Teens, Teach Your Parents to Stop Nagging
© 2002 Paul W. Schenk, Psy.D.
"Donít forget to empty the wastebaskets." "Is your homework
done?" "What time will you be home?" Like fingernails scraping
across a chalkboard, these sentences and their numerous clones grate on the ears
of teenagers across the country thousands of times every day. If you are like
most teenagers, you probably think that the only escape is to graduate from high
school and move away. Based on your experience, that conclusion may certainly
seem quite logical. But would you be open to the possibility that, though
logical, that conclusion might just be wrong? No, Iím not suggesting you take
your parents for family therapy. I wonít even challenge the commonly held
belief among teenagers that parents are uneducable. Iím proposing something
much more devious and sneaky.
One of the inherent problems about parents is that they have had years to
develop some bad habits in the ways that they use language. Many of these they
picked up from their own parents, a kind of environmental heredity which
similarly puts you at risk. You have an opportunity to make it harder for your
own children to someday complain that you are nagging them a lot. Itís like
the sign I once saw in a national park which read, "Please leave your
campsite cleaner than you found it." I remember being impressed. There was
no effort to place any blame. No one was offering excuses. Nor was I being asked
to clean up the entire mess all by myself. Parents and future parents are
challenged to accept a similar invitation, "Please leave your family
healthier than you found it." No blaming, no excuses, and no one expects
you to do a perfect job. However, because very few high schools teach parenting,
most of us acquired what we know through on-the-job training. Since the same is
likely to be true for you, I want to offer you some simple strategies you can
use to stop at least three kinds of nagging. If youíll practice them on your
own parents, youíll avoid acquiring some of their unintentional bad habits
where nagging is concerned. Before you can begin effectively using the
strategies in this article, though, letís make sure youíve already
confronted a couple of basic truths about family life. In my work with teenagers
over the last 25 years, those who understood these truths quickly used the
strategies to teach their parents how to stop nagging. (Well, most of the time!)
Very few of those who didnít understand what Iím about to say were even
willing to experiment with the strategies.
In order for you to succeed, it will be helpful to understand two things
about the illusion of control. At its best, parenting is a benevolent
dictatorship. Most people think that dictators have all the power. In a sense
they do, but it is only an agreed upon illusion. In your history class you may
have studied about a man named Manuel Noriega, the former dictator of Panama.
For years, no one could touch him. Then suddenly, the people of his country grew
tired of how he was exercising his power. Less than a week later he left the
country. Parenting works because children allow their parents to have the
illusion of control. One 15-year-old girl demonstrated this with a delightful
twist. One evening she got a phone call from a classmate who asked her to go out
on a date. Covering the mouthpiece to the phone she whispered to her mother,
"Mom, tell me I canít go out Friday night." Though very puzzled, her
mother did as she was asked. Then the girl told her suitor, "Sorry, Frank,
I canít go. Mom wonít let me."
The discovery that control is an illusion can be quite unsettling for both
parents and teenagers. I once worked with the family of a 14-year-old boy whoís
father had chronically used a belt as his single tool for discipline. One day
when the father announced another impending whipping, his son unexpectedly told
him, "No, you wonít." As the father looked up into his sonís eyes,
he realized what his son had just said was true. He knew any attempt on his part
to use the belt on his son would result in a physical fight. In an instant, both
of them had discovered the illusion of control and neither new quite what to do
In many families with teenagers, a subtle power struggle develops over
control. On one side, your parents have the illusion of control over your
freedom. On the other side, you have the illusion of control over information
and compliance. It is very difficult for nagging to occur in the absence of this
power struggle. This leads me to the other thing it will be important for you to
understand in order to succeed in this quest. Young children are compliant: they
do what their parents tell them to do. The rebellious child does the opposite of
what his parents want. You may have watched this play out when your mother was
feeding one of your younger siblings. She got him to eat by playfully telling
him to do the opposite, "Donít you eat those carrots." The mother of
a rebellious 17-year-old once complained to me that he never came home before
his curfew. To see if he had confused independence with rebellion, I had her
simply tell him each day for a week, "Tonight, donít come home before 11
oíclock." Every night he was home before 11! You see, true independence
means doing what you want, even when itís what your parents (or your boss)
wants. The problem is, you canít prove to your friends that you arenít just
being compliant when you choose to do the same thing your parents want.
Only you know the truth. (Hint: Youíll know youíre achieving real
independence when thatís enough.)
Now letís deal with the three kinds of nagging that began this article:
Nagging about chores:
If your parents are like mine were, when they ask
you to do a chore they probably forget to include a deadline. Then they
remind/nag you when you donít get it done by their unspoken deadline. Hereís
a devious way to squelch this kind of nagging. When you are given the chore,
agree on a specific deadline for completing it. If your parents say anything
else about the chore before the deadline, they have to do the chore instead of
you. This includes a prohibition against subtle hints like, "Itís almost
six oíclock. I hope your chores are done." In exchange, if you donít
get it done by the deadline, your parents have your permission to interrupt
whatever you are doing while you go take care of the chore. Until they catch on,
you can probably get them to do the chore a number of days by carefully
monitoring the time and waiting until the last minute before you do the chore.
Be sure, though, to tell your parents immediately after you do it. For example,
if you wait several hours before telling them you emptied the wastebaskets, it
may be hard to convince them that you really did.
Nagging about homework:
Putting an end to this one involves dealing with
the control of information. Your parents probably think that you donít yet
know how to budget your time well. This is complicated by the fact that you
probably donít tell them how much homework you have, how long you think it
will take to do it, and when you plan to get it done. On your way home from
school, take a few minutes to plan when you will do your homework. Volunteer
this information, in detail, to your parents before they can
ask. Be sure to include your interim plans for longer-term projects that wonít
be due for a few weeks. Then, whenever you take a study break, take ten seconds
to update them on your progress. Itís a simple truth: parents canít nag for
information which they already have.
Nagging about outside activities:
When my son, Michael, was approaching
adolescence, I taught him about "the 12 questions." These are the
questions that your parents probably ask you when you want permission to go out
with friends. I explained to Michael the power of him being able to answer the
questions before his mother or I could ask them. Long before he would be
old enough to ask us for the keys to the car, he would have been teaching us
that he was learning to anticipate, to consider how his plans might impact
others, and to develop contingency plans. A quick learner, he already knew that
we would not give him an answer to his question about going out with friends
until he could provide us with the answers to our questions. Take a minute to
notice how many of the 12 questions you already know your parents will ask you,
and then read the list below:
Michael quickly took this strategy one important step farther. With a busy
social life, he got tired of writing down all this information each time he was
going out. He used the computer to create and store a one-page list of the
names, addresses, and phone numbers of his friends and their parents. Then he
posted it on the back of a cabinet door in the kitchen. Periodically, he adds a
new person to the list and reprints it.
Your peers routinely tell me that when they first began to use this
nagging-stopping strategy on their parents, their parents developed a dazed look
on their faces. Many were rendered speechless because they couldnít engage in
the old habit of sequentially asking the 12 questions. Volunteering the
information has another, more subtle, effect. Tired parents have a tendency to
say "no" to requests to reduce a sense of feeling overwhelmed. When
you present everything your parents want to know in an organized fashion before
asking them to make a decision, I think youíll find they are much more
inclined to grant your request.
Initiating all three of these strategies at the same time might catch your
parents so completely by surprise that they will suspect you are up to
something. But then again, that might just be part of the fun!
The 12 Questions
- Where are you going?
- Who else is going?
- What time will you be leaving?
- What time will you be back?
- Who is driving you there?
- Who is bringing you home?
- How much money are you asking me to contribute?
- What movie are you planning to see?
- What is the movieís rating?
For movies, school events and the like:
- If you will be going anywhere afterwards, where will you be going?
For gatherings at a friendís home:
- Will his/her parents be there to supervise?
- What are the parentsí names, address, and phone number?