Laziness and Work

A nagging worry that has stayed with me about my twelve-year-old son has been his seemingly total disinterest in work. His attitude has been relaxed but consistent: not interested. He figures out clever ways to get his younger brother to fetch and carry. He does a minimum of the tasks required of him and quietly disappears before more is asked. He jokes and plays around and even manages to get other people's attention away from the job at hand.

It drives me crazy. I've always been a worker--both understanding the value of work and easily able to put other things aside to do what's required and stay with it till it's done. I just don't understand his attitude. I worry about his complete lack of initiative in this area. And I wonder how he will ever survive as an adult.

I've realized that one of the "problems" is that his labor is not obviously critical for his well-being or that of his family. It helps of course, but we would clearly manage without. I've wished sometimes that we lived on a farm where the necessary work is so visible. I've even wondered if it would be better for him if we were unable financially to give him an allowance--if that would provide a truly internal motivator for work.

It was extremely useful this summer to have two unusual work opportunities for our family. When it became clear that the roof of the cabin we share with five other families needed reshingling, I lobbied hard to do it ourselves, wanting the children to have a taste of that kind of work (and remembering my pleasure as a child in helping shingle my family's house). It took a lot of work to organize and there were some hairy moments when it was unclear whether we had enough expertise to pull it off, but it was a huge success. Six children, ages eight to twelve, were there for the weekend, and we couldn't have done it without them. I think that may have been the key. Not only did they get to climb around on the roof and bang nails, but they knew that it was important, that this was their project too. And my son not only worked hard and long, but sometimes headed up to the roof before anyone else had gotten there. I was amazed.

Soon afterwards, the boys and I were at a reunion of a religious youth group I was active in during college, which included a week of housebuilding. To deal with the heat, we started at seven a.m., broke in the afternoon for a long siesta, then worked late into the evening. My son asked me every night to be sure to wake him up at 6:30 so he wouldn't miss anything. He didn't work all the time, but he worked hard (often when the other children elected to play) and his work made a difference to the project.

I'm not worried any more. I've gotten the chance to see my son as a hard work, a self-motivated worker. I know he has it in him. Whatever causes him to be so assiduously lazy in our house is not in his bones.

From this new perspective, I can see that it may be a way of asserting his independence, rebelling against the grim aspects of my work ethic, or responding to the lack of "real" work to claim as his own. There are still issues to face. In the short term, what attitude do I take as I require him to do his share at home? How do I communicate the importance of work without communicating just grimness and obligation? In the longer term, how can our society give young people the opportunities of work, neither segregating them and trivializing their contribution nor exploiting them? But those issue seem much more straightforward and simple to think about now that they're not coated with worry about my son's ability to survive.