By William W. Sloan, Jr., Ph.D., Licensed Psychologist

A well-educated, articulate couple sat there on the couch in front of me. He was a successful businessman. She was a teacher skilled at connecting with students. But now they were stuck. Their 9-year-old third grader, David, was refusing to do his homework. On the occasional nights when they could cajole him into doing it, he exerted so little effort that the product was sloppy and careless.

David’s dad was fed up with the tension the homework battles created in their home. He was ready to bring out the belt, that option of last resort in a father’s arsenal of solutions. David’s mom was equally fed up, although she viewed the belt solution as antiquated at best and harmful at worst. But she readily conceded that her pleading with David to put more effort into his homework wasn’t working, either. These parents had decided, reluctantly, that maybe their son was just lazy.

The causes of apparent laziness vary widely. A diagnostic evaluation identified the cause in David’s case as Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder –a common disorder that genuinely made it difficult for him to focus his attention on tedious tasks like homework, even though he could concentrate for hours on video games or Legos. Other students who on the surface appear lazy actually have an underlying language-based disorder, such as dyslexia, or they may be intellectually struggling with classroom material and be so exhausted by the time they get home from school that they can’t tolerate more work.

In the examples above, a diagnosable problem makes homework especially difficult, and identifying that problem is the first step toward “curing” the “laziness.” (See related article “Back to School: Does My Child Need Private Educational Testing?”) There are other students, however, who have strong intelligence without any disorder that might explain their ostensible laziness. How should parents respond under that scenario?

First, parents need to recognize that “lazy” is an unhelpful label, akin to “mean,” “dumb,” or “crazy.” It simply blames without explaining: Why doesn’t David do his homework? Because he’s lazy. How do you know he’s lazy? Because he doesn’t do his homework. The lazy label only provides a circular explanation.

Second, parents need to view laziness not as a generalized character trait, but merely as a specific behavior. And behavior can be changed. We are all “lazy” with respect to some goals. If someone asked me to read a calculus book, I wouldn’t do it—and some might view my refusal as evidence that I’m lazy. But, from my perspective, reading a calculus book is irrelevant to my current goals, and it would involve large amounts of effort and frustration.

In contrast, if someone offered me $1,000 to read that calculus book, I’d at least begin to look interested. And if someone offered me $1,000 to read just one page, I’d jump at the chance. Whether or not “lazy” behavior occurs depends on the relative size of perceived costs and benefits. Reduce the perceived costs and increase the perceived benefits, and the hypothetical laziness disappears. Yes, some parents might say. But we want our children to be motivated to do their homework on their own, not because we’re paying them!

However, that’s a bit like saying to your broken-down car, “I want you to start on your own! I don’t want to have to call a mechanic!” Sometimes we have to jump-start a child’s motivation with extrinsic rewards. As soon as the behavior is established and can maintain itself, we reduce or discontinue the extrinsic rewards. Once the car problem is repaired, the mechanic is no longer needed.

Nonetheless, some parents remain uncomfortable using financial incentives. In that case, the following non-monetary strategies are available:

– Shift from adversary to advocate. Let your child know you want to get off his back. Homework is not a fight between you and him. The law says he has to go to school, and the school says he has to do homework. So you are going to work with him to figure out a way to make homework more tolerable, more manageable. The homework will still need to be done, of course, but you want him to know that you’re there to help, not to fight.

– Learn what energizes your child in other situations. See which aspects of those situations could be applied to the homework problem: “David, you seem so focused and enthusiastic when you play soccer. Talk to me about what makes that so fun for you. I really want to know.” Not only will you learn about your child, but you’ll also be helping him get in touch with his interests and inner drives –exactly what he needs to do if he is to be a more motivated child.

– Abandon homework altogether for one night. Help your child make a list of all the things he hates about homework! Make it fun, ham it up, encourage him to spew forth venom and vindictiveness until he cannot think of any more negative things to say. Then make a different list about things he positively loves to do and dreams of doing and would do every minute of every day, if only he could. Discuss the two lists. See what insights emerge as a result.

– Change “why” questions into “what” questions. Instead of asking, “Why haven’t you done your homework?” ask “What’s getting in the way of your answering the first question?” Hear the difference? The first question tends to trigger defensiveness, whereas the second moves the discussion toward solutions.

– Break large tasks into smaller tasks. Instead of telling your child to just do his homework, ask him to only focus on one subject, or one page, or even one problem first. When that smaller task is complete, point out to your child that something inside him made it possible to complete that first step. What would it now take for him to repeat that process? In other words, start with an easily accomplished goal and then focus his attention on what he did that was right.

The bottom line? If your “lazy” child is breathing and has a pulse, then there’s motivation lurking beneath the surface. To be sure, motivation may be elusive and merely lurking, but it’s never completely lacking.