An Excerpt from He's Not Lazy

Much has been written about the kind of pressure kids under today. But the media coverage tends to focus on the problems of super-achieving academic elite—those kids enrolled in multiple Advanced Placement courses who are volunteering at the local soup kitchen, while mastering an obtuse Chinese classical instrument and holding down spots on several sports teams. Though these kids, whose parents take a “Harvard or bust” mentality, are under real pressures—as evidenced by the very disturbing rise in the abuse of stimulant drugs as study aids—there is another, typically overlooked class of boys who manifest their stress in different, less obvious ways. These are the boys I worry about. The boys who make time for television, video games, Facebook, Instagram, (Adams, 2011) and friends, but not for school. Many, like Kyle, do the minimum that’s required in order to get by, flying under the radar of official “trouble” while causing their parents plenty of grief and consternation.

     Though on the outside, they look like they’re impervious to academic pressures, in fact their behavior is a direct response to the stress they’re experiencing. Contrary to appearances, these kids aren’t just lazy—they’re overcome by demands that they fear they simply cannot meet. And so, in the face of pressures they feel they cannot handle, they choose to “opt-out” of the competition altogether. These “opt-outs” are the subject of this book.

     There is no question that our achievement-oriented, competitive culture has created a pressure cooker for today’s adolescent. Teenaged boys are extremely sensitive to this stress, and as a psychologist I see its victims daily. Bright and capable boys complain of feeling inadequate and ineffective. But rather than working harder and staying up later, they react to this pressure by shunning their work altogether, propping up their fear-based rebellion with justifications like “I am not going to be one of those nerds who have no life,” or “Tests don’t measure intelligence or help you learn, so what’s the point of studying for them?” They protect themselves by turning to avoidance and denial—the primary coping mechanisms of adolescence.

     The world through which these boys are navigating is infinitely more complex than that experienced by their parents. Regardless of the quality of their schools, kids these days are being asked to juggle like never before. Over the past twenty years, high school students have added an extra class to their school days, with 7% also taking more rigorous courses. As much as technology may enrich the learning experience, it has also created an information overload for students. Teachers email them assignments after class and deadlines are pushed to midnight thanks to ‘turn it’ Gone are the days of handwritten term papers and poster board presentation. Now they must be able to create flashy excel slide decks, participate in wikis, tweet reading responses to their classmates, and post on class Facebook pages. Their extracurricular activities are generally plentiful and varied—part of a hyperextended college prep process begun as early as elementary school. Meanwhile, their friends are texting (incessantly) and their online world of choice awaits, buzzing with messages and notifications as soon as the dismissal bell rings, if not throughout the school day. 

     This increased volume of work, stimulus and play requires the organizational skill of a business executive. But teenaged brains aren’t maturing any faster these days. The adolescent brain is a developing entity, with many boys still in the process of obtaining the focus, attention to detail, and planning capabilities these increased obligations call for. There is a growing consensus amongst psychologists, physicians, and educators that adolescence extends well into a person’s twenties, when the brain is fully ‘matured.’ So it’s no surprise when the obligations go unmet, particularly by boys. Nationwide, there’s been a well-documented decline in the number of boys who attend college—with girls more likely not only to be accepted, but also to earn better grades and to graduate. Boys are also much more likely than are girls to be diagnosed with learning disabilities and with behavior disorders like ADHD—diagnoses I see in many of my patients.

     The big-picture problem of boys and learning is not news—to the contrary, it’s been the subject of a vast ongoing national discussion, with many education specialists theorizing that boys are at an intrinsic disadvantage in a classroom that discourages the natural tendency of boys to be active, impulsive, and competitive. But where does this leave parents of underperforming teen boys in the here and now? . . .

     There is lots of research about motivation, but very little practical advice that applies to teens. Teens are complicated so we need to have a comprehensive approach that accounts for all the moving parts. This book is divided into two parts. In Part I I will help you to take a fresh look at your son and to understand all of the radical changes going on inside his body and mind. We will need to get our heads around how boys are different than girls. The way they learn, relate to their friends, seek status, and talk about their feelings, these all have bearing on how we approach boys who opt-out. By the end of this section it will be clear to you why your son is not just lazy. You will then be ready for Part II, which is chocked full of suggestions to get you out of the conflict stage and into the problem-solving stage. I have worked hard to offer meaningful insights, and then turn these into actionable steps you can take.