Laziness: Fact or Fiction?

  • Written by Maren Schmidt, M.Ed.

“Idleness, indifference, irresponsibility are healthy responses to absurd work.”

—Frederick Herzberg

“Marjorie is lazy.  That’s all. You need to push her to get things done,” said Ms. Busch.

We were in a parent/teacher conference and I felt uncomfortable with the word “lazy” as a descriptor for five-year-old Marjorie.  Lazy seemed derogatory.

Marjorie’s teacher, Ms. Busch, had 25 years of experience to my five.  Marjorie’s parents nodded their heads and didn’t seem upset that they had a lazy child.  To me, the word “lazy” felt like a splinter under my fingernail. Lazy didn’t belong in a sentence about a five-year-old girl. I wanted to banish the word with its perception of character.

After the conference, I visited with Ms. Busch about her use of the term. As an observer in her classroom of three to five-year-olds, my questions were directed toward understanding classroom dynamics.

“When you use the word ‘lazy’ what do you mean?” I asked Ms. Busch.

“Lazy is someone who can do the work, but won’t.  They would rather visit with their friends, watch the clock, play outside, go to the bathroom 10 times a day, wander around the room, whatever, to get out of doing what they should be doing,” Ms. Busch said.

“What specific behaviors do you see in Marjorie that make you think she is lazy?” I asked.

“Marjorie,” Ms. Busch said with a gentle grin, “loves to talk. She gets some work out and looks busy, but she’s talking to her neighbors at the table. She never completes a task. When it’s clean up time, she heads straight to the bathroom and emerges when it’s time to go outside.  She cries and whines if I try to get her to complete a task.  Marjorie can do the work, but she won’t.  She is lazy.”

“Would you mind if I observed Marjorie for a couple of days and kept notes?” I asked.

Ms. Busch was right.  Marjorie talked all the time and seemed skilled at avoiding any kind of meaningful task that was age appropriate. Marjorie did spend time with the three year olds, showing them how to do puzzles, sweeping and dusting.  Marjorie “bossed” the four and five year olds around. She was busy all day long in everybody else’s business and avoided her own.

Observing children at work gives us insight into their character, their interests and possible obstacles to their development. After observing Marjorie for a day, I didn’t believe she was lazy. I saw Marjorie avoiding work that involved writing or lining up materials, such as math materials for counting or moveable letters for spelling, activities in which other five year olds were actively engaged. Marjorie’s choices for work were appropriate for three and four year olds.  Visiting with her neighbors covered up Marjorie’s careful watching of their actions.

By observing Marjorie, I saw her difficulty with fine motor tasks such as using a pencil and scissors or picking up small materials, such as single beads or puzzle pieces. She had difficulty cutting a straight line and putting objects back in order.  Marjorie’s “bossing” of four-year-olds was her translating into spoken language certain knowledge, such as numbers to one thousand.

Marjorie was hitting obstacles and had weak fine motor skills.  She needed to process information out loud to form clear long-term memories.  To overcome these difficulties and compensate for lack of skills, Marjorie talked, did “baby” work and avoided work with small materials.

After discussing my findings with Ms. Busch, we brainstormed for lessons for Marjorie that would assure her success by using larger materials, by building her fine motor control and by allowing for verbal processing.

Ms. Busch told me: ‘It’s like we were taught. It is the adult’s job to remove obstacles for the child.  I was focused on Marjorie’s being stuck on an obstacle instead of trying to figure out what that obstacle was and removing it.  Laziness is a sign that a child’s between a rock and a hard spot.”

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