Tuesday, August 12, 2014

I Don't Believe in Laziness

I don't think I believe in laziness. In fact, I'm almost certain I don't.

In my imagination, I hear countless people gasp in shock and horror. What do you mean laziness isn't a thing? Look around you, there are lazy people everywhere!

What I do believe is that a lot of people have a lot of really lousy ideas about what types of people are lazy and what laziness looks like. In our consumerist, capitalist, and highly competitive society, productivity (here being defined as the participation in monetary work in an economy built on a model of endless growth) is valued above pretty much everything else, and if you're not either: a. working most of your waking hours for pay or b. in school preparing to be working most of your waking hours for pay, you're probably just being lazy.

People like to talk about kids being lazy a lot. Lazy because they're doing badly in school, or playing too much, or not doing their homework, or getting really stressed by school. And common wisdom says that kids are too lazy to do hard things like learning on their own terms, which is a frequent criticism unschoolers get from relatives, strangers, and random people on the internet.

I'd like to argue that whenever people see something they'd label as lazy, it's really one of these other things they're seeing instead.

People who are struggling, or even in crisis. People with disabilities, mental illnesses, and chronic illnesses/chronic pain are very, very familiar with being considered lazy. Lazy because they're not performing up to the standards of "normal," healthy people, and if they just tried harder, thought more positively, and pulled themselves up by the bootstraps, they could surely do better. Any children in school, who are learning (or not) in a high stress environment, with regular evaluations, and the threat of failing grades leading to summer school or even having to repeat a grade, are in a difficult enough position as it is. Add in the struggle of a disability or illness of some sort, and you're expecting the impossible. You're expecting someone to thrive in an environment and a lifestyle that they're literally incapable of coping with. Then on top of that, they get called lazy, and blamed for the failings of a system that was not built for them. They get to feel worthless and like a failure, like they should be able to do better, even if they can't. Though it's compounded in children with physical or emotional difficulties, the reality that school is the problem not the student holds true for those without any illnesses or disabilities, as well. Schools weren't built to be a nurturing, flexible environment in tune with how children naturally learn and grow, so it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that a large portion of children struggle in such an institution.

People who feel lost, directionless, and unenthusiastic. Sometimes, even if someone isn't struggling in a major way, a way that could actually end up being a diagnosable illness, they're still not doing so well. Maybe they have trouble getting excited about learning or doing anything much, they're stressed out and uncertain about what they want to do or how they want to do it. This means they need people to help them figure things out, find some new pursuits, make any necessary changes to their environment, set some goals that feel good to the learner, or otherwise offer a supportive presence and helping hand. What someone who feels lost and uncertain doesn't need is to be made to feel guilty about those feelings, and like really they're just being lazy.

People who like to daydream, and whose learning is largely more internal and less visible. In our culture there's a common idea of what learning is supposed to look like. Children who are learning are supposed to look diligent, hard at work, focused, and possibly like they're not having too good a time. Everyone learns in ways that don't look like learning at least some of the time, but especially for some young learners, learning can be a very internal, non-structured process, involving lots of daydreaming and quiet time playing, thinking, and imagining. This isn't laziness, just learning in ways that schools don't tend to value.

People who learn in more active, energetic, kinesthetic ways, through play and exploration. This very much overlaps with the above. This is yet another learning preference that is largely ignored in school, to great detriment for many active, enthusiastic kids. There's also a tendency for adults to think that kids who are just running around playing all the time are having way too much fun to actually be learning. This, of course, is not at all true, and luckily there's more and more research showing the importance of play for children AND adults.

People with a sense of entitlement. I'm leery about the word entitlement, simply because it's so often lobbed at people in the same way lazy is, and for the same reasons. I don't think it's entitled to expect respectful treatment; access to food, water, healthcare and shelter; experiences that bring you joy; support when you're having trouble; and a place in the world. Those are human rights, not something entitled millennials or children or name-the-group are unreasonably demanding. However, I do think a sense of entitlement exists, in people who believe that they're more deserving of good things than others, who believe that by virtue of their birth or wealth or other attributes they're better than others, or that they don't have a duty to be generally polite and kind to those around them. Basically, there are people who don't ever go out of their way to do anything for other people, and that's really entitlement right there. But don't call it laziness. Name it for what it is: a sense of superiority and lack of caring for others.

People who call themselves lazy. Sometimes (okay, for many of us, often) we really want to do something, and yet we don't start doing it. We start something, and then avoid doing it for weeks. We procrastinate endlessly. Then that little voice starts in our heads, "I guess I'm just lazy." Well, I don't think you are. I don't think I am. I think it's more likely either one of the above (struggles either big or small, a favoured learning style that doesn't look productive), or perhaps most often fear. Fear of failure, fear you're not smart enough or good enough to be doing what you want to do, fear of ridicule or criticism. Laziness might not exist, but fear most definitely does.

I also find myself wanting to ask, is "doing nothing" really so bad? Must we constantly be engaging in something productive? Why can't we just relax, without having to justify whatever we're doing to either ourselves or others? Something doesn't have to be a "learning experience" to be worthwhile. Once we move past some puritanical (or maybe more capitalistic) mindset of having to be constantly engaged in something appropriately useful, we can really work on embracing all life has to offer, whether it's useful to the economy or not. I don't want to dissect the episode of Veronica Mars I just watched for any learning potential, I just want to enjoy it, and enjoy the discussions with my sister it sparks on the characters and plot and what we think might happen next...

Learning is always happening, whether we're noticing it or not. But more importantly, just living, just existing and enjoying and working and playing and yes, learning, is enough. We don't have to justify our very existence by being productive. Just being is good enough.
This is why I always wince when I hear the word lazy passing anyone's lips. It's demeaning, it further hurts children who are already struggling, makes people feel guilty and worthless, and just creates a horrible environment to live in, never mind for positive learning and growth. Learning happens best when people feel supported and challenged, not when they feel stressed and insecure, with people watching them in disapproval and muttering about laziness. If adults really care about learning, then they need to work on being more supportive and less critical, and erase the word lazy from their vocabulary, and the false concept of laziness from their minds.

Then we can all get down to the joyful business of life learning a little bit easier.

A big thanks to Nikki and Ashley for kindly offering their copy-editing skills and making this post read better than it otherwise would have!


  1. I totally agree that sometimes doing nothing is a good thing. Embracing nothingness can open up a person to new outlooks and new inspiration. Some of my best insight happens when I'm just sitting in bed or taking a shower.

    Recently, I wrote a post about doing nothing as a solution to struggling/obsessing over a single task.

    It's so sad we can't trust our students to do nothing. Culturally, we can't seem to trust that, once they have an idea, they'll want to do something with it. We peg our kids as lazy, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  2. I LOVE LOVE LOVE this post.

  3. Thank you for this great and much needed insight! I am homeschooling my younger children and am interested in learning more about unschooling. I'm also trying to learn how to work with my kids learning styles which seem to be different from mine.

    My 19 year old struggled so much in school and now has a very negative attitude towards schooling and society in general. I tried everything I could think of at the time, within the socially excepted schooling models, and nothing seemed to work. I knew it wasn't working for him but had no idea what else to do for him. I would still love to find anything to help my 19 year old to just encourage him in a positive direction, as he still struggles so much.

    If there is anyway, with my younger children, to avoid the situations that have caused problems for my older son I will be forever grateful for that knowledge.

    I appreciate the effort you have put into this article and look forward to reading more of your info. Also, can I just say, that I am very impressed with how well you write and how well spoken you are. If that's not proof that unschooling/homeschooling can work then I don't know what is!

  4. Thanks for this post. As a 20 year-old, self-proclaimed lazy person who, as you also mentioned, feels directionless and also daydreams frequently, I feel a bit better. I just don't know where to go in life, and even if I have an idea, I'm too afraid. Everything seems so big and important and intimidating, and I feel all eyes on me even when they're not (on that note, I should also say that school socialization is not all it's cracked up to be, and I'm the proof). It's been three years since I left high school, and during this time I have just been playing and avoiding the ever-looming "adult world." I have recently discovered a subject that I enjoy and that is also potentially useful, Spanish, something I might never have given a second thought if it weren't for my "lazy" internet adventures. I do know that I never wished to go to college. I think I disappointed a lot of people by saying so, but I was ready to just GO, and leave school behind forever. Luckily my new hobby in Spanish requires approximately zero schooling, and I can accomplish it on my own with help from native speaker friends. I want to get certified in Spanish, but after that, what then? I have no idea.

    1. Sounds like you're on the right track to me!

  5. Have you seen the book The Myth of Laziness?

  6. Have you seen the book The Myth of Laziness?

  7. Hi! This just made me so happy. I have been saying this for the last several years and it has been so affirming to finally hear someone else say it :) I have often had conversations with a friend of mind who says this about her son...I kept telling her I didn't believe in laziness and it wasn't true of her son. He was super brilliant but ended up flunking out of college in the 1st year...then he got a job working for an internet security company and started making six figures at 20yrs old...Needless to say he isn't even 30 yet and he is very high up in Apple...So I am a believer ;)

  8. Lazy and proud here! Everyone I know works long hours and is miserable. I don't work, just live my life, and I am happy. My parents do pay for the house and food, but they would do that anyway for themselves, so I don't see myself as a burden.

  9. Lazy and proud of it here! I'm 22 and still live at home and my life is good. Everyone I know works all the time and they are miserable. My parents work and complain constantly about their jobs. I live with them in their house, which they would be paying for anyway for themselves, so I don't see myself as a "burden." I think parents want their children to work/get degrees so parents can brag about it, not because it's what's best for their kids. Work makes people miserable, and if I can avoid it, that's what I plan to do!