Debunking the 'Boys Are Lazy' Myth
The Laziness Label
“He could do so much better if he were not so darned lazy.” I have heard this phrase spoken too many times to count, from parents, well-meaning coaches, and teachers. If only he could try harder... if only he were not so lazy all the time... if only he applied himself... THEN he could do amazing things. I suspect this might sound familiar.
However, I don't believe that laziness exists. It has become a socially judgemental term that puts the blame for a lack of success on the person not achieving. In our society, we are slowly coming around to a different way of thinking about a whole host of notions we once saw as moral failures. Addiction, for example, is not a matter of willpower but is now seen as a medical issue: a disease. Fortunately, treatments for addiction have progressed. Obesity is slowly shifting from a matter of will-power to a complex, systemic issue. I argue: we should see a lack of success in the same light. When I hear someone refer to another person—especially a teenage boy—as lazy, I ask myself, “what are we missing with this young man?”
Finding the Real Barrier
More often than not, when a child is failing to thrive in a setting—be it school or sports—there is a barrier between that child and success. Perhaps we don't label them as lazy; but rather, say they are procrastinators. The problem is, regardless of the name, we see this lack of success or even lack of initiation as a moral failure. In turn, the person struggling also sees themselves as a moral failure. If you are supposed to do something, and you are either not doing it or you can’t do it, well, isn’t that pretty much the definition of failure? Or perhaps it means you are apathetic and simply do not care about the task at hand. “Oh, if only he cared about my class enough to do his work.” Again, a judgment call that is quite likely inaccurate.
In fact, when a student doesn’t start a task, or may not be able to start a task, it is more than likely due to anxiety about the task, a fear of not being good enough, or perhaps confusion on how to start the task. To paraphrase psychologist Devon Price, when you are paralyzed with fear of failure, or you don’t even know how to begin a massive task, it is pretty darn hard to get stuff done.
Instead of passing judgment or assuming he's simply an unmotivated teenager, we should try to discover the barrier separating the teenage boy from succeeding at a task—be it a simple chore or something significantly more challenging, like finishing a term paper. What is holding him back? It could be anxiety; it could be executive function disorders; it could be a home situation that makes it impossible to function; it could be a mental illness they struggle with. The fact is, there is a myriad of reasons why a student might be struggling. And none of them results from moral weakness.
Relationship: The Key to Exploring Obstacles Together
When a student is struggling, you can safely assume he does not want to be struggling. He wants to do well: it is our job as teachers at Avon Old Farms, the private CT school for boys, to help him surmount the obstacle in his way. We can aid him most effectively by realizing that he's not lazy and his inability to complete a task is not voluntary. Then we can get to know him—creating a respectful relationship so we can together explore the obstacle interfering with success.
I worked for over a decade in the public school system; therefore, I'm aware that I'm asking teachers to take on a monumental task. I understand educators could be faced with five or six classes a day of upwards of 30 students per class. At a school where class size is small, like Avon Old Farms, the New England boarding school known for relational and active learning geared to how teen boys learn best, developing that bond is easier. At a boarding school, where the teacher is also a coach and possibly a dorm parent, it can be even easier to develop relationships that allow even the most stuck student to feel safe enough to take a risk ...to ask for help. When we shift how we see behavior from a position of judgment to one of compassion and curiosity, we can create spaces for success. As the mentors, the teachers have the ability to allow a struggling student to thrive.
The Real Question to Ask
So my ask is this: the next time the first thought that jumps to mind is “that child is lazy”, perhaps then ask “what is holding him back, and how can I help?” I think we might all be amazed at what lies beyond those barriers.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Director of the Learning Center