How Not to Have Lazy Kids: A Parent’s Guide

A teenage boy thinkingLaziness wreaks havoc on everything school-related, from grades to sports to play rehearsals. Moreover, it’s no tough cookie to crack.  How do you motivate anyone, let alone your own child?

Sloth, one of the Seven Deadly Sins, is “sluggishness of the mind which neglects to start good things,” according to the Catholic St. Thomas Aquinas.  Moreover, in the eastern Orthodox tradition, in the Philokalia, the word for laziness or sloth is dejection, the state of having lost interest in life.  This suggests what we basically know: that we’re lazy because we’re not interested.  This is pretty much confirmed by the Buddhist term kausīdya, meaning the clinging to unwholesome activities.

Given these moral terms, a solution springs to mind: how do parents nurture attachment to wholesome activities in our children and students?  How do you give someone else a motive that can become his or her own motive?  The two obvious approaches are 1) reward and 2) punishment.  But some research suggests we should be careful about this, especially about giving material rewards.  Dr. Robert Slavin maintains that contingent praise is the best sort of reward, not money or toys.  Telling your child what a great job he’s done, and exactly why what he or she accomplished is impressive, underlines that success depends–at least in part–on the amount of effort we put in to something.  Similarly, punishment is linked to ambiguous results.  The American Academy of Pediatrics firmly advises against the use of corporal punishment, i.e. spanking; other forms of punishment (time-outs, etc.) are at least controversial, and usually used as a last resort to maintain control, not to instill a desire to learn.

If reward and punishment in the forms we dole them out don’t nurture an attachment to wholesome activities in our children, what does?  Two answers seem worth pursuing: 1) by example, and 2) by direct discussion of the joys of activity (learning/playing sports/being a great musician).  Both of them get you involved less in micro-managing your kid’s homework, and more in the meta-activity of opening him up to the world.

For the first, the example held out to your child doesn’t have to be yourself, though that wouldn’t be a bad thing.  In whatever subject she’s struggling in, help your child find a role model.  If Spanish is giving her trouble, help her to find a Spanish poet or explorer or even film star that she can aspire to be, at least in part, and who very clearly exemplifies the importance of the Spanish language.  If she’s struggling in math, tell her about the crazy way in which Archimedes died or about the eccentricities of Paul Erdös.  These people lead interesting lives; help your child find a scientist or artist that captivates her.

For the second, be straight up honest.  Note that the word for school comes from the Greek skole, which means leisure.  So, in a way, going to school is the paradigm of being lazy (but only in a way).  Point out that billions of dollars and countless dreams and lives are expended every year on the arts and sciences: this stuff must be interesting.  Share your own interests; try to give an account as to why you find learning alluring.  Just tell them: “Learning is the bee’s knees.  Everyone thinks so, don’t you?”

I have one more thing to note.  If what we’re trying not to be lazy about is academics (rather than hockey or the Boy Scouts), then I can’t stress enough how important it is in order to get your kid interested in learning to get him interested more particularly in the wide world of reading.  Love of books is almost tantamount today to love of learning.  Every serious academic subject requires avid readers.  Fill your child’s horizon with the printed word.

In sum:

-Use reward and punishment sparingly, and then, beef your kid up with contingent praise.

-Notice that laziness is probably connected to a lack of interest and that your task is to nurture attachment to wholesome activities in your child.

-Do this 1) by example (find them a role model), and 2) by direct discussion (share what interests you, and why).

-Surround your child with books.

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