The Lazy Child
( Originally Published 1916 )
THE controversy as to whether people must be driven by fear of hunger or of punishment to do their work will probably continue for many years to come. But it should not be difficult for the parent who really cares, to make up his mind as to the best way of getting his own children to do their share of the world's work. We have used the word " lazy " to cover up a heap of ignorance about human nature, and it is the easiest thing in the world to resort to this adjective—certainly much easier than trying to understand people, and especially children.
Those who have given most attention to the problem of child nature are pretty well agreed that it is impossible for a healthy boy or girl to be lazy. It is a contradiction of terms to say that a young human being would prefer to do nothing. Indeed, it is the irresistible impulse to be up and doing that makes the healthy child so much of a nuisance to people who wish to have everything quiet and " orderly." The first thing to do when a child shows symptoms of "laziness," is to have him thoroughly examined by a competent physician.
Now this sounds as though we considered laziness a disease. And several years ago when Dr. Stiles of the U. S. Public Health Service announced his discoveries in regard to the hookworm, it was quite the fashion for respectable people (who have a great deal of contempt for lazy folks) and for the newspapers to think up jokes about the " laziness germ." But seriously, laziness is very commonly an indication of impaired health, if not of actual disease. This is especially true when it occurs in young children. When a child sits or lies about without caring to do anything, without even getting into mischief, there is generally something wrong.
But perhaps we all know older children who are " pictures of health " and at the same time lazy enough to exasperate their parents and teachers. When we have made sure that the picture of health is not a deceptive appearance, it is time to look for other causes, and not till then. Judging from the experience of the schools, there are lazy children who have good health. But the usual attitude toward indifference to work is hardly effective in making children get over it. To scold and to drive may help in getting a particular task finished, but they have not been very helpful in establishing habits of industry. And that is the whole problem, in most cases—to establish habits of industry.
By nature the child adapts himself very readily to the establishment of such habits. In the first place there are the instincts for activity, the native curiosity and the imitativeness. And in the next place, there is the ease with which repeated acts become organized into habit. Could anything be easier than making a child get into the habit of doing something all of his waking time? But children do certainly grow up " lazy "; so what can be the trouble? We are quite sure that it cannot be anything wrong with his muscles, for example, because the amount of energy that a child puts into his play after he is tired out by his " work," is enough to do the work several times over. That ought to give us a clew. The energy that is expended in play has meaning to the child; too often the energy required of him in work-whether it is home work or school work or work that earns money—has no meaning to him whatever. In other words, where there is interest and enthusiasm there is effort and exertion ; when there is indifference or repugnance, there is lethargy and indolence. Children will acquire the habits of industry only where they have practice in exerting themselves with purpose and enthusiasm.
But we cannot let the children play all the time ; it is necessary to study, sometimes, and to do other things that are not very pleasant in themselves. Indeed that is true. But it has been found possible to organize study and other necessary work in such a way as to get the children to do it cheerfully and effectively, and so to get the habit of doing what needs to be done without shirking and without complaining. To most older people this would seem to be demoralizing; but experience shows that work done under conditions that arouse interest is at least as valuable for " discipline " as work done under compulsion. For children can certainly learn the various processes involved in the handling of tools, for example, by making things in which they are interested; and they can as easily acquire skill in such work as in monotonous work. But the " moral " habit of application to the disagreeable for the purpose of carrying out a more remote end, which is the essential thing in what we call our " discipline," has been. successfully developed by parents and teachers who have known how to use interest in leading children from play to work.
It is the children who have been driven to do the unpleasant things that have no meaning for them who resort to " laziness " as the only escape from the disagreeable tasks. They have never learned to be interested either in the work itself, or in the work as a means to something desirable, that should crown all labor. They have acquired laziness because their impulses to activity had been thwarted by association with stupid, monotonous, fatiguing effort.
And this suggests a third type of laziness. In spite of the beautiful poems and the stirring orations on the " dignity of labor " the children do not have to be very shrewd to discover that society honors many of its members in inverse proportion to the amount of useful work they do. It is a short step to acquire a contempt for real honest work, since the workers that the child sees about him receive anything but respect from " the better classes." If a clever girl or boy half-unconsciously makes up his mind that it does not pay to work, if he adopts the attitude expressed by the cant phrase " Let George do it," we must look seriously to the conditions that make for laziness in our own habits and views of life.
Finally, there are a few children who naturally take to the contemplative life—they are dreamers, poets, philosophers. They have their uses even if they do not do " useful work."