, it is more productive to call out behaviors than to make blanket statements about someone’s person or character (i.e. “I think you could make more of an effort to read everyday” vs. “You’re lazy because you don’t read enough”). Read more about the dangers of general name-calling at home here. And sometimes what appears to be “lazy” behavior is masking a student’s challenge in a particular area, and additional support in that area can generally alleviate this struggle.

Research shows that calling children a name, be it “lazy” or “dumb”, is counterproductive and actually can be damaging and stigmatizing. (Read more about the psychology behind the personal and social stigma of lazy at Psychology Today). A more effective and rational route is to instead set reasonable expectations for children, then model and communicate them appropriately.  For instance, if you want your child to read more and spend less time hooked up to a computer or device, do the same yourself! Children love and look up to their parents, and they want to emulate you, so the more you do what you want them to do, the more likely it is that they will do it.

Obviously when we call children (and older students) lazy, what we really mean is: “I think you can spend more time on your homework” or “I wish you would apply yourself more” or “I know you can work harder and produce better quality work” or something to that effect. As adults with extensive vocabularies, we can and should do better by saying what we want children to do (along with modeling expected behaviors) and why, in appropriate and straightforward ways. This also teaches positive and productive communication skills! The other side of this, of course, is that our expectations of children and teens must be reasonable and it is the responsibility of parents and teachers to create opportunities for learning to be fun, stimulating, and interactive, so that children want to learn more. This creates a cycle of positive feedback and reinforcement for learning and can set children up to be lifelong learners.

So next time you catch yourself about to call your child or teenager lazy, stop and think for a minute about what you do want from your child, whether or not it’s reasonable, (and assuming it is) how you can facilitate that task or behavior in a productive way.  And while most parents can accomplish this at home with regards to engaging children in essential academic skill building, in some cases parents need the help of a tutor or coach to help children learn and improve in critical skills such as reading, writing, and math. Older students may benefit from help with organization and time management skills while some may need support in certain academic areas.  With a little thought, effort, and support when needed, all parents can assist their children in becoming activated learners!

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