Is My Child "Lazy" or Just Forgetful? Experts Weigh In

teenage child talking with parent

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Have you ever come home from dropping your child at school, and realize that their room is a mess—even though you just asked them to clean up? If your children are like mine, they might simply say they "forgot." Children certainly remember to eat their dessert or play on their tablet—but what about clearing their plates into the trash or plugging their devices back in for the night?

It begs the question: is your child (or mine!) simply lazy, or are they truly forgetful? We spoke to experts to figure out the difference, and what you can do to motivate kids to listen.

What Causes Motivation (Or Lack Thereof) in Children?

Trying to make sense of children's motivation can be confusing and challenging. Very few studies on the attention spans of elementary school aged children have been completed, but the general knowledge passed around parent groups and blogs seems to be that children can concentrate between two to five minutes for every year of their age. So a 5-year-old might be able to concentrate for 10 or 15 minutes at a stretch, while a 10-year-old might be able to focus for 20 to 30.

Getting children to pay attention to instructions can be half the battle when it comes to completing tasks. Christopher Kearney, PhD, distinguished professor and chair of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Department of Psychology, explains that laziness is different than simply being unmotivated.

"Laziness is sometimes thought of as a trait-oriented construct, meaning a person is generally predisposed to be unwilling to engage in work in most situations," Dr. Kearney explains. "'Unmotivated' can overlap with 'laziness' but is a bit more specific, referring to lack of incentive or desire to engage in a particular task."

Most kids have no interest in cleaning up after themselves simply because cleaning isn't fun. Ashley Hodges, LCSW with Wellington Counseling Group, says that being unmotivated can be linked to the level of desire a child has to complete a task. "Often a child’s priorities are not the same as a parent's and therefore the same level of motivation may not be there," Hodges adds.

For children, interest in an activity can be directly related to how quickly they do it—or if they do it at all. Adult-like attention isn't achieved until after puberty.

"Apathy can contribute to these constructs if a person has little emotional investment in a task such as homework, and forgetfulness can also contribute, such as forgetting to do a particular chore," Dr. Kearney says.

Zishan Khan, MD, a psychiatrist with Mindpath Health, further explains that laziness is "extremely unlikely" in elementary school aged children. Even though kids look like they're being "lazy," it's often more likely about interest. Dr. Khan says that being healthy and getting enough sleep can also be factors in motivation.

"Parents need to take a step back and note what the root cause of their child’s disinterest actually is." They should also monitor their children for chronic amotivation with a PCP, as it might indicate an underlying condition, such as hypothyroidism or ADHD, Dr. Khan says.

What Makes a Child Forgetful?

Apathetic or unmotivated children aren't the only trials facing parents. Often, children are perceived as forgetful—and that carries some truth, Dr. Kearney says.

"Forgetfulness can relate to cognitive development; younger children have less working memory capacity and depend more on short-term cues and stimuli. Most children eventually mature to a greater point of recall and responsibility, especially by middle school," Dr. Kearney explains.

As frustrating as it can be to hear, kids simply don't assign the same level of importance to tasks as their parents do. They are busy in the work of play, building their brains, and being imaginative. For younger children, this play is vital in helping them learn about the world.

"A parent should also consider the age of the child and try to discern what is developmentally appropriate. At certain ages, children have an immature sense of responsibility," Dr. Khan says.

Forgetfulness at Home vs. School

So many parents have the experience of hearing that their child is a delight in class, and never forgets what they're told...while watching that same child waltz past the mess in the living room that they've been instructed to clean up multiple times. What gives?

Counterintuitively, it can be because a child feels safe at home that they do not remember their responsibilities all the time. "Children often act differently at home than they do at school," Hodges says. "Home is usually a safe space for children and is why parents tend to see contrasting behaviors from what teachers describe at school."

Dr. Khan agrees. "A child may experience more love and security at home, and thus feel more emboldened to resist your efforts to enforce rules."

It might not feel good to have your child resist you, but it's a sign they know they'll still be loved even if they misbehave, similar to attachment when they're infants.

School can also have more rules for kids to follow, which may carry more direct consequences than a parent growing frustrated. "Some youth have more accountability structures established at home or at school, and such structures can consist of oversight, prompting, assistance, and incentives," Dr. Kearney explains. This constant prompting and structure, bound with rules and consequences, can create a sense of personal accountability.

How to Teach Motivation

Using schooling environments as a model can be helpful when trying to motivate a child. "Consistent structure and incentives are good. Have children complete chores or homework at the same, specific times and provide oversight, check on completed tasks, reward appropriately, and stay consistent in routines," Dr. Kearney advises.

If this sounds familiar, that's because it is exactly the kind of environment schools provide for your children, helping to keep them interested and motivated throughout the day.

Consistency is key, as is getting a child's full attention before asking them to do something for you, Hodges says. "You should make sure to have eye contact with the child before speaking with them to avoid having to ask them to complete a chore multiple times," she continues. Also helpful are boundaries and specific expectations for completing tasks.

Dr. Kahn says that you can create a supportive environment for your kids with small, simple measures to help them remember tasks, like to-do lists, organizational systems for homework, and chore charts.

If your child has sustained difficulty with their motivation that seems out of line with their peers', other attention issues may be to blame. It's important to keep in mind that these attentional differences are not likely situational, but may have been present since your child was a preschooler. Healthy Children, a branch of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has resources that may be of help, and if you have any concerns, be sure to reach to your child's pediatrician or healthcare provider.

A Word From Verywell

Most parents know the struggle of trying to get their child to complete a task or chore at home, only for them to forget. Far from lazy, kids' brains are developing rapidly. By providing kids with chore charts, to-do lists, and by clearly discussing tasks and expectations, parents can get to the bottom of their kids' "laziness" and learn ways that work best to communicate with them.

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Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Taylor Grothe
Taylor is a freelance writer, fiction author, and a nonbinary parent to two little children, ages five and three. Their fiction work can be found in Bag of Bones Press and Coffin Bell Journal, and their first novel is on submission to major publishing houses.