Recently I've been exploring the myths we tell ourselves about teenagers. Last month, I discussed why we perceive teens as selfish; this month I wanted to put another common complaint under the microscope: teens are lazy.
Certainly, they can seem this way. They sleep in late; they put off doing homework, they forget to take out the trash (again); they are more content to play video games than to think about the future. So, what's going on here?
Well, to be honest: a lot of things.
Teens do tend to sleep pretty late in the day when they get the chance, but, as I discussed in an earlier blog, melatonin, a hormone which encourages sleep, is released in teens three hours after its release in adults, so that teens have a harder time both falling asleep and waking up at "a normal time." This means that they actually need to sleep in; also, that they are often exhausted.
Adults also tend to underestimate how hard teens work during the day. I like to point out that teens are under pressure to perform their best, academically, as well as socially, eight hours a day, five days a week, even though they are still in the process of developing the skills they need for such peak performance. What is more, they do not have the option to quit "their job" as we do when we feel unsatisfied by our work or our co-workers company; they must find a way to persist. Is it any wonder then if they come home from school and put off doing homework or taking out the trash, to watch a movie, or chat with a friend? I often advise parents to put themselves in their teenagers shoes. How do they feel at the end of a long day? When do they take their downtime? Then I advise them to put these questions to their children.
A lot of our misconceptions about teenagers are rooted in miscommunication. Teens aren't mind readers; not even close. They are still learning to be empathetic, and their own feelings and thoughts can be so overwhelming to them, that they may be closed off from others'. They might know that they need to take the trash out, and still not realize how important it is to you that it is done in a timely fashion. Clear and empathetic communication can make an enormous difference in how we understand and relate to our teens.
When -after sharing expectations and allowing a teen the opportunity to plan their time accordingly- a task is still left unfinished, I like to encourage adults to ask if there is something that is preventing the teen from completing it. And here we come to the real reason why I think so many people believe teens are lazy, because they respond, I don't want to, or It's boring.
Just because a teen isn't interested in taking out the trash or doing his or her homework, doesn't mean that s/he isn't interested in anything else. Maybe s/he's passionate about doing really well at video games; or maybe it’s hanging out with friends. Often what motivates them will have to do with their friend networks, because adolescents are wired to have heightened responses to their peers. Unfortunately, their ability to connect these interests with the more general goals society has set for them,is not fully wired yet. They might not see why the things they are being asked to do make a difference when their goal is to play video games better. They need adults to connect these dots for them.
I would argue that this is the job -and the privilege- of adults; it requires patience though, and a willingness not to dismiss adolescents as lazy before you listen.