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The Lazy Child Myth

I do not believe lazy kids exist. I don’t.

When I hear a parent or teacher tell me that this student or that child is lazy, I immediately know to start asking deeper questions. In the last 15 years I have discovered that what appears as laziness is a symptom, not a condition.

Children, from early on, are explorers. Young children are researchers of the world, trying out new things. They are the original scientists, discovering what works and what doesn’t, what will fail, what won’t, and what will make Mom react with wide eyes, and what will make her smile. The concept of a “Kindergarten mindset,” - where everything is worth exploring and everything has something interesting in it - is easy to embrace. There is not judgment in the task, but simply a desire to explore and try new things.

They are curious by design and open to new experiences. They are also achievers. They want to do well. However, somewhere in their education, at home or at school, some children begin to experience a series of failures. Failures, in themselves, are necessary and actually provide the opportunity to learn, but if these failures were met with feelings of shame, fear, embarrassment or inadequacy, children begin to find ways to avoid failure in the future rather than work through them to knowledge. They stop exploring and attempting new things because they don’t want to be wrong or viewed as stupid. They withdraw from new or challenging learning experiences to avoid shame.  Becoming “lazy” is a natural defense because when challenging work can be avoided, the real feelings about failure can be ignored. Plus, the label “lazy” is actually easier to live with than the alternative, “stupid.” The child starts to believe there is no harm to the self when no possibility of failure is present, so they avoid any activity that might lead to shame.

When the child accepts the “I’m just lazy” label, the parents will find it more and more frustrating to communicate with her. It can take a little detective work - some investigating and problem solving – but an underlying cause of laziness will be revealed. I have yet to find a child who is unequivocally lazy- that is, who is fully capable, emotionally and intellectually secure, but without any desire to create, learn or perform. Remember: children want to please, so it’s not in their inherent nature to be lazy.

“I’m just lazy” is such an easy excuse that the child generally agrees to it and many times it’s accepted as the unofficial diagnosis. The child can relax, because being lazy is not about ability to learn math, intelligence, memory capabilities, sequential processing speed, number sense or any of the other factors that affect learning: it’s just laziness: I could if I wanted to, but I’m just lazy. 

I’m here to stop that thinking. We need to recognize the more truthful statement, which is, “I would want to if I could, but I’m scared you’ll find out that I can’t.” Once we tackle the fears behind the laziness, everything begins to shift.

Of course, there are times when children do not want to do something they are fully capable of doing, like chores or an academically easy set of math problems for example. These fall under the “lack of motivation” category. While we would like our children to have the intrinsic motivation to do something because they should, they may not have that maturity yet. It’s especially challenging if there is something else more exciting to do (watch TV vs. finish dishes), or the task just looks boring (a long, repetitive assignment.) Your job is to create motivation when it is lacking.

What’s the easiest way to do that? With PLAY!

This could be as simple as “how many problems can you do in 2 minutes?” then watch your child race, with a high five at the end, followed by another 2 minutes. You don’t have to use material motivation. There are many, many strategies that are easy to do, yet highly effective for motivation.

It sounds funny to be excited about working with “lazy” kids, but try to think that they are providing you the chance to help discover the root of the issue and resolve it. Once that happens, you may be surprised how enthusiastic your child is to learn more math, take on challenging tasks or even say, “wait, let me try.”


I completely agree! When are kids are acting "lazy" they are probably tired and over exhausted. Kids are expected to do a lot these days and sometimes we don't realize the effect their busy live shave on them.

Erin Smilkstein's picture
The Homework Lounge

Erin Smilkstein, MA.Ed. is an education solution specialist who is determined that math can be joyful to all children, regardless of learning style, creative strengths or past experiences. She provides an engaging and often humorous learning platform for children who struggle in math. She has mastered creative techniques to help children understand math in ways unique to their learning needs. Find out more at