Most people agree, husbands especially so since it is women who do most of it, that nagging is a drag, and largely ineffective. The Wall Street Journal went even further in its recent, ominously titled piece “Meet the Marriage Killer” by identifying nagging as the culprit in many a troubled marriage. But children too bear a heavy burden of nagging from mothers coping with harried lives. Over time, these children develop a kind of immunity, a strangely specific deafness to the pathetic pleas of the beleaguered mom. A logical and predictable adaptation to a noxious environment, psychologists might say.
In fact, mental health practitioners have long advised against nagging as a motivational tactic. Psychiatrist William Glasser argues in Choice Theory that the universal resistance to external control breeds resentment, and that between parents and teens in particular, it increases discord and creates unhappy teenagers. Nagging comes in fourth among Glasser’s Seven Deadly Habits of External Control — behind Criticizing, Blaming, and Complaining, and before Threatening, Punishing, and Rewarding to Control.
I’m all for using positive incentives to mould behaviour instead of punitive, authoritarian measures. Like many parents, I have intuitively relied on what are officially identified as the Seven Connecting Habits in Choice Theory, including Caring, Trusting, Listening, Supporting, Negotiating, Befriending and Encouraging. And overall, the results have been positive.
But just as cajoling doesn’t always work with toddler tyrants (as evidenced in the grocer’s aisle) “connecting” with uppity teenagers can be equally taxing. In forging their own uniquely separate identities, teenagers invariably challenge and sometimes reject parental values and constraints. Smart parents recognize this developmental imperative and adjust accordingly by slowly and judiciously relinquishing control. A parent’s job after all, is to foster the child’s ultimate maturational achievement, self-mastery and self-control.
But the relatively new phenomenon of young adults’ “failure to launch” has me thinking that nagging may have serendipitous advantages that Choice Theory never envisioned. Could it be that the extended adolescence of today’s young adults, their delay in assuming full adult responsibilities derives in part from not enough parental nagging and other controlling behaviours? Are parents enabling immaturity in their children by making it just too comfortable to want to leave the family nest?
I know I’ve been guilty of doing too much for my kids, from cleaning and taxiing around, to just generally handling things that they should have done for themselves. But when a friend recently admitted to allowing his 22-year-old son to have sex with his girlfriend in his bedroom because “he doesn’t have money for motels and they’re going to do it anyway”, something clicked.
When the definable rewards for mature acceptance of adult responsibilities are no longer clearly evident, what’s the rush to grow up? When the freedom to have sex, arguably the most exciting and sought after adult reward, is easily available at no risk or effort, and with mom and dad’s tacit approval, what exactly is the incentive to move out on one’s own? Where is the need to complete one’s education as fast as possible, get a job, find an apartment to be free from parents’ watchful eyes, restrictive rules, and other controlling measures? Privacy? In the age of Facebook, what’s that? Autonomy? When you get free room and board, who needs it? Self-respect? Come again?
So I’m thinking I’ll do a little more nagging and complaining about messy bedrooms and unfinished chores. I’ll even criticize some ideas or questionable decisions my young adult children make. Sure, they’ll resent it, but that’s the point. They’ll feel just the right amount of tension necessary to give them that gentle push out the door, for which they’ll be grateful later. Hopefully.
Psychologists may point to empirical evidence for nagging’s deleterious effects on adult peer communication, and we should heed their warnings. But I’m betting that, just as the dose makes the poison, some parental nagging may prove beneficial in ways not amenable to scientific investigation or validation, but wholly consistent with more traditional, intuitively understood concepts of parenting.
Mary Santangelo writes from Montreal. Her last parenting article was on obedience.
Glasser, William (1998). Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom, N.Y., Harper Collins.
Glasser, William (2002). Unhappy Teenagers: A Way for Parents and Teachers to Reach Them. N.Y., Harper Collins.