Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

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18 Tammuz 5764 - July 7, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Home and Family

The `Lazy' Child
by L. Raffles

We often see children who seem lazy or uncooperative in certain activities. We can look at normal development and find clues as to what might be going on to make the children behave this way and find pointers as to how to deal with this.

Let's look at the normal development of a normal child. When you observe him as a baby, from the moment he is born he is constantly progressing, pushing himself forward to gain and perfect skills. There are five significant things we can say about this process:

1. The direction of development is completely in the child's subconscious control.

The child has an internal mechanism which controls all aspects of his development. When children are working on speech, they may remain stationary for long periods, looking at their hands or with their eyes drifting around while they babble and repeat sounds, words or songs. Some children start this at a few months, others much later. If they are ready to open their mouths, they will, and there is usually no stopping them. Likewise, if they are internally programmed to develop their motor skills now, they will not stop moving. When watching them repeating these things over and over, like attempting to crawl, one can almost see the internal compulsion that pushes the child to progress.

2. The pace is also set by the child.

He decides his own limits. He will try and try. Walk a few steps, fall, get up and do more, fall and try again. But just as there is no stopping him when he wants to do something, likewise when he is tired, he will stop. It is extremely difficult to encourage a one-year-old to go even one step further than he wants to go.

3. The child sets the limits of what he will attempt.

Although children take a certain number of risks like walking when they might fall, they seem to know what is within their ability, and to sense their own limitations. They challenge themselves constantly to go further and do more, but they set the limits and parents have few ways of influencing things. A mother can put out her hands and say, "Come to Mommy" over and over, smiling and encouraging. But if the child loses courage and crawls instead, then we can do nothing about it. It's not that they don't want to walk; it's just that they don't feel quite ready.

When they are ready, they will do it and it's questionable whether your encouragement will make the slightest bit of difference as to what age the child will walk in the end. The point here is that you can only encourage, you can't force. Although the external environment can encourage a child to do certain things, the child is the one in control.

4. Children are very individual in their development.

Some will walk at nine months, others at eighteen. Likewise, some will talk with sentences at a year; others will only really get going over two. The important thing to note here is that the later walker or talker is not lazy or stupid, and when talking about normal children, he is not developmentally delayed. He is just where he needs to be at the moment.

5. Every gain is built on many smaller gains.

When we look at physical development, we can be struck at how difficult or complicated seemingly easy things are. If we take crawling, for example, first the child has to be able to lift his head and turn it around. Slowly, building on the strength he has, he then lifts himself up on his arms. Then the legs have to be pulled up. The child rocks back and forth. Then the limbs have to be moved, and so on.

The whole process takes a lot of time, lots of strength. When the child repeats an activity many times, he is becoming stronger at that activity, and when he is good enough, he moves to the next stage in tiny increments. When he is finally crawling around the house as an unstoppable ball of energy, it hardly seems that crawling is a difficult activity, requiring strength and coordination. Crawling then becomes the basis upon which he moves to stand, and then to walking, gaining the balance, strength and coordination at each level to help him move to the next level.

This all seems to apply beautifully to infants until about three. Until now, everything they did was called `play,' as if to depreciate it as unimportant. What it really should be called is `development' or `learning.' At about three, and certainly by the time we get to formal schooling, we have a new concept called `learning.'

This is not the `learning' of play that has been important until now, but imposed learning that perforce involves `teachers,' be they parents or teachers. Now the `teacher' sets the agenda. She decides the direction, the pace and the limits of the learning. She decides what the child should learn, for how long and whether s/he is ready for the next stage. Within certain boundaries, she also expects the children to be about the same.

Although teachers and parents can be very encouraging, there is also a new aspect to the process. Punishment. This can take the form of a disapproving look, an `x' on the paper, the effect of peer pressure (the need to conform) or a slap. The point here is that there now can be an element of force.

Either intentionally or not, the child can feel he must do this activity even if that conflicts with his own internal feelings of not being ready. Although the internal developmental clock is still ticking, the older child is taught not to listen to it or trust it, but to assume that the teachers know best. And most parents and teachers don't trust this internal clock, either. They assume that if you don't actively encourage the child, either postively or negatively, he would have no interest in learning. This is simply not true.

Children are born learners, and when they are ready for a particular activity and are then provided with the appropriate stimulation to learn, they will rise to the challenge.

What about a child who shows developmental delay?

Here it would seem appropriate to become actively involved in `forcing' the child to do things. This is not the case. The therapy that is done with such a child doesn't attempt to get the delayed walker to walk. It focuses on what the child can already do and using games and exercises, builds on that until the child slowly moves forward in development. So a child who does not walk may be swung and rolled and played with to strengthen the limbs and improve the balance. They will not just be held by the hands and pulled along! Each stage may need more time and reinforcement before being gently encouraged to the next stage, but this encouragement is no more than the type mentioned above of the mother calling for the child to walk to her.

Now let's look at the older child who is unwilling to perform certain school tasks, such as reading, writing, copying from the board, coloring in, or physical activities like ball games or races. There is a strong tendency to make a moral judgment out of his behavior, calling (or thinking of) him all sorts of names (lazy, uncooperative, stubborn, stupid) and looking to get compliance by using a system of rewards and punishments.

Often this doesn't work. The parents and teachers are sure that the child could do it if he only tried. The activity fits with the child's age level, and all his peers seem happy enough. However, we can't convince this particular child to try hard enough to succeed. This can be a very frustrating process for the parents and teachers who are convinced that he is not trying hard enough (i.e. is lazy). And the child is unhappy at all the efforts to force him to do that which he is equally convinced that there is no point in trying to do.

Depending on the issue at stake and the child's age, he may even start to display any number of psychosomatic symptoms of stress, aggressive behavior, bed- wetting, becoming withdrawn or depressed. What a heavy burden for youngsters to carry, over an issue that in the parents' and teachers' eyes is no big deal.

What's going on here?

The most essential point here is that the avoidance behavior to not try is a learned one, and it is an essential survival technique for the child. If an activity causes an unsustainable amount of stress, then the child will avoid that stress at all costs (just as a donkey with a broken leg will not perform better with the carrot and stick treatment).

If a child is asked to do things that he is not prepared for emotionally or developmentally, then he will not turn around and say, "Hey, do you mind if we leave this a while till I'm older? I don't feel up to it yet." On the contrary, he will feel that this must be something he can do, if it is being asked of him. If he then finds it too hard, he will conclude that there must be something wrong with him.

The child may try, despite his reservations, and fail (by not performing to the standard of his peers or to the expectations of his teacher) many times before he reaches the point where he will not try again. He will have learned that this activity is something he cannot do. That he is incapable of doing, that he is doomed to failure. He will begin to avoid that activity at all costs.

This repeated failure creates such a strong mental block that even when he matures and could do it, he will not attempt it. If he is still forced to do it, then he will do it with a minimum of effort, almost as though he is trying to fail (as this is the more comfortable option psychologically -- better not to try and not fail than to try and fail). He will appear lazy with regard to this activity and this will contrast strongly with other areas where he feels competent, where he puts in a maximum effort and does not appear lazy at all.

The conclusion is obvious: Children should not be called lazy. If a child is `unmotivated,' then look for reasons. We need to assume that s/he would if s/he could. Take the example of a child who doesn't write, or writes reluctantly, slowly, messily and constantly finds excuses to stop. In this case, we look at what the child can do at the moment and build on that until it is obvious to the child himself that he is capable.

Practice does not help and the child does not cooperate. His grip may be bad, but forcing a change of grip may be unhelpful since the child chose this grip because it appeared the easiest. We have to develop and strengthen his `pre- writing' skills. For example, he may have an underlying weakness in the hand, wrist or arm. He may have balance, fine or gross motor problems or hand-eye coordination difficulties. As these weaknesses are strengthened, the child feels more capable, and moves forward. It is extremely important that the child have successful experiences because when he experiences success for his efforts, then he will be encouraged to continue.

If a child is forced to learn something he is not ready for, like alef beis at four, and subsequently develops a mental block, by which reading is associated in the child's mind as unpleasant and difficult, then this can be very difficult to overcome. The fact that now the child is seven and quite capable of learning will not undo the negativity he feels. This is often the scenario, where the child's problem is really a direct consequence of the adult's mismanagement. However, with the correct input, a mental block can be overcome.

This is like the taming of an elephant who does not attempt to run away when tied by the thinnest cord, even though he is certainly strong enough to do so. This is because when he was little, he was tied with the thickest cord and the deepest stakes. When he tried to free himself, he couldn't. Therefore, he learned that he could not pull away and gave up.

Many of us are adults being held back from growth or realizing our potential because we learned when we were young that we could not do certain things and we gave up ever trying.

When we force children to do things they are not ready for, we not only cause failure in the present, but built-in failure for the future as well, and this is a great responsibility on us as educators and parents.


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