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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.