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by Mel Levine
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2002
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Jun 24th 2004

The Myth of Laziness

Mel Levine is known for his best-selling book A Mind at a Time that promotes a tolerance to the differences between children and a reluctant attitude towards diagnosing mental disorders in children.  The Myth of Laziness takes a similar stance of sympathy towards the psychological problems of children and advocating creative approaches to helping them overcome those problems.  His advice is humane and sensible.  He describes a number of different children he has encountered and the way that his perspective differed from those of other clinicians and teachers. 

Although the book's title refers to laziness, Levine actually discusses a broader range of labels attached to children with learning and behavior problems.  The central idea is very simple: we often tend to blame children for being lazy when in fact their difficulties are due to quite specific cognitive deficits, motor problems or the emotional troubles that come with such deficits.  In using labels such as 'lazy' we just compound the students' low self-esteem, and these labels just show our own ignorance. 

Levine's message is potentially important and could have widespread implications for parents, educators, and clinical psychology.  The new schoolteachers I meet universally repudiate the adjective "stupid" as applied to students, although they may still tell students that particular actions are stupid.  On the other hand, they often complain that students are lazy.  Even if they would be reluctant to tell students to their faces that they were lazy, they would not necessarily contradict parents or even the students themselves when they describe themselves as lazy, and they would use more neutral but similar words such as "unmotivated."  If they follow Levine's advice, then they would in ideal circumstances change teaching methods to accommodate the specific needs of children.  With the right encouragement and increased success in learning, the students will increase in their motivation and do a great deal better. 

Levine does not want his approach to be used as an excuse or cop-out.  He argues that people need to take responsibility for their lives when they are given the chance to do so, and he optimistically expresses the belief that everyone wants to succeed and be productive.  His ideas raise crucial questions of how we should conceptualize psychological disorders and deficits, and there are certainly many neurodevelopmental dysfunctions that often are not identified.  He is surely right that education and child-rearing will be improved when we are able to more accurately identify the problems of children that cause them to fail to produce and when we are able to provide solutions to those problems.  Especially when it comes to children, attitudes of compassion and understanding are wonderful and we can only hope that parents and teachers can adopt those attitudes to children. 

Given the positive attitude Levine conveys, his non-judgmental stance and his stories of success, it seems churlish to express reservations about his approach.  It is undeniable that words such as lazy and stupid are full of negative connotations, and telling someone that she is lazy or stupid is likely to hurt and even damage her.  But on the other hand, the trend in medicalizing or psychologizing people's problems raises the worry that our language will become morally bland and we will simply give people excuses for their lack of productivity.  While Levine says that laziness is a myth, most people would disagree.  We can point to many examples in our own lives where we themselves or those around us have simply been lazy, and would say that it is sometimes appropriate to tell a person that he is being lazy.  Plain language contains simple truths.  In distinction to stupidity, laziness is something that we can normally do something about.  Indeed, a person who is unable to stop being lazy doesn't really count as being lazy at all; they have a different motivational problem. 

Personally, I have to confess I not only tend to think about some people using judgmental language such as 'stupid' and 'lazy,' but I fully intend to continue to do so.  They are crude words, but we need crude words in our language: there are many different ways for people to be stupid and lazy, and psychology can help to identify all the complexities.  For my own purposes, when I encounter someone who has great difficulty understanding simple ideas, I am often not interested in working out what are the particular causes of their difficulties.  When I see someone who sits around doing nothing much, getting away with a minimum and cutting corners, I am not particularly interested what particular emotional or cognitive deficits have led to this productivity failure.  It is possible that not all such people are lazy, but many are.  Levine claims that nobody is innately lazy, but he does not provide any argument.  It is just as plausible to think that selfishness and laziness are indeed common human traits that may well have evolutionary advantages.  Maybe we should not blame people for being stupid, although if we continue to praise others for being intelligent, then it could be reasonable to expect people of low intelligence to at least realize their own limitations.  When it comes to genuine laziness, however, the moral issue is much clearer -- if we hold people responsible for any character flaws, then laziness should be a prime example. 

The Myth of Laziness is a popular book for parents, clinicians and educators, and so it doesn't present scientific evidence for the success of its methods.  Levine simply presents a number of cases, and these don't count much as evidence.  If he is correct that his approach is a genuinely better way to help children, then he will have a strong case that adults should not use the word "lazy" to describe children.  His compassionate attitude is certainly admirable and this book could be enlightening to many families.  Yet I would be reluctant to completely eliminate the moral language of words such as "lazy," "stupid," and "selfish" when educating children.  Of course, we should not use them in abusive or aggressive ways, but they can be powerful guiding concepts in teaching children what traits they should try to avoid. 

The audiobook is ready by Levine himself, who does a good job.  I have some reservations about the sound quality of the recording of the voice, which seems slightly muffled. 


© 2004 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.


Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.