Do you have a teenage boy who struggles in school? Or do you have a younger son who you can imagine struggling in school as he gets older? He may be an otherwise capable young man, but seems apathetic and unmotivated, to the point you think he’s not excelling simply because he’s lazy. My guest today says that’s the wrong conclusion to draw, and one that leads to the wrong parenting approach to addressing it.
His name is Adam Price and he’s a child psychologist and the author of He’s Not Lazy: Empowering Your Son to Believe in Himself. Today on the show, Dr. Price argues that the real reason many young men are unmotivated is not that they don’t care about succeeding, but that they feel too much pressure to do so, and are scared of failing. We discuss why nagging and over-parenting simply exacerbates this issue, and how stepping back and giving boys more autonomy can help them become more self-directed and find their footing.
- The prevalence of unmotivated boys in our culture and schooling
- Why simple unmotivation is different from depression or other clinically-diagnosed problems
- Laziness vs. fear and avoidance
- Are more young men disengaged today than a couple decades ago?
- How boys handle stress differently from girls
- Why academic pressure is more acute nowadays
- Why it’s okay for boys to be late bloomers
- The physical and emotional changes of adolescence
- How parents typically respond to this type of teenage behavior
- The dangers of overprotective parenting
- Why your kids shouldn’t be treated like royalty
- An exercise to determine how much you do for your kids, and how to start letting them do more on their own
- What it looks like to set boundaries in a way that also allows autonomy
- Why letting kids fail is absolutely necessary
- How parents should approach their teens’ bedrooms (in regards to cleanliness)
- How long does it take for these principles to start to take hold?
- Your primary job as a parent (hint: it’s not about making your kid(s) happy)
- How to get disengaged boys to talk
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- The ADHD Explosion
- Why Boys Are Struggling and What We Can Do to Help Them
- Turning Boys Into Men
- Boys Adrift
- The Male Brain
- Our AoM series on overprotective parenting
- “Is College For Everyone?” series
- The Unique Powers of the Twenty-Something Brain
- The Self-Driven Child
- The Best Gift You Can Give Your Children is Failure
- Lawnmower Parents Are the New Helicopter Parents
- The Unmotivated Teen (Dr. Price’s blog)
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. Do you have a teenage boy who struggles in school, or do you have a younger son who you can imagine struggling in school as he gets older? He may otherwise be a capable young man, but seems apathetic and unmotivated to the point you think he’s not excelling simply because he’s lazy? My guest today says that’s the wrong conclusion to draw, and one that leads to the wrong parenting approach to addressing it. His name is Adam Price, and he’s a child psychologist, and the author of the book He’s Not Lazy: Empowering Your Son to Believe in Himself. Today on the show, Dr. Price argues that the real reason many young men are unmotivated is not that they don’t care about succeeding, but that they feel too much pressure to do so, and are scared of failing. We discuss why nagging and over-parenting simply exacerbates the issue, and how stepping back and giving boys more autonomy can help them become more self-directed and find their footing. After the show’s over, check out the show notes at AoM.is/NotLazy.
Dr. Adam Price, welcome to the show.
Adam Price: Hey. Thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: You’re a clinical psychologist who specializes in children and teenagers, and because of your work, you’ve encountered a lot of high school boys who, they don’t have serious mental issues, no severe depression, no severe learning disabilities, yet they just appear apathetic towards school and life. Can you kind of give us a composite description of this type of boy, who no big depressive issues, but they just are unmotivated?
Adam Price: Yeah, and Brett, I think it’s good that you’re making that distinction, because depression looks different. Depression certainly has a feeling of apathy and lack of interest in things. We have a big word for it in psychiatry, which is “anhedonia,” which means losing interest, but that’s different than just not having motivation for specific things. I would, though, include ADHD in this. We don’t think of that as a learning disability, but I think it could be considered that, and so actually some of my interest in this area of motivation in teenage boys came from working with and evaluating a lot of boys with ADHD, so my thoughts, my thinking, the book is for parents of boys who do and don’t have ADHD, but I would just throw that in there.
What I see over and over again are boys who, on the outside, look like they’re impervious to academic pressure. They really look like they don’t care. They make time for video games, they may make time for sports, or their friends, but when it comes to school, they seem to find a way of flying under the radar of serious trouble, yet their parents are really worried about them, they’re thinking about their future, and what I’ve learned over time is that underneath, these boys really are responding to a pressure they feel they can’t handle. In the face of this pressure, what they do, rather than face the competition, is they decide to opt out altogether. They say things like, “School really isn’t important. I’m not gonna be one of those nerds who studies all the time. I’m gonna do fine.” There’s a lot of avoidance and denial that you see. The denial is, “Everything’s fine. It’s gonna work out.” Avoidance seems to be the go-to defense for teenage boys, which is, “I just won’t think about it. I just won’t deal with it. I’ll do something that’s more satisfying and pleasurable to me.”
Brett McKay: Right, so I was just gonna say, your book, He’s Not Lazy, right? Because I think when most parents see a kid who doesn’t really apply themselves at school, and they’re just playing video games all the time, they think, “Well, he’s such a bright kid. If he weren’t so lazy, and if he just applied himself, he’d be a success.” But it’s not laziness. It’s avoidance.
Adam Price: It’s not laziness. It is, but what’s underneath the avoidance is fear, right? I hear a lot from parents, “He’s not working up to his potential.” By the way, this is true for girls too, but, “He’s not working up to his potential.” What parents are seeing is that a young man may be bright, as you said, but there’s two things. The first thing is that academic achievement and achievement in general is not based just upon talent, right? It’s based upon perseverance, it’s based upon maturity, it’s based upon organizational skills. There are a lot of things that go into doing well in school, so just because someone’s bright doesn’t mean that they can nail every subject. But the other thing is, I fear that all this talk about potential is really a wolf in sheep’s clothing, because I think even though it sounds like it’s all about growth and development, what parents are really saying is, “If my son were at the top of his class, if he worked as hard as he could all the time, he’d be at the top of his class.” That just isn’t the case.
You know, when I was a boy, my mom came home from a parent-teacher conference in fourth grade, and she said to me, “Your teacher said two things about you. One is you’re not paying attention enough in school. You’re talking too much to your neighbors,” which really is a 1970s way of diagnosing ADHD. But then my mom said, “The teacher said you’re not working up to your potential.” I thought she was saying I wasn’t smart enough, you know? And I’ve given this a lot of thought, because I think, well, listeners, have you achieved your potential today? Have I achieved my potential? I hope not. I hope it’s something we’re always working towards. Parents talk about laziness, yeah.
Brett McKay: You’ve been doing this for 20 plus years. Have you seen an increase of young men disengaging from school because of this pressure?
Adam Price: I have. I think that we are seeing it in many, many different ways. Part of the reason I wrote the book about boys is that boys often handle stress differently than girls. Girls have this pressure to be perfect, and to do everything without breaking a sweat, by being beautiful, but also by meeting everybody’s expectations. Boys, as I kind of described, they experience the stress by shutting down more often, and we have seen a rise in anxiety among teenagers, depression among teenagers, a lot of behavioral problems, and a lot of people speculate what that’s about. I think a lot of it has to … There’s forces out there that kids are worried about, in terms of their future, like global warming. I mean, kids are thinking about this stuff.
But also, college has become a whole different ballgame than certainly when I went to college. It’s more competitive. Resources are tighter. It’s much more expensive, so a lot of people who might have been able to afford it, or kids could take out loans and be able to pay them back. It’s just not accessible for a lot of families, so I think that there is a lot more fear out there. Kids are under more pressure.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I mean, I think in the book you describe what life was like before this intense pressure to go to college and to be the best in college, and get scholarships. It seemed like there were options for young men, right? You could go to college, or you’d go learn a trade, or you go do this. The pressure wasn’t so acute as it is today.
Adam Price: I can tell you I went to an Ivy League college, and if I applied today with the same SAT scores and grades, they would laugh me off the campus. A lot of my peers say that as well. It is different. There’s economic shifts, even the way the internet has changed our economy and changed the type of jobs people can get. All these things, I think, are factors. More temporary jobs. I think this is all part of what kids are facing, either directly or indirectly. The future just doesn’t feel as bright, or wide open.
Brett McKay: I thought that was an interesting you made. Today, we call boys who are unmotivated in school lazy, but there was a time when we called them, “Well, they’re just a late bloomer.” Right?
Adam Price: You know, yeah. I really appreciate you saying that, because I think what’s happened is that yesterday’s late bloomers become today’s underachiever, and the thing is that a late bloomer, they still have time to catch up, but an underachiever, he’s already behind. Boys do take longer to develop, and boys develop at different rates. Kids who have ADHD, their development, and we’re talking about a broad scope of development, but particularly the executive functions, the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that plans ahead and that does organization. That’s going through a whole reorganization for teenagers, for all teenagers, and if you have ADD, you’re gonna be 20% behind what we consider normal development. We really need space for boys to feel like they can be late bloomers, because many of them are. Many of them, I’ve seen so many kids who I saw in high school, and I get feedback as they go into college, and even the workforce. They end up doing okay.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I mean, I think I’ve read research where basically, the adult, their brain doesn’t really settle, their adult brain doesn’t settle in until like 25, 26?
Adam Price: Yeah. That’s right. Yeah.
Brett McKay: Right, and you’re expected at age 18 to pretty much have your adult life planned out and ready.
Adam Price: Yeah. I think parents don’t realize that. I think we forget how disorganized we were as teenagers and kids. We think we were more on top of it, more focused, and I think what we’re trying to do is, I think because parents are afraid of the future and because they’re worried about it, they’re trying to take full control of it, by offering tutoring, and even therapy, and all sorts of services. The problem is, we can’t commandeer the future, and even though the natural course of development is to take your time to develop and to grow, we’re trying to speed up the process. We’re trying to raise kids who at 18 are ready to go out there and make their own decisions, and be full functioning adults, and reach their potential, and it’s just not possible.
Brett McKay: You related to this just a moment ago, but let’s kind of get into the details of it. What is going on in the body, in the mind of a teenage boy that exacerbates that feeling of pressure, that intense pressure where the only option is to just give up?
Adam Price: You know, there’s a lot there in that question, because obviously there’s a lot going on in adolescent development. There’s obviously puberty. There’s obviously all the changes that are going on in a teenager’s body as they mature sexually. There’s the effect of hormones on both boys and girls, which can create a lot of moodiness and a lot of ups and downs. We know all that, and so what I would focus on in terms of the effect of that on academic achievement, on motivation, is that a lot of what happens for teenagers is that they have a … It’s almost an identity crisis, Brett, although I’m not quite sure crisis fits, because it’s really an opportunity.
But when you’re a child, you look at the world through your parents’ eyes, and they’re the ruler of the realm, and all is good in the kingdom, and kids tend to look at … They tend to follow the same sports teams as their parents, or the same political party, if they’re so inclined. Whatever. But then as they become teenagers, they realize, “Well, you know, I gotta differentiate here. I want to and have to become my own person.” What they do is they try on different identities, and some of those identities fit, and some of those identities don’t fit, and one day your teenager will come home and say, “I’m a vegetarian. I don’t want to hurt animals.” And sometimes that will stick, but often it doesn’t, because they’re gonna then try on a different identity.
What happens with underachievers, though, is that they’re scared of doing well in school, or the other thing for boys is, they don’t get a lot of social status by doing well in school. Boys get social status by what they can do, how far they can throw a baseball, how fast they can run on a football field. They don’t get status for doing well in school, so that’s not gonna become their identity, so they’ll tend to push that identity down and look for other identities to promote.
That’s the first part of it. The second part of development that I think is really important is ambivalence. Teenagers don’t enter adolescence full-fledged wanting to be adults and having their own independence. They’ll tell you that, they’ll scream and yell when you give them a curfew, but there’s a part of them that really wants to stay a child and be taken care of. You’ll see them, parents will see them acting like babies at home, expecting to be waited on, expected to be or wanting to be taken care of in that way, and then pushing back and saying, “No, I can make my own decisions. I’m my own person.” I call adolescence “the bridge of ambivalence,” and so I think a lot of this gets acted out in academic achievement also, because there are some kids who recognize that if they do well in school, it means that they are growing up, that they are gonna do better.
But then there’s another thing that happens, which is that for the underachiever, I call it the fight for false autonomy, because what they do is, the parents are pressuring them, “You gotta do better in school. You gotta do better in school.” So they feel like, “I can exert my independence and my autonomy by making my own decisions, and not do well in school. I can make that choice for myself.” So they feel like they’re being autonomous when really they’re closing off options for themselves. Then the more the parents push them, the more parents get a paradoxical response, is that the kid then uses that as leverage to fight against the parent for their own independence, and it’s no longer about their own conflict about doing well in school or worrying about it. It’s about their conflict with their parents.
Brett McKay: All right, so the increased pressure actually backfires. I think that’s the typical response from parents. “Well, we’re gonna lay down the law. We’re gonna do these things.” Then that just doesn’t work. It’s a power struggle, and then you’re always gonna lose.
Adam Price: It’s a power struggle, and yeah. I don’t know if you have teenagers, or you just remember being a teenager, but power struggle is the epitome of being a teenager, because it’s a battle of will. They’re fighting for their autonomy, and they’ll usually win, because they don’t have anything to lose, right? They don’t care necessarily if they’re disrespectful or swear or whatever, and you do, and you’re not gonna … Hopefully a parent won’t lose it. The way out of that is always to offer a teenager a choice. Sometimes one of the choices is not something they want to do, like, “You can clean up your room and then go out with your friends, or you can not clean up your room and stay home. It’s your choice.”
But I want to go back to something that you brought up earlier that I think is really important, and that’s this concept of laziness. Because I said briefly that underneath laziness is fear, underneath this sense of apathy is really self-doubt, really a question, as we were talking about before, about whether a young man feels like they can handle the pressure. Calling a kid lazy only serves to alienate them more, to make them feel … You know, you’re calling them a name, and they just feel worse about themselves, and then angrier at you. That’s something else that often backfires. I don’t really believe in laziness. I believe that there are things that get in the way, such as what we’re touching on today.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I mean, these kids oftentimes aren’t lazy when they find something that interests them, right? They’ll apply themselves heavily to sports, maybe video games, or maybe some other hobby that they enjoy, music, could be anything, and they’re not lazy there.
Adam Price: That goes back to your initial point about depression. Right. There are certain things that they find pleasure in, and that they’re motivated for. Not in every kid, and it’s also funny, because I hear parents say a lot, “I want my teenager or even my child to find a passion.” A neighbor of mine once came up to me and said, “You know, should I push my daughter,” who was eight years old, “at swimming?” I said, “I don’t know. Maybe if she wants to, but I wouldn’t throw her into the pool.” He said, “But don’t I have a responsibility, because she’s talented?” I thought, “Oh, that’s not necessarily gonna go in a right direction,” because kids don’t always have a passion, you know? Sometimes they don’t develop it until they’re older.
The flip side of that, though, is I’ve also seen kids who have an incredible passion, and have developed a business for themselves. One young man I worked with was failing out of school but making all this money doing, being a DJ, and he had a whole film production company. He needed to graduate from college, but I wasn’t too worried about him being successful, because a lot of the people that become superstars in certain fields, they started when they were young. There’s always a balance.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s a good point, at how parenting has changed, because you mentioned the kid who, in high school, started a successful DJ company. I would say maybe 70 years ago, if that was the case and he dropped out of high school, the parents would be like, “Well, okay. That’s fine, as long as you’re making money.” Because I read the biographies of these people from the early 20th century, late 19th century, and you have these 14-year-old kids who, they drop out of school, and they go off on an adventure or do something, and the parents are like, “Oh, okay.” I mean, teenagers like Jack London would, when he was a teenager, just leave, and he would be gone for months, and not tell anyone where he went, and then he’d come back, and, “Oh, hey Jack. How’s it going?” Not a big deal. If that happened today-
Adam Price: Could you imagine?
Brett McKay: … it would be pandemonium. Yeah.
Adam Price: My grandfather grew up in New York City, and when he was a boy in the Depression, he lived in the Bronx, and he would tell his parents, “I’m going out.” He would walk from the Bronx down to Manhattan, which is … That’s where I’m seated right now, but it’s quite a walk, walk around Central Park. It would take all day, and then walk home. He was like 11, 12 years old. That wouldn’t happen today, but back then, we didn’t have … You didn’t need a graduate degree to do everything. There are degrees now, a lot of boys are interested in sports, and so they go to college and they major in sports marketing, or business sports. You didn’t need to used to do that maybe even 10 years ago, so that’s another way that kids feel pressure, because the entry bar has been raised by all the requirements that are needed. Even in the NBA, you didn’t need that to go into business. You’d just, you know … Yeah. Things are very different than then, no doubt.
The other thing, though, is where I also hear parents talk a lot about achievement is with athletics and sports. It’s the same thing that applies to school. “Well, he’s such a gifted athlete. Why isn’t he kicking a soccer ball, practicing his shots on goal when he comes home from school, or practicing layups?” Parents expect kids to apply the same level of maturity and achievement to sports that they sometimes do for school. Not every kid is able or willing to do that, and they’re also not necessarily headed for professional sports or even scholarships, although a lot of parents hope that with, as I said before, the rise in college tuition. That’s sometimes a part of it.
Brett McKay: Besides the intense pressure, maybe “nagging” we’ll call it, that parents do on a lazy son, what are some other responses you see parents take when they see an unmotivated teenage boy?
Adam Price: Well, I’ll go back to these concepts that I talked about, because they’re really central to write about in the book, the paradoxical response. Prodding, poking, pleading, nagging, over-parenting, looking at the whatever online grade website the school system uses, which is, boy, is that going down a rabbit hole, because if a parent is looking at that every day, or even every week, the teachers don’t always put … The kids say, “The teacher hasn’t posted the grades.” Well, sometimes they haven’t, because it’s another responsibility for the teacher, and you can’t measure what’s going on on a day-to-day basis. Parents will just get involved in all sorts of ways, walking into a kid’s room and saying, “Do you need anything?” When they’re really checking on their homework, or making sure they’re doing their homework.
Don’t get me wrong. Kids need structure. They need supervision. They need limits. I’m not an advocate of letting a teenager do whatever they want, and fail if they fail, but they do need some space to make mistakes. How else are they gonna learn to deal with anxiety? How else are they gonna learn to deal with adversity if they don’t make mistakes and learn from them? That’s really what autonomy is about. It’s not just about doing whatever you want. It’s about making a choice and then seeing what the consequences are.
What I lay out in the book is a program for parents to be able to step back and set some parameters, work with kids on some goals, figure out if they need some support, and then step back and let their kid figure it out, and maybe even not do so well. It’s really hard. Sometimes parents have to … I had one parent even tell me it was so hard to keep from going in to get their kid out of bed in the morning, they went to the gym, because they knew they needed to be out of the house, and their son needed to be able to get … And that’s a big one, but to be able to get out of bed on their own, or not. It worked. It took a couple weeks, but this young man did eventually, after being late, after getting detentions, he finally figured out how to do it.
Brett McKay: I think another response, common response parents do besides the pressuring, they’ll just basically do everything for their kids, so their kid will … I think the idea is that if they do everything for their kid, chores and whatever, the kid will have more time to focus on schoolwork, but that also doesn’t work as well.
Adam Price: I believe it was Madeline Levine who said, she’s a psychologist who writes about over-parenting and affluent kids, and I believe it was her. I don’t want to misattribute it, but I believe she said, “Don’t treat your kids like royalty who are expected to bring honor to the family. Make them do chores.” I tell parents the same thing. “Make them take out the trash. It’s really important.” That’s the first part of it, and the second part of it is over-parenting, as we’ve talked about, and I talk about the four or five different types of over-parenting that we get into with kids. The worrier, the perfectionist, I talk about that and how to deal with that.
But I also tell parents to do this experiment. Get some paper, and you’ll probably need a whole pad, and write down everything you do for your kids, even the little ones. Write down everything you do for them in a week, and then look at the list. Then figure out, “What are the things they can do for themselves?” Cross it off the list. Then look at the things that they can do part of, they need some help with, but especially younger kids. We call that in education, “scaffolding.” Giving them the support for the part of the thing they can’t do yet, and then letting them figure out the rest. Remember in primary school, the paper that had the two dark lines and the dotted line in the middle? I don’t even know if they still use that anymore, but that was an example of, “Well, here’s where the lowercase letter goes.” That’s scaffolding. But around the house, it’s, “Let me figure out what … Maybe they can’t do the laundry,” although most kids can, “but they can get their clothes down there,” or whatever. And then, “What are the things that you really need to do for them, they can’t do for themselves?” It’s usually pretty eye-opening, and it gives parents a chance to step back and let kids have more independence, and do more for themselves.
Brett McKay: Going back to a more appropriate response that’s more productive, you talked about setting boundaries. What does that look like? You’re setting boundaries but allowing them autonomy within those boundaries. What would a good boundary look like that also allows for autonomy in a teenage boy?
Adam Price: Well, I think about limit setting as a fence you build around your child, and you build it around your child to protect them. The thing about that fence is it can’t be static. It can’t be grounded in cement. It has to grow. It has to become bigger as a child becomes bigger, so that they have more opportunities to explore, to make mistakes, to have fun. It should never, also, for teenagers, be so high that they can’t climb over it occasionally. They’re gonna get into trouble, but that’s where they learn, and that’s where they understand their limits.
For things that involve safety, limits are absolute. There’s no question about letting a new driver who says, “Oh, yeah. I want to go visit my friend at college four hours away. I just got my license.” No, I don’t think so. You need a little bit more experience with that. Drugs and alcohol. I’m sure that’s a whole other podcast, but when you catch a kid doing something, you need to set a limit. It could be grounding. It doesn’t have to be they can’t go out of the house ever again, but nor should it be, “Well, they’re safe if they’re doing it in my house.” Because they need to know where the limits are. They need to know someone is watching them. It’s the kids whose parents condone that I find get into the most trouble, and the kids who know that their parents are watching and they get into trouble, they don’t necessarily stop, but they definitely stay within a safe range.
Those are the safety issues. There’s a whole set of issues that probably go in a different basket. Sometimes they’re important to enforce. Sometimes they’re not important to enforce. Sometimes it’s really important to set a bedtime. Other times, you can be more flexible. Obviously it’s related to what’s going on at school. Sometimes there is less homework, and there can be more flexibility. Other times you want to say, “You gotta do your homework first.” Again, this is for younger kids. Then there’s a basket of things that you may feel are important to you, but you can give the kids some autonomy. Clothing is a good example of that, but that’s just one example, and different people have different sets of standards for that.
When it comes to schoolwork, though, and that’s really what we’re talking about, my suggestion is to set a standard with kids which is usually to get Bs. If they want to get As, that’s up to them. A lot of parents don’t like to hear this, but that’s what I believe. They may get a C in a class that’s difficult for them, but basically to get Bs. Then to ask them how they’re gonna do it, and then to step back, and then to observe how they’re doing. Probably not to wait for a whole semester, but also not to do it on a daily basis, so somewhere mid-semester to see how things are going. If they’re not achieving what you think they should, or what you’ve agreed that they should that’s reasonable, then it’s time to say, “You know what? I think you have too much free time. I think maybe we need to cut down on or eliminate social life, computer time, whatever, so that you have more time to do your homework.” If a kid has social issues, you don’t necessarily want to take that away, but there are plenty of other things, too.
That is not gonna force the kid to do their homework. You can’t. You can put them in front of a computer and a desk. You can’t actually make them work, but it’ll make it much more possible that they might.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Within those boundaries, and given those choices, you have to let them fail, because they’re gonna flounder, and you have to be okay with that.
Adam Price: You have to let them flounder. Yeah. I think that’s really important. What’s happening that we see more and more, and Brett, I see it in my practice, even just more this year than last yeah, and last year than the year before, are kids that go to college and can’t cut it, and have to take a leave. I often have a few kids in my practice that are in that situation, but it seems like I’ve been flooded with it, last spring and even this fall. Part of the problem is that we’re not letting kids figure out how to do things on their own and manage their own anxiety. We can talk about that in a minute, but manage the anxiety that comes from not being sure whether you are able to do something, figure out a math problem, write a paper, master a sports skill.
By rushing in too quickly and over-parenting, we’re preventing kids from learning about themselves in ways that are really important. Parents ask me all the time, “How can I give my kid coping skills?” You know? Well, the way to do that is to let back and let them cope. Give them something to cope with, and let them cope, to let them have a little risk in their life. There’s actually a school in England that decided, this is for younger kids, but they wanted to bring risk back to the playground. They had made it too safe, so they brought in things that had sharp edges, and they brought scissors back into the classroom, and the teachers said, “The first time they cut themselves they learned to be more careful.” I don’t know if I advocate all that, but I think it’s really important.
I hear about parents who … And this is the extreme, but one parent who went to a college admissions interview with the kid and had the kid sit in the waiting room, I heard this from a college admissions officer, while he went in and told the college admissions officer how great his kid was. It’s kinda crazy. There’s been reports of parents even going to work with their kids, or calling their kid’s boss as a young adult. This is really preventing kids from being able to trust their own independence and their own future.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I mean, it’s funny. The parents are like, “I want my kid to be responsible, but I’m not gonna let them be responsible.” It’s like, that doesn’t make any sense.
Adam Price: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And it comes from a place of caring. It comes from a place of love. It comes with the best intentions. It comes from, as we said before, a worry and a fear about the future. Parents aren’t doing this just because they want to make life more difficult for their kids. They want to make it easier, but that’s … Yeah. The end result is not so good.
Brett McKay: Some of the consequences, too, like say, “Clean your room.” You talked about this. Like, all right. Kid needs to clean his room, or he needs to put his laundry in the laundry basket, or do his laundry. Well, if he doesn’t do that, then he’s gonna suffer the consequences of wearing smelly clothes, and you have to be okay with that, because that’s how he’s gonna learn.
Adam Price: This is really true, and I have actually heard kids tell me that they had other kids tell them, “Your clothes smell,” and that’s when they decided to do something about it. But laundry’s a great example, because you say, “Laundry day is on Wednesday,” or whenever it is, “and your clothes have to be in the hamper on Wednesday, and if they’re not in the hamper on Wednesday, you have to do the laundry, and I’m gonna show you how. I’m gonna teach you now how to do the laundry.” Make it simple. Cold water only, and separate the colored from the white clothes, and you’re all set. Good to go. Then if they don’t, then they don’t do their own laundry, then they have to wear those clothes. Yeah. That’s a perfect example.
The room thing is a little more difficult. I think every parent has their own feelings about this. I do believe that to some extent, a kid should be able to have that as their own domain. It’s probably not worth a power struggle every day. There does need to be hygiene, so food in the room is not a good idea. It could be every once a week, the room needs to be picked up and cleaned so that it can be vacuumed and dusted, but that’s once a week. Well, whatever. It doesn’t have to be every day. That’s how I feel about that. Different parents feel differently, though.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Here’s an example of my own life. After reading your book, I was like, “I want to put this stuff into practice.” I have a son. He’s eight, so he’s not a teenager yet, but I want to inculcate this sense of responsibility in him. He gets homework every night. It’s like a worksheet, takes like five minutes, and it goes in a folder. We were driving him to school, and he realized he forgot his folder. He’s like, “Dad, you gotta go get my folder and bring it to me.” I’m like, “Sorry, man. It’s not my job.” He was just like, “Oh, no.” It’s like the end of the world. But yeah, the consequence was he had to miss 10 minutes of recess so he could do his worksheet. But ever since then … I didn’t go get his folder. Ever since then, the kid’s been on top of it.
Adam Price: Wow.
Brett McKay: Like, at night he has everything packed and ready to go. Haven’t had to worry about it since then. It works.
Adam Price: That’s a great example. You already did some scaffolding by giving him that notebook to put his homework in, right? You gave him that. You organized that for him. But Brett, was that easy for you, or was it a little bit hard to do that, know that he was gonna feel bad?
Brett McKay: No. It was pretty easy. I don’t know. I didn’t have a problem with it.
Adam Price: It was easy?
Brett McKay: Yeah. Yeah. It’s like, “It’s just 10 minutes of recess. You’re gonna be okay.”
Adam Price: Good. Well, that’s good, and that’s a good attitude, but a lot of parents really have trouble seeing their kids suffer and be uncomfortable, and that’s part of the root of this.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I read an article. We’re seeing not just helicopter parenting, it’s lawnmower parenting. It’s because the parents mow over all the obstacles that come up for their kids.
Adam Price: Yeah. I’ve seen that too. Yeah. In Sweden, they call it “curling parenting,” because if you’ve ever watched curling on the Olympics, parents sweep all the obstacles out of the way. I think that’s my favorite.
Brett McKay: No, that’s a good one. I like that. How long … Let’s say you start working with an unmotivated boy. You start providing him more autonomy, and making choices and floundering. How long does it typically take? I’m sure it’s different for every boy, but how long do you start seeing the change, where you start seeing them taking on more responsibility and getting more motivated about, say, schoolwork?
Adam Price: You know, I have yet to be asked that question, and I’m really glad that you did, because you asked me, because it takes a while, you know? Sometimes it can take three years of high school for some kids. Remember those that are the late bloomers. That young man may not go to the college that, if he’s college bound and college is an option, he may not go to the college that his parents dreamed of sending him to. He may not go to the college that he wanted to go to. He may not even go to the college that his friends are going to, but the thing is, first of all, he will probably go to a college that will be the best fit for him. He probably will be a kind of kid who needs to be a big fish in a little pond, and that’s where he will blossom and grow. And the other thing is that with the competition in colleges, these institutions, they all offer such amazing things. I mean, it’s unbelievable. It doesn’t have to have the stamp of Harvard to be a phenomenal institution, so sometimes it takes that long. It depends on the kid. It usually takes a while.
What I see in my practice, and as a therapist, I have different ways of talking about these things with kids that parents don’t necessarily have, because they’re their parents. My approach is always to try to help the teenager figure out what’s in it for them. To separate it out from their parents’ need. This is a little bit different, but it’s an example. I saw a teenager who started in therapy not too long ago, and his parents forced him to come to the first session, and he was really unhappy about it, but he came. About midway through, or actually at the end, I said, “You know, you seem to have talked a lot today. Why don’t you come back next week and come back for you, and not for your parents, and then see how therapy is?” He really likes being in therapy now, but that’s an example from a little bit of a different arena that comes to mind, about looking into the teenager and seeing how they can get more engaged.
It’s frustrating for me sometimes, because I feel like I’m being paid to do this. I need to produce results, and sometimes it takes longer than I want it to, but what I do notice is, along the way, the young man in therapy, or the young woman too, is getting more confident. They’re fighting less with their parents. There are signs that they’re finding school a little more interesting, and they’re happier. I can kind of monitor things along the way that lead to improvement in school.
I once gave a young man a challenge. I said, “I want you to turn in your homework every day for this marking period. I don’t care if it’s incomplete. Maybe sometimes it’ll just have your name on it. Maybe sometimes it’ll be perfect. I want you to commit to turning in your assignments every day,” which he did. He turned in his assignments every single day. That was what turned things around for him. He’s actually now a teacher. He got a graduate degree in teaching.
Brett McKay: Wow. As we’ve been having this conversation, our conversation has been about what we can do for kids, and your primary focus is counseling children, but I imagine you have to do some counseling with parents at the same time, unwittingly. Like, they don’t know that the parents are getting counseled, but you have to do that in order to help the kid.
Adam Price: Yeah. I do, and I work with adults too in my practice, and so sometimes I’m coaching parents. Sometimes parents come to see me about how … And that’s really touching, when a parent is willing to get into therapy themselves to figure out how to help and improve their relationship with their kid. But yeah, there is a lot of parent coaching that goes on. Often what I want to do is have a family session, and have the parents come in with the teenager. 99% of the time, the teenager does not want to do that, and refuses, but would be fine with me talking to the parent. It takes time for the parents, too. It takes time for them to trust me, to trust the process, and mostly to trust their kids. You know, what I say to parents is, “Parenting isn’t a skill. It’s a relationship. It’s not a skill. It’s a relationship.” If you trust the relationship, things are gonna work out in the end. I think that that’s very reassuring for parents. They usually often get the message to back off, but it’s sometimes harder to put into place.
Then there’s also work that I do with kids, in terms of being better advocates for themselves, being respectful but stating their needs with their parents when parents are too demanding, and that’s also really important for kids, because it gives them a voice. I often prepare the parents first, and I’m not trying to incite riots here, and I have to be respectful of every family’s values, but nonetheless, it’s really important to be able to have kids and parents talk to each other and have that dialogue.
Brett McKay: I imagine a lot of the problem, the issues with the parents putting pressure on their kids is the parents feel like their identity and their worth is tied up in how their kids do in school. If they’re failing in school, it means they failed as a parent, and not necessarily, right?
Adam Price: You know, that’s very insightful. If you ever get tired of being a podcast host, you can become a therapist, because that’s very insightful.
Brett McKay: All right.
Adam Price: I think it’s true. I think that we put everything into our kids. You know, it’s the most powerful relationship there is. It’s different than a relationship with your spouse. It’s different than a relationship with your parents. Parents hope that their kids are gonna have a different life than they had, and not make the same mistakes than they made, and you know, I often tell parents, “You can’t shortcut that. They need to learn. They need to have some pain,” as I said before. It’s really hard, and some parents over-identify with their kids I have an exercise in my book about that, because sometimes parents feel like it’s their problem, you know? They see their kid going through something, and they think, “Well, I went through that. It must be the same. Jimmy must be having the same reaction I had when I was cut from the team,” or whatever. It’s not always the case. There’s also space that needs to be given.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I heard this great piece of parental advice that I’ve sort of used as a guiding principle with my parenting, is like, “Your job as a parent, your primary job as a parent is to keep your kids safe physically.” Right?
Adam Price: Uh-huh (affirmative).
Brett McKay: It’s not your job to make them happy. I was like, “You know what? That’s good advice, because I can’t. You can’t make someone happy. You can provide a foundation for that, but they’ve gotta make those choices for themselves.”
Adam Price: I really like that. I really like that, and it makes me think of something a parent said to me years ago, which is, “I don’t want my kid to be happy. I want them to be able to work hard, because if they work hard, they’ll be happy.”
Brett McKay: I love that. Also, another issue the parents might have, say there a parent listening to this show and they’ve got a son who is unmotivated in school, and you’re trying to talk to him about it, but he just clams up. Any insights that parents can use to get a disengaged boy to talk to them?
Adam Price: Oh, yeah. And there’s a lot to be said about that. I’ll tell you the most important thing a parent can do to get a child to talk. Keep their mouth shut. Because what happens is that we want to give advice, we want to give solutions, we want to tell them what we went through, and it’s true for parents, it’s true for therapists, the less you say, the more the person on the other side of the room is gonna say, when they know that you’re listening. If that’s the only thing a parent can take from this, that’s really powerful.
The second thing is to use empathy, and to validate how a child feels. This isn’t true just for kids. It’s true for adults. It’s true for everybody. We want to have our feelings validated. Now, that does not mean that you have to agree with the feeling, right? They’re just feelings. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with the perspective. All it means is that you understand where the person’s coming from, and you can say, “I understand where you’re coming from.” Or, “I get that.” But you know what? It’s really important to do the work to really get it, to really understand. You know, a kid comes home and says, “My teacher hates me.” Well, probably not, right? Kids often say that. It’s rare for a teacher really to hate a kid, but the first thing that you want to do is say, “Oh, you’re perfect. How could anybody hate you?” Or, “I’m sure they don’t hate you.” Well, don’t do that so quickly. Try to get their perspective. How do you get their perspective? By asking questions. Rather than … First listen, but also ask questions, and try to ask questions that get at what they’re feeling.
Now, this process is gonna take some time, because the teenager is gonna have to trust that you really are interested in listening and understanding. Not trust that you love them, Not trust that you’re taking care of them, but trust that their opinion counts, because that’s really so important for teenagers to feel, as we were talking about before with identity and autonomy, and transitioning to adulthood. They sometimes have some wacky ideas, and they think they’ve figured everything out. I love this quote. It’s Mark Twain, who said, “When I was 16, my father didn’t know anything. He didn’t understand how the world worked. I’m amazed at how smart he got by the time I turned 23.”
That’s kind of how they look at things, but I think that listening, asking questions, validating feelings, getting them to talk more is really important, and if they’re really clamming up, you can say, “Well, we’ll talk about this later, but we really need to talk about it, so I want you to think about this, and I will set some ground rules. The ground rules are I’m not gonna judge you, I’m not gonna give you advice. I just want to hear it from you.” Sometimes a parent just has to listen and say, “Great. I’m glad we had this conversation.” There’s a joke. “I just got off the phone with my mother. She had a very good conversation.” You want to try to flip that and have that with your kid, too. Sometimes you just have to listen and let it be that, and then eventually you’ll be able to talk more.
Brett McKay: Well, Dr. Price, is there someplace people can go to learn more about the book and your work?
Adam Price: Yeah, absolutely. They can go to the HesNotLazy.com, or go to my website. I have a blog on Psychology Today called The Unmotivated Teen. The book is obviously available at quality bookstores and on Amazon, and Barnes and Noble, and it just came out in an audio version last Friday, so I’m really excited about that.
Brett McKay: Well, fantastic. Dr. Adam Price, thanks for coming on. This has been a great conversation.
Adam Price: It’s been a real pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Dr. Adam Price. He’s the author of the book He’s Not Lazy. It’s available on Amazon.com. You can find out more information about his work and his book at HesNotLazy.com. Also, check out our show notes at AoM.is/NotLazy, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out The Art of Manliness website at ArtofManliness.com, and if you enjoyed this show, you got something out of it, I’d appreciate if you give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. It helps out a lot, and if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for your continued support, and until next time, this is Brett McKay, telling you to stay manly.