He’s Not Lazy: Empowering Your Son To Believe In Himself Adam Price, PhD. New York: Sterling, 2017. 272 pages.
This book was recently brought to my attention by a parent who expressed some concerns as to its messaging. I decided to place it on my ‘must read’ list. The exercise proved to be informative and has given rise to the following.
The book He’s Not Lazy contains some interesting insights and some advice which if taken and then applied in an appropriate context can be of benefit. However, it also provides enough elasticity in the reader’s possible interpretations of what, when, why and how to act that genuine harm could result. Finally, like many other books in the same vein, it incorporates certain assumptions that though fashionable and widely held are far from being the self evident truths that they purport to be. It is a book that in other places or at other times might be greeted with disbelief and denial. It does however seem to fit well into the current context and fashion that frames discussions around the subject of parenting.
It is always a source of fascination to me that so much of what is currently believed is so time, place and culturally specific but externalized and universalized in such a way as to suggest that no other views are or have ever been tenable. Having spent a significant amount of time living in Singapore and Malaysia, I continue to be amazed at how in places where schools and parents do everything wrong according to the ‘science’ that prevails here, that they are capable of producing such excellent results. But perhaps those children are just made of tougher stuff since the stress, competition and over parenting should by all accounts render them incapable of being happy or productive adults. I have seen little evidence of this anticipated failure and in point of fact just the opposite appears to be the case.
One of the main advantages of living a long life or the studying of intellectual history is the experience of seeing how the assumptions of one generation can be utterly discarded by the next just as that generation abandoned those of their predecessors. What is true of the distancing of time is also true of geographical distancing and most certainly the combination of the two cannot help but breed a sense of relativism or at the very least substantial doubt. Each in its turn can have the effect of bringing the fact squarely home that what is held to be true really might not be true or will remain to be perceived as such.
The title of the book and indeed its main argument is that boys are not lazy but rather that their lack of effort stems from emotional confusion and insecurities. It is therefore presented as a major parenting shortcoming to not understand this fact and to in ignorance misapply the term to an apparent lack of effort. However, so much of current narrative seems to be in and around issues of political correctness and not stating the obvious and this presents itself as another possible instance. The substitution of ‘harsh interrogation’ for ‘torture’ does little to change the facts but does if repeated enough tend towards an increased level of tolerance and decreased level of reaction as reality is made to conform to language as opposed to having language conform to reality. In the same manner that some parties are arguing that the term ‘obese’ should not be used because it may offend those who experience ‘weight challenges’, apparently the use of the term ‘lazy’ is offensive and should not to be used in any connection related to academic performance. I assume therefore that the politically correct description would be lack of effort, effort deficit or perhaps in keeping with George Orwell’s 1984 ‘newspeak’ un-effort or perhaps un-work.
If in some countries poor academic performance is attributable to either horn of the dialectic —-stupid or lazy, the now current third possibility is that of being emotionally confused. This emotional confusion has inputs from numerous sources such that the responsibility for sorting out or creating the confusion is impossible to attribute to any given source or individual. We should be therefore grateful to the plethora of professional experts who have emerged to meet the challenge and provide advice, recipes and mentorship. It is perhaps not an accident that such books focus on the ‘success’ cases that one assumes have been accurately and truthfully retold and exclude those that met with little or no success.
Apart from the term ‘lazy’ another term that the author takes special attention to is the term ‘potential’. Here we learn that in his childhood significant damage was done to the author by virtue of a teacher indicating that he was not working to his potential.
“As a ten-year-old boy I received some shocking news: I was not living up to my potential! At least this was the report delivered to my mother, at the annual parent-teacher conference, by Ms. Beca, my fourth-grade teacher. Although this feedback was meant to prod me to greater academic heights, it only led to confusion. I took this to mean I was not smart enough. Was there some unfulfilled level of accomplishment out there I had yet to reach? Have I achieved it yet? Have you?”
“Potential is a wolf in sheep’s clothing—it’s a term that sounds like its all about growth, but which has really become synonymous with competition. When parent’s complain that their son is not achieving his potential, what they are really saying is “I believe he’s so smart that if he worked up to his potential 100 percent of the time, he’d be at the top of his class.”
This would seem to indicate that the author was a very sensitive little boy who arguably took great offence where none was probably intended. It does however seem to be an experience that like the particle of grit in an oyster giving rise to an irritation, requires being acted upon over a long period of time in order to neutralize it.
If a boy’s marks are well below the class average or of any concern, I can frankly think of no more damning a comment that a teacher could make than saying that he is working to his potential. But since the latter statement infers the suggestion of inherent limitations whereas the former is emotionally abusive, it seem safer to simply remove this word from our vocabulary together with the word ‘lazy’ along with perhaps ‘fat’ and ‘obese’.
The author states very clearly what the stated intention and purpose of his book is:
“By the end of this book you will have shifted paradigms to one where your son is not lazy. Instead, you will realize that his brain is still developing; he is searching for manhood, worried about his future, and in need of great autonomy, more accountability, and the freedom to fail. You will learn to ask different questions, listen more closely to his answers, and give him the trust he needs, so he can begin to believe in himself.”
I find that the book contains information and advice very much along the same lines as reading astrology predictions in the weekday paper. The reader is presented with a suitable level of ambiguity that facilitates varied interpretations while at the same time being largely devoid of any specific content. This is at once an appeal of the book since as a result it is possible for many parents to read into it what they wish to while at the same time being its most fundamental flaw. While being capable of evoking different interpretations subject to specific instances, it avoids any ultimate accountability for results.
Let me start with the issue of lazy. Yes, laziness does exist and it involves a lack of effort, not putting in effort and avoiding things one wishes to not do. One could develop a psychological explanation for your son not putting away his socks and leaving clothes on the floor and indeed perhaps a pathology could be created around it. However, in the practical context of everyday life, this is a result of his not doing something that he does not wish to exert himself over and perhaps even involving the expectation that his mother or the resident fairies will do it for him. Increasingly, among many boys growing up in comfortable and supportive environments, there is an increasing sense that they should not be required to do anything that they do not want to do or that they feel that somebody else will do for them. Effort, they believe, should only be exerted into things or activities that either they enjoy or that end up meeting their short term desires. Intelligence, they hold, involves a conservation of energy and certainly given these assumptions the development of a ‘work ethic’ is a departure into the realm of the irrational.
Laziness is related to impulsivity, immaturity and procrastination all of which are features of living wholly in the present, not thinking about the future and often not thinking about others. Like the aristocracies of previous ages or the ultra rich of today, many activities are perceived as being merely beneath them and should be performed by lessor mortals. However, the most important shared characteristic is that of a lack of self-reliance, self-direction or self-control. Each of these terms relate to the same central issue, that being the ability to relate and control present actions towards some future goal or objective. Focusing on the immediate here and now may be a desirable zen practice i.e. the eternal present, however it is neither desirable or productive in terms of maturation. Even squirrels gather nuts for winter or face starvation.
Music lessons provide interesting examples of varying approaches to parenting. Your child says that he would like to learn the violin. You purchase the instrument and arrange for lessons. After several months, the child in frustration of practicing for some weeks finds that they are not suitably proficient and abandons the instrument in favour of a flute. You then purchase a flute and arrange for lessons only to find that a similar thing happens and that instrument is abandoned in favour of a piano. After a number of frustrating starts and finishes and an accumulation of unused musical instruments as well as wasted music lessons, the child abandons all hope of ever being able to play a musical instrument and decides to listen to cds instead. What is wrong with this picture? After all, the parent is merely allowing the child to find themselves and of course to explore their individuality? What is wrong is the magical thinking possessed by many children that they will pick up an instrument and be able to with little effort and investment play it proficiently. When this doesn’t happen, there is clearly nothing wrong with the premise only something wrong with the choice of instrument.
Virtually all children learning to play musical instruments go through an initial romance period to a point where it is realized that effort and sustained practice are going to be necessary to reach the level of competency that will allow them to derive satisfaction from the process. This discipline is something that parents must normally assist in respect of commitment and follow through with a task, project or ambition that transcends the magical thinking stage to that of actual achievement. It involves coaching, encouragement and commitment. Whereas it may not be desirable to insist upon hours and hours of practice with a threat of regular beatings if not done, it is equally not desirable to assume that a child will continue to practice and put forth a suitable effort without the direction of a parent, teacher or coach.
Whereas it is true that there is such a thing as over parenting, there is also such a thing as under parenting. The belief that children flourish provided that adults stay well clear and that problems with children arise only as a direct result of adult interference is one of the great fallacies of the progressive education movement. It also underlies and supports the assumptions responsible for much if not most of current misguided educational philosophies and approaches. The abrogation of adult guidance and responsibility fits well within this framework and correspondingly provides the opportunity to transform a defect into a strength. Statements inferring that a child’s brain grows like a turnip and needs to be left alone to mature not only miss the point that the child’s mind and brain are one and the same thing, but also the point that mental development depends upon experience. Nobody would seriously contend that if a boy was placed in a coma at 12 years of age, fed intravenously and then taken out of that state when 19 that he would emerge capable of immediately forming ‘mature’ judgements. However, the argument is often framed as if that were the case by those appealing to the latest discoveries in neurology to support their hands off policies.
To go back to my earlier example of Singaporean parenting, they regard education in much the same manner as many Canadian families regard competitive sports. If as much rigour and effort was directed towards improving performance in math as there is in playing hockey, there is little doubt that Canada would do much better in international math competitions. However, for some reason, the principles that are uncontested with regards to the coaching and training philosophies governing sports, are considered too harsh or humiliating to be applicable to academics. In Asia, these priorities are largely reversed with the corresponding results.
The current fashion is for parents to ‘advocate’ on behalf of their child. Unfortunately, advocating is a legal process that involves the inherent moral ambiguity enshrined in law that guilt is less important than process. On this basis, a lawyer knowing his client to be guilty is still justified within the framework of legal morality to do his or her best to see that the client is not convicted and can use any conceivable technicality to achieve this objective. As a result it could be said that the means justifies the end. In this regard, current legal proceedings are not that far removed from medieval trial by combat with swords being exchanged for pens.
Parents employing this strategy of attempting to ensure that their child does not face the consequences of his or her actions or that every method is used to displace responsibility and blame to others feeds into the moral duplicity that will later come back to haunt them. Parents demanding special consideration or exemptions for their child undermine the principles of meritocracy that are supposed to be an inherent component of educational assessment. Ironically, the very people who demand special accommodations and considerations for their own child tend to be the very people who make no such considerations when dealing with other members of the human race.
Morality and ethics are based upon the principle of universality which is to say that if it is wrong for you it is wrong for me. One of the characteristics of immature children is their dual code of conduct. The same child who will take something from another child believing it to be a justified act will be utterly indignant when another child takes something from them. One of the fundamental building blocks of moral development is the grasping of the concept that rules that one expects to apply to others should be also binding upon oneself. This is a fact that is supposed to be grasped early in life but which appears increasingly to be bypassed by many functioning parents. The two standards of moral conduct combined with the belief that it is only wrong if you get caught have increasingly conspired to bring us to the current sad state of world affairs.
Making a child responsible for his or her own actions starts early in life and must also be reflected as a value in the parents and role models that form the influences in the family, school environment and society at large. The problems that many parents experience with children growing up are a result of inconsistencies in the family environment over time compounded by those in the environments outside of their control. The British philosopher and educator Bertrand Russell once stated that a fundamental rule of early childhood parenting was to allow the child to suffer the natural consequences of his or her actions whenever feasible barring of course situations presenting danger. To not follow this practice and then support the view that teenagers have a right to make their own decisions seems to fly in the face of logic since they have been essentially unplugged from reality and have therefore been rendered largely dysfunctional. Then of course, there is the further issue of the scale of decisions relative to their importance and potential impact on a child’s future, tending to increase in long term significance with age at precisely the time when the required levels of maturity and judgment are absent.
The situation that I am advised of constantly by parents is the fact that they are unable to control the behaviour of their son and that he does not respond to parental authority. Inherent in this is often a cluster of attitudes and behaviours that leaves parents both shocked and confused largely as a result of not being able to possibly conceive of themselves as having ever behaved in this manner with their own parents. This dynamic involves not only a refusal to obey rules or follow advice but also a flat denial that the adults are entitled to or have any experience or knowledge putting them in a situation to be able to do so. The view that adults are not grown ups but rather decayed teenagers seems prevalent. The distractions that abound as well as the vast quantities of information available through the internet serve to only provide a confused and distorted view of reality. Quality of information has given way to quantity of information and with that has developed the inability to distinguish the difference. Shrinking vocabularies combined with low literacy rates have made both the formulation as well as the expression of thoughts more problematic. The view that truth is indexed by intensity of feeling has further given rise to a lack of tolerance of the opinions of others coupled with a refusal to entertain disquieting facts or counter arguments.
It is interesting to note that many people feel that it is necessary to take a puppy to obedience school in order to learn how to become a responsible owner and how to end up with a creature capable of living within the house without destroying it. Parenting however is a skill that few feel that they need advice or instruction with until it is often too late. Prior to this, each parent feels that they are an instant expert based upon the experience of their own upbringing. The solution is simple. Duplicate the things that you liked about your upbringing and remove all of the things that you did not like or disagreed with at the time.
Unfortunately, life is not so simple and it is far too often the case that the things in life that have resulted in strengths and resiliency are those very things that we did not like or agree with or that we would have if given the choice avoided. Character does not emerge from the removal of frustration but rather is developed through it. The imperfections in life may provide excuses but never justifications. In the final analysis, it is only by assuming responsibility for our own actions that we are able to gain the freedom to be able to direct them.
Parenting involves guidance and leadership. Implicit in this is the assumption that parents and children are not equal. A ‘grown up’ is precisely what the statement implies. With growth and experience comes or at least should come the development of wisdom. With wisdom and love comes the good parenting that provides not what a child wants but rather what he or she needs.
In conclusion, it is interesting to speculate about the author of the book in question and his experience of being accused in Grade 4 of not working to his potential. Would he have written the book if that comment had never been made? Would he have become a psychologist? It should give us pause to think about the positive effect some negative experiences as well as the negative effect of some positive experiences. Do we need to create a perfect environment to raise a perfect child or is it in the end character that defines us? Neither comfort or complacency evoke reaction but they can cause a reluctance to engage the world. In many cases what we become hangs upon our response to things that at the time they occured we would have chosen to avoid. The oyster forms a pearl around a piece of grit. Perhaps we have more in common with shellfish than we realized.