The "Lazy" Teenager

Earlier this summer an op-ed titled “The Underchallenged ‘Lazy Teenager” appeared in the Wall Street Journal. Psychologist Adam Price focuses his piece on the “perennial despair of the ‘lazy’ or mysteriously and obstinately unmotivated” teenage boy. In his practice, Dr. Price sees young men whose parents are concerned about what he calls the “failure to launch” syndrome.

Their parents, fearing that their sons will never successfully launch into adulthood, have tried everything. They’ve begged, pleaded and bribed. But nothing seems to light the fire of motivation.

At Alpine Valley School we’ve observed the growth and development of many young people, so I’d like to bring some of our experience to bear on Dr. Price’s four instructions to parents. (The op-ed speaks of males only, but I think this is sound advice for young women too.)

  • Stop telling him how smart he is.

  • Stop doing the dishes for him.

  • Don’t let him off easy.

  • Don’t make him shine for you.


Stop telling him how smart he is

What? As parents shouldn’t we praise our children—and isn’t “being smart” a good thing to praise? In fact, Dr. Price suggests that “telling them how smart they are gives them an expectation that they must live up to. Being considered smart becomes their prized identity, one they are loath to lose by taking risks and failing.” At Alpine Valley School, intelligence is based on a much broader understanding of ability. We also prioritize self-evaluation and learning from mistakes. After all, failure is one of the best teachers, and who can judge better than you whether you’re “smart”?


Stop doing the dishes for him

According to Dr. Price, “Successful people tend to be those who are willing and able to do things that they really don’t want to do.” When parents do the dishes, for example, their kids may develop an attitude of “I am above all of that drudgery.” Alpine Valley School students have many, many opportunities to share in the “drudgery” of running a school. From mundane cleaning chores to administrative tasks, students dive in and help out in doing things that need to be done but aren’t so much fun.


Don’t let him off easy

At our school, everyone has the responsibility to follow the rules, to face the consequences of their actions, and to decide how to deal with things that don’t go the way they’d like. If someone’s rude to me, for example, I can file a Judicial Committee complaint, or I can address that person directly and say, “What you said to me yesterday hurt my feelings. Please don’t do that again.” If I think a rule is unfair or doesn’t make sense, I can start the process of changing that rule. Each person is expected to be respectful and responsible, to look out for the general welfare of the school. While Alpine Valley School offers a supportive community, no one here is “let off easy.”


Don’t make him shine for you

Dr. Price ends his last instruction with this: “A college counselor I know likes to say that a good college is the one that fits your kid, not one whose name adds class to your car’s rear window.” This is a little touchy, as every parent’s heart swells with pride when their child does something noteworthy. The point is that we parents need to understand that if our kids do something completely different from what we did or what was expected of us, we can still feel pride. We as a school certainly take pride in our graduates and current students for the fantastic people they are—because they’re pursuing their own lives in a peaceful, responsible manner—not because they “shine for us.”

The “Lazy Teenager” is an interesting concept. While Dr. Price sees no cure, I think he’s right to speculate that it has something to do with a sense of autonomy. Step back for a minute and wonder with me: How is it that at just the time children naturally want to be more adultlike, they become lazy? I looked at a couple of dictionaries for context, and found roots for “lazy” that mean “weak” and “corrupt.” Could it be that these teens are displaying a natural reaction to excessive adult direction? Could it be that we as a society have had a hand in creating the Lazy Teenager? All the more reason to be glad that places like Alpine Valley School emphasize empowerment and responsibility.

Larry Welshon