Take the garbage out.
Did you take the garbage out?
When will you take the garbage out?
Don’t forget about the garbage.
No one dreams of becoming a nag when they grow up. Most parents swear they won’t do it. But that promise gets increasingly difficult to keep as children consistently ignore requests.
Sara Marricco describes the home that she shares with her husband and her 10- and 14-year-old daughters in upstate New York as a complete disaster. “Please pick up the clothes on your floor,” she will tell them. Then nothing happens.
Every time she asks the girls to help out around the house, “the initial response is ughhhh,” says Marricco. “That sound makes me enraged. I overlook it for a while. Then at some point I’ll just do it in a rage.” Occasionally her visible annoyance prompts the kids to help out. Often it does not.
Michelle Maidenberg feels the same as Sara. She deeply dislikes nagging her four children, ages 11 to 19, to clean up after themselves because it reminds her of her own childhood.
“I hated it when I was younger,” says Maidenberg. “I walked in the door from school, and my mom would start with, ‘Why are you such a slob?’ I’d end up feeling so resentful and frustrated.” For Maidenberg, nagging also triggers painful feelings of being neglected and not heard as a child. When she has to nag her kids, she says, “It reminds me that no one is listening to me, that no one cares. I literally shut down.”
These moms’ experiences may sound familiar to many. They don’t want to be nags. And yet, they both find themselves miserably begging their kids to do the simplest chores.
Does Nagging Even Work?
“Nagging is annoying and ineffective,” says Carla Naumburg, licensed clinical social worker and the author of How to Stop Losing Your Sh*t with Your Kids: A Practical Guide to Becoming a Calmer, Happier Parent. “Our kids feel the same way about it that we do. Nobody likes to be nagged. Eventually, our kids will learn to tune us out, which just leads to more nagging. It’s a vicious cycle.”
Naumburg says parents often nag when they’re distracted, stressed, or ambivalent about what they’re asking of their kids. Children pick up on all of this and use it to their advantage. They quickly figure out that ignoring their parents’ requests, dilly-dallying, or whining and complaining about chores all improve their chances of sidestepping them.
When parents respond to these avoidance behaviors by offering a negotiation or giving up entirely, they are inadvertently reinforcing their children’s tactics. The child learns that maybe the chore is actually optional. Similarly, when parents ask for the computer to be turned off but then get distracted, the child learns that maybe they might get more screen time if they don’t immediately respond.
How to Avoid Nagging and Encourage Action
Naumburg recommends that parents ask themselves, “Are you exhausted, stressed, anxious, or angry?” If the answer is yes, step back and calm down before addressing kids. Getting visibly angry and raising your voice will only leave you and your children feeling tense and unhappy. Wait until you’re calm to re-engage.
Set clear expectations.
It’s unrealistic to assume children will follow through when the expectations are not well-defined. Make sure they know you expect, for example, that video games be turned off when you call them for dinner and that dirty clothes be put in the hamper. Be specific.
Once clear expectations have been set, the next step is to explain what will happen if the child does not follow the rules. For example, failing to turn off video games upon request will result in video games being removed for the following day. Offer no negotiations.
Mean it or don’t say it.
All too often, parents make a request but don’t follow through. If you aren’t ready to enforce a consequence for inaction, then don’t make the request. Naumburg recommends asking yourself, “Am I nagging about something that’s actually important?” If not, just take care of it yourself or let it go.