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Lazy?  No Such Thing. | Dr. William Winter is a child and adolescent psychiatrist.
Will Winter, MD, FAAP
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The word "Lazy" is a familiar one. It is generally seen as a character flaw. On the other hand, some people may see laziness as "the natural state"- sort of like Newton's first law, the law of inertia, applied to people.

But, actually...
There is no such thing as "Lazy".

Example 1
"My son is so lazy when it's time to take out the garbage. By the time he gets around to it, I could bust! We call him the 'energy saver.'"

This young man is only lazy when it's time to take out the garbage. Clearly, he doesn't enjoy taking it out and puts it off until he absolutely must.

What we have here is simply lack of motivation. The strongest motivators are desire and fear (fear being much stronger than desire). If the boy is doing something that is more fun than taking out the garbage, why should he interrupt his fun to take it out? And, if there is no fear of a meaningful consequence for not taking it out, (for example, losing computer time) then we don't have a lazy child. We simply have an unmotivated one.

Example 2
"My son is so lazy! He never does his homework! Every night I yell at him and he still doesn't do it! I'm exasperated!"
Here, some possibilities are:

  1. He lacks motivation- He doesn't enjoy doing homework and is not afraid of the consequence (a bad grade) for not doing it.
  2. He has a problem with the homework and, therefore, is avoiding it.
  3. He wants/ needs your attention.

Possibilities elaborated:

  1. When homework is the problem, the possible causes of "laziness" must be teased apart. The simplest and most likely explanation is lack of motivation. In this case, not doing homework is a free will choice, and therefore can be the most frustrating for a parent. If this is the case, all we need to do is create a fair reward/consequence plan. (Creating this plan requires a discussion with the child's input. This is important. If you are not sure how to do this, we can help you or a visit with a behavioral therapist can be helpful.)

  2. The child may be avoiding homework because it is hard for him. If this is the case, why is it hard? Can this be ADHD, inattentive type? Can it be a learning disorder? Further evaluation is necessary to clarify the cause. Once the cause is found, appropriate treatment can solve the problem- or at least help.

  3. Parental attention- this is a huge motivator for a child. If a child is not getting the attention that he wants or needs, then "being bad" is a very effective way to get that attention. Although it is unpleasant attention, it is still attention.
When it comes to not doing homework, understanding the child and the context of the behavior (as well as the family dynamics) is important. An evaluation can clarify what the underlying reason is and how best to treat it.

Example 3
"He's so lazy- all he does is sit around the house all day and watch TV. He's a big boy now and he's got to get a job! Instead he has made a permanent indentation on my couch!"

In this case, the symptom of "laziness" may have a simple reason, i.e. fear of being rejected for a job or lack of desire to find one. Or, it may be a symptom of a psychiatric disorder, i.e. a mood disorder, like depression. If other symptoms are present, i.e. a disorganized thought process, bizarre thoughts, and poor hygiene (to name a few) then psychosis must be ruled out.

Final point: "laziness" is not the natural or default state. Why? We are not inanimate objects- the equivalent of rocks- to be acted upon by external forces. Even going back to the very beginning- to infancy- it is easy to observe that we are built to engage with the world around us.

Perceived "laziness" is common. The reason for it is usually simple enough - lack of motivation to do a particular task.
However, if the "lazy" behavior is new or seriously impairing the child's ability to function, then an evaluation is recommended to understand the underlying reason and to make a treatment plan.