Laziness by Any Other Name

Mar 21, 2012
The sin of laziness plagues our students, especially boys.  Over the years I’ve had many opportunities to observe this particular sin up close. When I talk to parents about this struggle in their child, the conversation generally plays out like this:  I tell them that Johnny is very lazy and not putting forth much effort in his school work. They nod their heads and admit that they have noticed that Johnny is not very motivated about school (or chores at home), but they hesitate to label this lack of motivation laziness. To make their point they explain how Johnny puts forth a great deal of effort, energy, and time on some activity that he enjoys. “He works hard when he wants to,” the parents say. They are blind to their child’s laziness because laziness does not always look like we expect it to. We tend to imagine that laziness is taking a nap when everyone else is working or it’s playing video games and watching TV when you should be doing your homework. Certainly sometimes it looks just like that. But laziness, like all sin, is a deceiver, and the first person it deceives is the sinner. Laziness loves to masquerade as work. It’s easy to deceive ourselves and others when we seem so busy and hard working. But, laziness is not inactivity; it’s doing something other than your duty. Laziness is polishing your shoes when you should be writing your research paper. It’s shooting 100 free throws to get ready for the big game instead of washing the dishes. It’s even offering to help others instead of memorizing those Latin forms. Laziness disguised as helpfulness is particularly deceptive. Laziness is so deceptive that it can even drive you to do something you really don’t like instead of doing your duty. When I have a tough writing deadline coming up or a stack of long research papers to grade, I have a strong desire to clean my bathroom instead. I hate cleaning my bathroom. There is no household task that I detest more. Yet, my laziness is so great that I would rather scrub a toilet than do my unpleasant duty.  Additionally I am deceived by my own sin because at the end of the day, with a sparkling bathroom, I feel productive when I’ve really been lazy. The question we must ask ourselves and our children is not, are you working and being productive? But, are you doing the duty that you are called to right now? If your duty is to mow the lawn, then you can’t shirk that responsibility to read your literature assignment. And if your duty is to finish some Algebra problems, you can’t offer to help Mom cook dinner instead. Like every aspect of Christian living, it takes wisdom to discern laziness and what’s going on in the heart is the key.
Angelina Stanford

Angelina Stanford

Angelina Stanford has an MA in English literature from the University of Louisiana, graduating Phi Kappa Phi, and has taught in various Christian classical classrooms for over 20 years.  She is currently teaching the Great Books online to high school students at the Harvey Center for Family Learning and recently joined the online faculty of the Circe Academy.  She’s also the co-star of the popular Circe podcast “Close Reads.”  She has a particular interest in myths, fairy tales, and understanding literature through the study of mythological archetypes and biblical typologies—as well as a mild obsession with the influence of Celtic fairy stories and Celtic Christianity on the development of British literature.  She also has a more than mild obsession with Wendell Berry.​​

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My second grader (boy) has a fantastic teacher who isn't afraid to call things as she sees them. He recently came home with a phonogram paper marked (in red!) that said: "Jeremiah, you MUST let me know when you are behind. You are being lazy." This little guy is full of energy and always on the move, but when it comes to schoolwork, he tends to move like "Pharoah's chariots when the wheels were off."

I took a picture of the paper and saved it for posterity.

Thanks you for this article Angelina! We battle this constantly at our house, largely because its a problem for ME! Laziness has been lurking around under milder aliases...Dawdling, Daydreaming, Side-Tracked. I read your article to my kids and it was a eureka moment for everyone. We yanked of the guise of Laziness and called him by name :-) Now that we know the harsh truth about what we're dealing with, we can fight off Laziness with renewed vigor!

Oh Cathy - I'm so glad to see you say that! I was thinking the same thing. We will be discussing this at home too!

When we occasionally recognise it for what it is, we don't call it laziness, we call it Ball's Law of alternative achievement (after a friend who actually offered the moniker). But the bottom line seems to be, if you're not getting done what needs to be done, then you either concede that you had too much planned, or you acknowledge that you didn't really want to do it in the first place. That's an issue for me.

I'm not going to argue semantics - although I try to err on the merciful side of judgement. Especially since this applies to me, at least some of the time!

Very well said, Faith.

It is not difficult to imagine parents bristling at any form of the word "lazy" being directed toward their child. It has become an unpopular word. There are several books I know of which argue that laziness does not exist. I think that if we agree to define "lazy" as Angelina has, we can see how students who work hard can still be lazy. I do wonder whether "lazy" is the best term for avoidance of duty, since we associate it so much with lethargy--but a replacement word does not come readily to mind.

My only significant hesitation is this: I think I could sympathize with parents who argue against their child being labeled a lazy child, because this suggests they are lazy at all times. I would almost always prefer to say that the child exhibits lazy behaviors under certain conditions. If the child shirks duty under all conditions, then perhaps the label "lazy child" is justified, but this seems unlikely. It is possible and even (I think) probable that a child who is lazy in some respects, has learned, through self-discipline, to do his duty in other respects. If this were the case for my child, I would be eager to offer clarifying information, which might allow the teacher to pinpoint the unique circumstances under which the child is tempted by the sin of laziness.

I agree that the general label of lazy is unhelpul. People are selectively lazy and everyone combats this. I remember once out playing in the backyard with my kids. I got to talking to my neighbor over my fence. For some reason I mentioned how behind I was in laundry and how lazy I am because I never seem to be caught up. He laughed at me! He said any mother who has five children and is kept as busy as you are (he witnessed our many comings and goings!) is NOT lazy. This was a revelation to me. I constantly beat myself up about how lazy I was about the stuff that just didn't matter much to me. But I'm not lazy. In fact, I'm a doer who is always involved in something. But when it comes to housekeeping and laundry, I struggle to keep focused and I am easily overwhelmed by it all. I think a lot of so called laziness is simply not having good coping skills for dealing with things that are drudgery and overwhelmingly boring to one. You have to learn to self-talk to get yourself to do it. You have to learn to break it down into manageable chunks, you have to come up with your own internal carrots and sticks in order to get yourself through it. That's self-discipline. I think too many people plunk a lot of responsibility down on kids and when they don't measure up, they are labelled 'lazy.' I think for kids it is a process of learning how to manage, to force themselves to focus and work, and a lot has to do with the attitude of the person assigning the task, how encouraging and instructive they are, and a lot has to do with the child's maturity too. Once you start calling a child lazy, you've put them in a box. They are works in progress. I remember being very worried about my now 21 yo dd being lazy because she didn't like to help with chores when she was 8 or 10. Silly me. The last label anyone would attach to her now is lazy! Laziness is a response to something you don't want to do for whatever reason. Instead of just rebuking with 'do your duty, NOW' which I don't think helps but only makes it more overwhelming and piles on a more guilt because one has falied to measure up, I think it is better to say, okay, we all need to do things we don't want to do, let's strategize a way to get ourselves over this hump so we can feel successful and move on to things we enjoy doing. So just calling someone lazy and telling them to get over it, is not helpful. Encouraging them, helping them be accountable, coming up with ways to get a handle on the task, etc. These are much better solutions to the problem of duty avoidance!

Isn't this the sin of sloth? Not necessarily doing nothing, but failing to do the right thing at the right time in the right way. Thus, helping a neighbor carry in the groceries (which she can do just fine on her own) when you're supposed to be studying Latin forms, for example.

Or in my case, reading classical education articles when I could be mopping the floor. Sometimes I need less Mary, more Martha, eh?

While I agree that showing students ways that they can pursue their passions is a part of true education, the truth is that life is full of tasks that are dull and repetitive and that we'd much rather not do. We are called to do our duty even if we are not passionate about it.

There are things about being a teacher that I love. I mean, LOVE. I am called to teach and there is no question about that. But there are tasks involved with teaching that I hate. Not just don't like. Hate. I hate averaging grades and filling out report cards and writing progressive reports to parents who probably won't even read them. But, even though it's not my passion, it's my duty.

I disagree that laziness is only spiritual apathy. That is certainly part of it, but the examples of the Proverbs speak of physical labor--of planting the harvest instead of sleeping, for example. And the Proverbs also make a strong connection between laziness and poverty. It's clearly talking about physical labor.

So, while I like to think I am a teacher who gets kids passionate about learning, I have also learned myself as I have gotten older, that there are times to just grind it out too. We've got to do our duty even when we don't feel like it. I think there is a real danger to the whole "follow your passion" mentality. How many people have a passion for cleaning toilets or changing diapers, but they are certainly a part (and at certain seasons a very large part) of the duty of motherhood.

My point is that even the very activities that we are passionate about have parts that we don't like: I have friends who will build amazing furniture and postpone the finishing work and friends who love to sew but hate the finishing work. Drudgery is everywhere. It's the nature of the Fall.

As an aside, I would agree with you that boys have particular struggles in an academic setting because they are made for physical activity, but this post was not so much about boys doing school work as recognizing the underlying heart issue of laziness--which we all struggle with.

I'm not sure I agree with the premise of your post. The sin of laziness is actually the sin of acedia, spiritual apathy. I don't think it's fair to accuse young men of acedia just because they don't do what they don't enjoy.

The real problem is that we as educators and parents often fail to help students find what they are called to do. If a student really does "work hard at what he loves," we need to help him (or her) identify how the thing he loves is a part of his vocation. Students ought to have the flexibility to pursue their passions, even if the consequence is a lower grade on an assignment. When they have responsibilities like chores or school work, we need to help them understand how those mundane-seeming tasks are actually preparation for their vocations.

School isn't a calling for most of us. And our failure as educators and parents to communicate that to our students and children leaves thousands of twenty-somethings floundering through graduate degrees they don't really want or need. It's time we started helping kids find out how to move from what they love to a job they will enjoy and through which they will be able to contribute to society.

Acedia and laziness are real problems. But I don't think a teenager beginning to prioritize what he enjoys over what he has been assigned to do is a true sign of either.