Minding Your Kids' Business

I got in trouble with my son about my last column. I inadvertently put in his name, so of course his friends got hold of the column and teased him about it. Naturally he was upset with me for violating his privacy by making our home life public. This got me to thinking. We parents tend so often to think we own our children, and see them as part of our identity rather than as separate people whose privacy and decisions we need to respect.

Faber and Mazlish, in “How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk,” list several parental habits that reduce their children’s sense of being independent persons. These include (1) taking over for a child when the child has to learn to do something new or difficult himself, such as opening a jar; (2) picking at a child’s body – brushing the hair out of her eyes, or tucking in his shirt; (3) answering for a child or talking about him in his presence; and (4) nagging. All these things make a child feel like a possession rather than a person.

A lot of children’s resistance to parents’ requests is caused by nagging. Nagging and its effects are as irritating to the parent as to the child. Nagging occurs when both parent and child assume that it is the parent’s responsibility to see that the child gets out of bed, puts his coat on, gets ready for bed, does his homework, and so on. All children really want to be in charge of their own lives. So when the parent gives the nagging reminder, the child resists being controlled by delaying, complaining, or other tactics. This is because it is important to the child to take responsibility and accomplish things on his own, rather than because his mother (or father) told him to. Resisted nagging leads to yelling, and the child learns not to comply until he is yelled at. This leads to an unhappy relationship between parent and child.

Now that my kids are older, I find they tend to nag me! About getting ready fast enough in the morning so they won’t be late for school. And remembering to buy things they need. They nag me because they don’t trust that I’ll do these things on my own. And the nagging leads me to take less responsibility for these things, because I know I can rely on them to nag me. Two summers ago my daughter and I rented a car to drive around the British Isles. Now I’d only had a driver’s license for almost 40 years, and owned a car for over 30 years, so on one occasion I forgot to set the handbrake. From that moment on, my daughter reminded me to put on the handbrake every time I parked the car. And I consistently forgot to do it! She didn’t stop nagging until one day I realized what was happening, and yelled at her. After that I had to make a huge effort to remind myself to put on the handbrake, something I do every single day at home.

That’s what happens when you nag. The person (spouse or child or even parent) being nagged gives up an area of their independent, responsible functioning, and turns it over to you. Nagging results in less responsibility on the part of the person being nagged. When you stop nagging, of course, it will take a bit of time for the person you’re nagging to realize he is really on his own in this area of responsibility. But it will happen eventually, if you let him be in charge of his own life.