What looks like lazy… (part one)

Here’s another round of question and response; this one is an abridged collection of several versions (from different parents) of this concern.  I’m posting my response in two parts over two days, as it’s lengthy (even in two parts!)… If this struggle sounds familiar, I hope you’ll find my response helpful.

My daughter never seems to follow through on things. I always encourage her to do her best, but she doesn’t even know what she’s capable of because she doesn’t really try and always just does as little as she can get away with.  Like if I ask her to clean her room, she does it well enough that there’s nothing I can complain about exactly, but it’s not really ever done well.  Or if I ask her to write a thank-you note to her grandmother, I know she can do a neater job and come up with more interesting things to say than she does.  When she does her math assignments, they’re never done as carefully as I know she could do them.  I feel like she’s just being lazy.  I’ve tried to teach her to value good work and commitment but it seems like I haven’t succeeded. How can I get her to apply herself and do the best she can?

My response: First you’ll want to determine whether it’s that she doesn’t follow through on things or it’s that she doesn’t follow through on some of the things you want her to. It may seem like it doesn’t matter, but you want to be sure that you’re not wasting your time trying to solve a different problem from the one you have.  If she’s not doing her best at or following through on anything, you’ll need a very different course of action from what you need if she’s just not following through on some or all of the things you want her to.

So you have these things at which you can’t get her to do her best.  Are there other things – activities or situations or circumstances – in which she does apply herself to what she’s doing?  Good places to look are activities that really matter to her.  What does she love to do and where does she find the greatest satisfaction, purpose, or other reward? (Some examples I’ve heard: finishing a Harry Potter book, learning to ride a bike, climbing a tree, reaching another level of a game, taking especially good care of a gift from a loved one, mastering a tough song on the piano, beating a sibling at a difficult game, perfecting a swing or a shot from the three-point line, saving enough money to buy a coveted toy).  I haven’t met any children yet – of any age – who don’t apply themselves to something.  It may well be something that adults don’t value or even wish kids wouldn’t do at all, but these things still demonstrate an ability to commit.  The choice of what to commit to is another issue, which I’ll address in a moment, but first you have to know if you’re truly dealing with an inability to commit to things or a difference of opinion as to what should be committed to.

If you truly can’t find an example of something your child will apply herself to, then you can really say she doesn’t.  And if that’s the case, I’d recommend that you give your attention to helping her find such a thing.  It will be very difficult to give her the experience of satisfaction and pride that can come from a job well done if she doesn’t get to feel it in the context of something that really matters to her.

If you do find that there are areas in which your child does apply herself – if in fact she follows through on those things for which the reward is intrinsic or she has come to recognize the extrinsic value – then your next step is to look carefully at the thing you’re trying to get her to do more thoroughly.  You know that she has the capacity to commit herself to things.  Now can you identify the value of the thing that you’d like her to apply herself to?  Why is it that you think it’s important?  Is it that someone told you it’s important?  If it is, do you actually agree with them?  Or is it something that’s really important to you?  If so, how is it important, and does it need to be important to your child as well?  If it does, your next challenge is to figure out how to communicate that importance to your child in such a way that she can receive it genuinely. We tend to default to just insisting that kids do what we think is important. But kids really are interested in contributing what they are uniquely qualified to contribute, participating in what’s going on around them, and being connected to and supportive of the people they love. See if you can find the places where what you think is important overlaps with those (natural) inclinations of your child.

To be continued tomorrow with examples of how to start this conversation with your child…