Full Show Notes
Teens face more pressure today than ever before. At times, it seems like a teenager’s only path to success comes from a rigorous schedule of academics, sports, community service, and a generally overwhelming amount of extracurricular activities. Such a routine builds tremendous stress in teens—and in their parents.
This can be alarming for parents whose teenagers are “lazy.” It’s no secret that what kids do in school every year counts toward their future opportunities. In a society where young people are expected to be hyperactive achievers, parents with unmotivated teens worry their teens are doomed to fail – it’s like they don’t care about anything at all!!
Dr. Adam Price, author of He’s Not Lazy: Empowering Your Son to Believe in Himself, joined me for a discussion on how to kick your “lazy” teen into gear. As a clinical psychologist specializing in adolescent males, Price has seen it all.
To Price, the rise of the “lazy” teen is a two fold problem. First, there is the enormous amount of pressure out on teens to always be above-and-beyond average. There are no longer “late bloomers,” instead, we have “underachievers.” Secondly, because parents are made to feel that the stakes are so high at every stage, they attempt to manage their teen by taking away the teen’s autonomy to make choices.
Everyone is inherently more motivated when they are interested in the task at hand, and when they feel they have chosen it. In our interview, Price explains how exactly to give your teen the autonomy they need, without removing accountability. Even Dr. Price knows teens shouldn’t be allowed to do whatever they want 24/7!
In my interview with Dr. Price, we cover a broad range of topics, including:
- Developmental differences in boys and girls—and how they disadvantage learning in teens
- How to use the basic principles of motivational interviewing with teens
- The Paradoxical Response
- How to answer “When am I ever gonna need to know this??”
- Deescalating parent/teen power struggles
I’m so lucky to have had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Price and hear his advice on parenting teens! And I have to admit, I even saw a bit of my own teenage self in the concepts and stories we discussed…! This episode is must-listen for any parent with a “lazy” teen under their roof!
Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen
1. When your teen says “When am I ever gonna need this!? School is so stupid!”
“Every society has an obligation to teach the younger generation things they know to be able to grow up and make a contribution to that society. These are the subjects that we think you need to be proficient in. These subjects are taught all over the world, by the way, not just here. And we think you need to be proficient in them, partly because we don’t know how you are going to contribute to the economy when you grow up. And so we’re going to see how it goes.”-Dr. Adam Price
2. When your teen says “When am I ever gonna need this!? School is so stupid!” (2)(Members Only)
3. When your teen says “When am I ever gonna need this!? School is so stupid!” (3)(Members Only)
4. When your teen says “When am I ever gonna need this!? School is so stupid!” (4)(Members Only)
5. When your teen says “When am I ever gonna need this!? School is so stupid!” (5)(Members Only)
Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview
1. Stop Taking Responsibility for Your Teen’s Grades:You found out about your teen’s C on a midterm. What do you do? If you are one of those parents who would find this unacceptable, you’re not alone. But, as Dr. Price reminded listeners in our interview, there should never be a time when the parent is more invested in their teen’s grades than the teen. Dr. Price finds that when parents are more upset or nervous about a teen’s grades than the teen is, it allows the teen to not have to feel those things and be ‘lazy’ about future classwork. What happened the last time your kid got an unexpected grade? Jot down a summary of the interaction. Who was more bothered by the grade? Why? Do this for two more instances, bad grade or good. Reflect on what your responses might be ‘saying’ to your teen about grades.
2. Review Your Teen’s “Identities”:(Members Only)
Complete Interview Transcript
Andy: The book is He’s Not Lazy. And a lot of it is based on clients that you’ve had and families that you’ve worked with. It says you’ve worked over 25 years in this area, dealing with teenagers who are struggling at home and having some fights with their parents, arguing. And the parents think the kids are lazy. And a lot of it seems to come down to school and grades and not having motivation to do well. So I’m super curious how you fell into that niche and what your story is that then ultimately led you to write this book.
Adam: Well, first of all it was both my clinical practice. But then as I got curious about the subject, because… Andy, honestly, I was seeing so many boys in my practice who were what I call opt-outs. The thing is that we hear a lot and I’m sure you’ve talked to people on the podcast who talk about all the pressure that kids are under today. And they’re really under so much pressure. But a lot of the media attention tends to focus on an academic super-elite, the kids who are in AP classes, they speak foreign languages, they play sports, et cetera, et cetera. And-
Andy: Yeah. The pressure cooker is so intense. Yeah.
Adam: Yeah. And they’re really under a lot of pressure. There’s no question. Their parents take a Harvard or bust mentality. But then there’s another kind of kid, a typically overlooked class of boys that I started seeing in my practice. And to me, they were manifesting their stress in just different ways. They were less obvious. So they would make time for their friends, for video games, for whatever, but never for school. So most of them flew under the radar of real trouble. They weren’t failing out. They caused their parents a lot of grief and hair pulling. And so that’s why I call them opt-outs.
Adam: And I became interested in the subject. I began to review the literature on motivation, and what I found was that there was a lot written about adults and motivation. There just wasn’t a lot written about teens. So I found what I could and then I used the adult literature to adapt. I will tell you though, that my son, who’s now 26 and in graduate school at UCLA, said to me recently, he said, “Dad, you wrote that book called He’s Not Lazy.” And I said, “Yeah?” And he said, “I know that was probably about me in high school.” I said, “Yeah?” And he said, “Well, dad, I really am lazy.” So he blew my hypothesis, but he’s doing okay.
Andy: Well, he’s in graduate school at UCLA, he’s doing something. And he’s found something that he’s really passionate and interested in. So I guess it depends on how you define lazy. In terms of what a lot of parents would hope for their kids, he seems to be doing all right.
Andy: There’s some really interesting stuff about sex differences and the pressures that boys and girls are under, but why is it that so many are opting out and demonstrating this constellation of symptoms?
Adam: Right, so there’s a number of reasons. It’s a complex issue. But when I started doing the research, I started with the gender differences in learning because that was interesting to me. And I found that there really are some significant gender differences. And though we think that men and women are so different, and we are, you really can’t tell a man’s brain from a woman’s brain. The differences in an adult brain are indistinguishable even to experts.
Adam: So the thing is that boys and girls develop the same skills and the same abilities. They just do so at a different rate, and that rate is much more amenable to school for girls than it is for boys. A different order and a different rate. So boys’ visual-spatial skills develop first, ahead of girls in general. That doesn’t mean girls don’t catch up. But other than that, girls’ verbal skills develop sooner. Their ability to sit still and pay attention, their focus develops sooner, and girls are much more interested in pleasing adults than boys are at a young age, and I’ll get to that in a minute.
Adam: So many times boys in kindergarten are just turned off to school or feel like they’re not competent, even though eventually they’re going to get there. So that’s part of it, boys underperform girls in school across the board. Every subject, worldwide studies have shown this. Girls are more likely to get into college. They’re more likely to graduate from college. They’re less likely to be diagnosed with a learning problem, an emotional problem. They’re less likely to be expelled. I’m not saying girls don’t have any problems. They have plenty of their own pressures and stresses. It’s just different.
Adam: And personally, I think that girls have been ahead of boys in school since compulsory education began. It’s just that now that girls are able to enter the job market, and even though there’s still some inequity, it’s just more evident to us what’s happening to boys in school. So that’s part of it. The other part of it has to do with masculinity and our view of masculinity and the norms that society puts on boys. So when I said before that girls like to please teachers and boys don’t, that’s because boys and girls achieve status in different ways. Girls achieve status by who they know, by their social network. That’s why there’s the mean girl phenomenon. All sorts of girls are much more interested in posting on Instagram and liking each other, et cetera, et cetera. Boys get status by what they can do, who can throw a football the farthest, who can play a video game the best. It’s never, unfortunately, about who gets straight As in school.
Andy: And slept with the most women.
Adam: Right. And so related to that though, is that boys and men always have to prove their masculinity. And we have to prove it, not to women, but to other men. So we prove it by being tough, by being strong, by being [inaudible 00:06:20], all the stereotypic ways that we’re expected to act, right? It’s not about expressing your feelings, it’s not about being vulnerable. So I think part of what happens is that you have boys who’ve started off school maybe to a slow start. Then around age nine or ten, even earlier, some studies have shown, they begin to realize they have to show how masculine they are. And so being vulnerable is just not on the table. And in order to learn anything, you have to be vulnerable, right? In order to learn, you have to not know something. And so, especially if a boy maybe is too bright and is bored or has an attention problem or learning issue, I think it’s really easy for boys to get turned off to school. So that’s the beginning step of all of this.
Andy: Despite the fact that so many parents are coming to you and saying, “What do I do about my lazy son?” you are not convinced that the kid really is lazy. And you have an interesting thing early on in the book, page five from Stephen Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, where he’s talking about his own teenage son who was failing, having troubles socially, academically and athletically. And what he ended up doing was creating a paradigm shift.
Andy: So what do you mean when you talk about a paradigm shift, and why is that important?
Adam: Well, it may sound like big words, but it’s pretty simple. The thing is that boys need more time. They need more time to grow. They need more time to develop. And what’s happened is that yesterday’s late-bloomer has become today’s underachiever. I never hear that term late-bloomer any more, but I do hear about a lot of underachievers. And that’s a problem, Andy, because a late-bloomer can still catch up, but an underachiever’s already behind.
Andy: Aren’t labels just so powerful? And the subtle words that we used to just label ourselves and label each other can have such profound effects.
Adam: They really can, and they can be helpful, but they can also be limiting and they can also be hurtful. So I think that one of the most important things I want parents to walk away with from reading my book, from hearing this podcast, is that most boys just need more time. And the problem is that we don’t think we have that time. There’s so much pressure on parents to produce top-performing students by the time they reach the age of 18. That’s not really what the goal is, right? The goal is to produce students who can then enter adulthood, being able to learn a lot of lessons and grow.
Adam: But we seem to want to speed up the biological process of learning. So we’ve found that there’s no more room for mistakes. There’s no more room for failure. Everything from kindergarten on seems to many parents where it will affect where their kids get into school. I was talking to a sixth-grade boy yesterday in my practice who goes to a nearby public school in a pretty competitive affluent suburb. And he was in tears, because he wasn’t going to get into the accelerated math in sixth grade. And he said, “If I don’t get into the accelerated math, it’s going to affect where I go to college.”
Andy: “But you don’t understand that puts me on track for the thing next year, and then that puts me on track for the thing in the next year, and then there’s a program, and then…”
Andy: Just, “My future is ruined.” And that is the message that a lot of kids get.
Andy: You have this chapter, it’s about identity. And you tell this little story about how, when you were 13, you just had to buy a Boone’s Farm t-shirt.
Adam: Yeah. I did. I don’t have it any more, but it was very important to me. Yes.
Andy: It was just one of those things, for some reason, that teenagers, you just got to have. Right? But then I like what you say here on page 34. You say it’s important that you honor all of your son’s new ventures and experiments. He needs you to see “the changed him”. Support his experimentation, as long as he’s being safe. I thought that was really interesting. And you talk about the being safe. You have to draw the line somewhere, but I guess from reading your book, you draw it a lot more towards the side of giving the teenager autonomy and freedom to choose what they’re going to do in their life than a lot of parents, I think.
Adam: Well, here’s the thing. First of all, the first part that you were talking about was just about normal adolescent development, right? And so adolescence is a time of trying on identities, and it’s a time for teenagers to figure out who they are. And so they look at role models, they look at their friends. And you were talking about labels before. So teenagers very often like to assign a label to themselves, I’m an athlete or I am a vegetarian or whatever it is. So for me, I dated myself to back in the seventies when these Boone’s Farm t-shirts were around. That was an identity, right? And it’s also about fitting in. Then and now, Timberland boots seemed to be the thing to buy for teenagers.
Andy: For some reason, right? Yeah.
Adam: And it was true when I was a kid too, but that also represented an adult thing, right? It was wine. So there was something taboo about it.
Andy: That’s alcoholic, right? Grown-ups drink alcohol.
Adam: Yeah, even though I don’t think my parents ever drank this stuff.
Andy: Oh, right.
Adam: But that’s part of it. The other part of it though, really gets to the center of the book. And it has to do with, what are the things that help people to become motivated and help teenagers to become motivated? And in the book, I break it down to the three Cs: control, competence and connection. And when we talk about control, this will make sense intuitively to you, but we’re motivated to do things that we want to do, that interest us. That’s a problem, because there’s a lot in school that kids don’t want to do and doesn’t interest them. But we’re going to be motivated for the things that we have the most autonomy over.
Adam: Autonomy is the freedom to choose. So if you take away a person’s autonomy, you really demotivate them. And a lot of the research, interestingly, finds that rewards can actually reduce autonomy, that working for a reward is not necessarily the best way, because we want people to have intrinsic internal rather than external rewards and motivation. So we want to give kids autonomy. But I think what happens is that parents get confused because autonomy is the freedom to make a choice, right? But it’s not the freedom to do whatever you want.
Adam: And that’s where accountability comes into play. There’s no such thing as autonomy without accountability. And accountability is really important, because that’s how we learn. So if you make a decision… And my thing is, and I always tell patients this, you can’t make a decision a hundred percent of the time that’s correct. Nobody can do that. Maybe not even 75% of the time. What you want to do are make decisions that don’t close off too many options. Because if you close up too many options, then you’re stuck. So if you make a wrong decision, but you still have options ahead of you, that’s okay.
Adam: Another patient yesterday was talking about whether they wanted to try out for the select soccer team or whether they wanted to stay where they were. They really wanted to stay where they were for whatever reason, including fear of competing at a higher level. But I said, “Listen, you get to make that decision. The good thing about this is if you don’t apply for that team this year, you still have the option of applying for that team next year. And if you’re on that team now, and you want to go back to your old team, you have the option of doing that as well.”
Adam: So autonomy is about choices, but if you’re not held accountable, then you don’t learn anything from your choices. So the world can hold us accountable. School can hold us accountable. Parents need to hold kids accountable. And what I see happen in this age of over-parenting and the parental bubble-wrap that we wrap around our kids is that parents, I think, have lost sight of the fact that they need to hold their kids accountable. So-
Andy: I think you’re right.
Adam: Well, yeah. I mean, a lot of people talk about this. So I don’t want people read my book or hear me talk and think I’m saying just let your kids do whatever they want. I’m not. You have to hold them accountable. So that means that if your son wants to have a sleepover on a Saturday night, that’s fine. But if he stays up till four in the morning, you still have to hold him accountable and make sure he goes to soccer practice or church, whatever it is that he might have Sunday morning. He’s made the choice to stay up… But the accountability, right?
Adam: So I think about, and you were referring to this, I think about the limits we place on kids as a fence. And when they’re young, we want that fence to be smaller around them and more impermeable because they can get into more trouble, right? They’re more impulsive. They don’t have judgment. As they grow, the fence has to grow and get bigger around them. And we never want the fence to be too big that they can’t occasionally climb over it, because that’s how kids learn also.
Andy: You point out in his book, a lot of what these lazy teenagers are doing is letting the parents assume all of the anxiety and stress instead so that the teen can just relax and not have to deal with it all. And I just think that’s such an interesting phenomenon and it creates this no-win situation where as a parent, you’re just trying harder and harder and harder to help them, and they’re just pulling away. The harder you push, the harder they pull away, I guess. So-
Adam: Yeah, it’s like one of those Chinese finger torture things where you put your fingers in.
Adam: And you pull, and it doesn’t come off, it gets tighter.
Andy: So how do you break that cycle?
Adam: Well, that’s the heart of it, right? That’s really the question. And what I find over and over and over again is parents who are engaged in a huge power struggle with their kids about work and about school. And the thing about power struggles, Andy, that we all find out the hard way, is that teens are always going to win them. Teens are going to win a power struggle because we are trying to get them to do what they need to do, right? But they have a lot more on the line. They’re fighting for their autonomy. They’re fighting for their independence. And they don’t have the same limits we do on their behavior. So they’re going to escalate the power struggle and escalate the power struggle. And there’s no way to win a power struggle was a teenager. Like that Chinese toy, you have to release the pressure, right?
Adam: So with teens, the way to avoid power struggles is to give them a choice. And it has to be a real choice. It sounds like you’re giving them a punishment in disguise, but it’s really a choice. So the choice is “Well, I’m telling you, you can’t take the car and go out tonight with your friends. If you do that, then you’re going to lose privileges for the car for the rest of the week.” And of course it depends on the situation, but then if they decide to take the car out or not clean up their room or whatever it is, that’s fine. You have to let them do that. But then you have to enforce the other side of it. More often than not, they’ll take the better choice.
Adam: But with school, what happens is that parents end up, as you said… You said it, you hit the nail on the head, Andy. They take on the anxiety of the kid. And if the parent is so anxious, the kid doesn’t have to be. It’s really doing them a favor because what parents are inadvertently saying, and with the best of intentions, they’re saying, “I am so worried about your future. I am so worried about where you go to school that I’m going to do all the worrying for you.” And then the kid’s thinking, of course, unconsciously, “Oh great. I don’t have to worry about school.” Then what happens is school doesn’t become the issue. The parent becomes the target, right? The parent’s anger, the parent’s nudging, the parent’s micromanaging. Then the war is not about whether the kid should do well in school or not. The war is about whether the kid should fight the parent, which is what kids want to do anyways in many ways so that they can gain independence and so they can separate.
Adam: And that’s not where we want the conflict to be. We want the conflict to be within the teenager. We want them to be struggling with it. We want them to be struggling with their future. We want them to be struggling with their grades. And so in order to do that, parents have to step back. They have to stop taking the responsibility for the kid. And it’s really hard these days. It’s really difficult because as I said before, so many kids are so worried, so many parents are so worried about college. If their kid’s going to get into college, where their kids going to go to college. The system is really broken in terms of all that.
Adam: I don’t know if you know Rachel Simmons, she writes a lot about girls. She’s written some great books. She says just because the system isn’t broken doesn’t mean you should fix the kid. And I think that’s really brilliant. So, so parents are under pressure. But what parents need to do is not just say, “You can do whatever you want,” because then your kid will dig a hole so deep they can’t get out of it. Rather, it’s to set parameters. A parent’s job is not to set the track. It’s to make sure that their son or daughter stays on the track. That’s a good example of autonomy. So they have to set parameters and they can work out those parameters with their kid. And then it can be… Some parents get upset with me when I say this, but my philosophy is that it’s their choice to get an A or not, but they should get Bs. Unless there’s some other extenuating circumstances like a learning issue or that subject is really difficult. But generally speaking, I think parents can expect Bs.
Andy: A reasonably capable child growing up in our culture today should be able to pull that off. Yeah.
Adam: Yeah. And it means that they put in enough effort to do above average.
Andy: That’s the bare minimum.
Adam: If they want to put in the effort to be exceptional, that’s okay, but that’s up to them. But then the parent needs to step back. And that’s where the autonomy comes in. The accountability is, you got to get Bs. You have a conversation about it. You figure out if they need help or whatever, and then you step back and then you see how they do. Now, stepping back means stepping back. It doesn’t mean going into their room and asking if they need anything because you’re really checking to see if they do their homework, right? That’s not stepping back. And it means stepping back for, not a semester, I think that’s too long a time. Every parent will figure it out differently, but some period of time, and then seeing how the kid does. And if they’re doing fine, then you reevaluate it. If they’re not, then it’s time to say, “You know what? I think you have too much time on your hands. I think you need to spend more time studying. So for the next three weeks or whatever it is, we’re going to take away X.”
Andy: Yeah. “This was your plan, and we tried that for the last month here. And it looks like it didn’t quite work. You didn’t hit your target. You didn’t hit your goals. So it seems like we need a little more rules here.”
Adam: Yeah. And it’s not that it’s time for them to use their plan, but it’s time to set some parameters and then to see how the kid does. Now, the thing is that a parent can’t force a child to do their homework. So even if they take that step, their kid may still not do their homework. And that’s okay. I mean, parents have to recognize what we were talking about earlier, right? Boys need more time to grow up. And one of the things that is really challenging and so hard, and we all do this, is to project into the future, right? We’re not thinking about how our son is doing right now in the 10th grade. We’re thinking about that and what it means for the rest of his life. You look at a room and you look at clothes on the floor, and you think, “Well, he’s never going to clean up the clothes, ever.” And that’s just not true. So you have to parent the kid that you have right then and there.
Adam: So a few tries of this usually help the kid to give them the space to have their own anxiety, right? That’s the whole point. To worry about their grades, to worry about their future, and know the parent isn’t going to step in and do that for them. And that’s when change begins to happen. It might not be immediate. Even when I work with kids in therapy, I don’t see change after three months necessarily, but I see beginnings of change. That’s because that’s what development and maturity are all about. You know the saying, it’s not a race, it’s a marathon. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. So patience is involved. But patience is involved in watching kids grow up.
Andy: In general, if it could be done in two weeks, then we wouldn’t keep them around until they were eighteen.
Adam: If I had a way to have it done in two weeks, I’d be retired. Happily so, happily so. Take away everybody’s suffering about this.
About Dr. Adam Price
Dr. Adam Price is a writer and clinical psychologist from the Greater New York City metropolis. He has been practicing for 20+ years, gaining a wealth of knowledge and experience. In addition to his book He’s Not Lazy, Dr. Price contributes to Psychology Today, the Wall Street Journal, and Family Circle. He runs a private practice with office in both New York City and New Jersey.
Although Dr. Price has his own son in graduate school, Dr. Price still considers himself a recovering adolescent 😉