How do you deal with a “lazy child”? Many parents have to deal with this question almost every day for the simple reason that children are among the world’s most terrible procrastinators.
Having to repeat instructions over and over again – without getting anywhere – often leads to frustration, and that frustration can lead you to make decisions or to react in ways that you later regret.
It is not always easy to know how to deal with a lazy child: is “pushing them harder” the most effective strategy? Or is “letting them experience the consequences of their actions” a more appropriate approach?
Regardless of the strategy that you choose, dealing with a “child who constantly needs to be pushed” tires you out and often leads to feelings of hopelessness.
To understand your child’s behavior, you must first understand how procrastination in children works.
How to deal with a lazy child: the role procrastination plays in your child’s behavior
The Oxford dictionary defines procrastination as deferring action without good reason. Recent studies have found that “putting something off until later” can have dramatic effects.
• It has been linked to poor performance
• Procrastinators have been found to be more miserable over the long term
• Procrastination has a negative impact on individuals’ saving practices
The good news is that everyone procrastinates less as they grow older and develop skills to overcome procrastination.
Even better news: several procrastination researchers say that ANYONE can learn to avoid procrastination. They say that the more individuals practice, the less likely they are to procrastinate: these claims are backed by scientific proof.
Why motivating a “lazy child” is complicated
Laziness and procrastination are age-old problems and they affect people of all ages.
This can be complicated in childhood because, depending on their age, your child cannot be held fully responsible for their actions (or lack thereof):
- If they consistently fail to do their homework, their teacher will eventually get in touch with you.
- If they constantly refuse to brush their teeth, you are the one who will end up taking them to the dentist.
Having a child who procrastinates is difficult because it affects you just as much as it affect them – and their behavior can drive you up the wall!
So, what do you do when you’re just about at your wit’s end because your child won’t do their homework, put away their toys or brush their teeth just yet? What do you do when your every request is met with “just five more minutes”? Here are several strategies that could help.
How to motivate a lazy child
Scientific evidence suggests that encouraging children and adolescents to participate in decision-making might just be the most useful tool that you could use to motivate your lazy child without losing your mind.
“Autonomy granting” is a term used by development psychologists to refer to the assumption that parents are initially responsible for decision-making and then transfer that right to children through parent-controlled processes.
This transfer of decision-making is considered a key element of parenting. It is said that by giving your child opportunities to act independently, you promote their development and help build their self-confidence.
Children’s ability to make sound decisions increases between the ages of eight/nine and 13, and they gain decision autonomy (i.e., the ability to make decisions without parental involvement) between the ages of 12 and 17.
When it comes to younger children, structured decision-making may be more appropriate. This involves shared responsibility that balances parental authority and child independence. More precisely, this involves giving your child a framework within which they can make decisions.
Encouraging your children to make their own decisions is a win-win situation. Children’s quest for autonomy is a well-known phenomenon – It enables them to feel in charge and makes it easier for them to cooperate. Better yet, discussion and negotiation are an investment in children’s future decision-making.
That said, knowing how to effectively “hand down power” depends on your child’s age. Here are a few strategies that might help.
Six strategies to effectively motivate a lazy child
1) Give your child limited options
Giving limited options to your child provides a structure but also lets your child participate in decision-making.
For instance, instead of telling them to do something (“it’s time to do your homework” or “go and do your homework)”, you could say “will you do your homework right now or immediately after your snack”? “Will you brush your teeth now or in five minutes?
Helpful tip: Setting an alarm to ring after the five minutes can be a powerful tool – “as soon as the alarm rings, it’s time to go and brush your teeth”.
Giving limited options is particularly important when dealing with younger children for whom making a choice can be difficult. They can also be incorporated with very young children: “do you want the blue or the red dress”?
Helpful tip: If you child wants to be more involved in decision-making, you can also avoid conflict by separating, for instance “clothes/shoes for school” from “clothes/shoes for parties” / “clothes/shoes for home”. That way you’ll prevent arguments about why they cant go to school wearing their Halloween costume!
When using limited options, it is important to be firm and to let your child know that the decision he/she makes must be respected.
2) Set limits
A second option that may work well is to set a timeframe and ask your child to decide when they will perform a given task/action.
Setting appropriate limits provides them with the opportunity to make a decision within a very broad structure:
- You can watch TV/play your videogame but only after your homework is done (setting limits)
- You can choose the red dress or the green dress (giving fewer options)
- You can do your homework/take your shower whenever you like but it must be done by 6 p.m. (setting limits)
This approach enables your child to feel like a more active participant in the decision-making process.
3) Let your child know about your expectations
A child’s say increases with age. However, when you tell them that they can choose any extracurricular activity, be clear about how many activities they can choose. When you give your child a wide choice, be sure that you can live with whatever they choose.
4) Reward rather than punish
If you’re dealing with a “lazy child”, rewards can help motivate them to perform a task or activity that they are otherwise unwilling to do.
But it is important to avoid bribing them to get the behavior you want. Many people get positive reinforcement wrong; for it to work, you must apply it appropriately. Here is everything you need to know to get positive reinforcement right.
If you decide to try positive reinforcement, remember that younger children prefer smaller and more immediate rewards than larger but delayed rewards. This is linked to the fact that, the longer the delay, the less they will value the reward.
Proposing smaller but immediate rewards is therefore a more effective approach.
5) Let go
Dealing with an older child is more complicated because parents cannot and should not control everything. It is often with older children that power struggles begin. But these can also provide important learning moments.
Much of the procrastination research says that gradually transferring decision-making to your child is better than premature independence or prolonged dependency.
Many studies also say that when parents are too present, children tend to be dependent and accustomed to others’ making their decisions for them.
According to the book At the Threshold: The Developing Adolescent, the skills necessary for sound decision-making (which is defined as the ability to generate and weigh alternatives) develop rapidly from about the age of eight up to the age of 15/16.
Older children must therefore be provided with opportunities to learn that choices have consequences. They must be made aware of the possible consequences of their action or inaction, meaning that you should be very clear about the consequences of “lazy behavior”, then apply those consequences each and every time that behavior is displayed.
6) Stop referring to them as a “lazy child”
Words have been known to become self-fulfilling prophecies. The more you refer to your child as “lazy”, the higher the chances that they will begin to view this character trait as “natural and innate” and they will therefore make less effort to overcome their procrastination.
If you see your child as “naturally lazy”, it will be harder to think of them as someone who needs specific help and to propose that help.
Last thoughts on “lazy kids”
While many children eventually grow out of their laziness, science says that part of their behavior may be explained by learning difficulties such as ADHD, problems with focus and attention, psychological issues such as depression and anxiety, stress, substance abuse, and so on. By using the label “lazy child”, these difficulties tend to be overlooked.
If you are worried about your child’s behavior, please speak to your family therapist who will help point you in the right direction.
If you’ve enjoyed this post, you’ll love my Workbook “This is what it takes to raise happy and confident kids”. This workbook draws on ideas and resources from research and the world’s greatest philosophers to bring you strategies you can start using immediately. Check it out here.
Scientific references and further reading