Continually mouthing the same appeal or threat, whether changing your words a little or a lot, does little to gain a child’s attention or cooperation.

If I had to award a prize for the most futile parenting practice, I would surely present it to nagging. Indeed, nagging may be the single most pervasive masquerade of discipline. In its popular sense, to nag means to ask or tell a youngster repeatedly to do something — a chore, homework, a “thank you” to Aunt Ida for the horsehair pillowcase. In our context, however, nagging is defined more broadly. Nagging is any repetition of words made in the name of discipline, be it a request, command, warning, or injunction. You can nag a youngster to begin something (“Arnold, eat your brussels sprouts”), end something (“Arnold, stop jamming your brussels sprouts under the tablecloth”), or continue something (“Arnold, two more bites of sprouts and it’ll be over”). Just how many repetitions constitute nagging is hard to say. Are two sufficient? How about five? The answer varies from parent to parent. But in addition to mere repetition, two other features characterize true nagging. The first is a gradual crescendo in voice volume with each reiteration. The second is a rise in parental agitation.

As you may fast be surmising, I consider nagging highly hazardous to your parental mental health. And the hazards are many.

Nagging is counterproductive. With nagging, the more you talk, the less you get listened to. Continually mouthing the same appeal or threat, whether changing your words a little or a lot, does little to gain a child’s attention or cooperation. It only trains him to tune out more of what you say. Just as those who live near a superhighway grow deaf to the noise of the passing vehicles, children who live near nagging parents grow deaf to the noise of the passing words.

Nagging is even more fruitless when done from a distance. The farther your voice from your child’s ears, the less likely it will be heeded. A simple formula shows this relationship: I = n X d. The degree of being ignored (I) is equal to the number of requests made (n) multiplied by the distance at which the requests are made (d). Also boosting the degree of being ignored is the “unseen” factor. This refers to the fact that many nagging words have no face attached to them. They come from a parent who is out of sight — around corners, down stairs, through far-off windows. Words without a face are that much easier to ignore. Therefore, if you nag from across two backyards, from across the house, or even from across the room, your chances of being disregarded rise dramatically. Distance is the great nullifier of a parent’s words.

Nagging is exhausting. It saps you of much parental energy, energy you could use in more enjoyable pursuits with your children. Consistently, I notice that those classroom teachers most drained at the school day’s end are those who for six hours have sustained a steady stream of pleas, orders, and warnings, few of which are followed by any consequences, only by the teacher’s paraphrases of the previous directives. Far more effort is demanded to intrude verbally and unrelentingly upon a youngster’s behavior than to decide which behaviors warrant attention and then to take action.

Nagging is dangerous. More often than not, nagging not only entails repetition, it also provokes an unpleasant surge in emotional tension. Like the feedback caused by placing a microphone too near its speaker, nagging words typically increase in volume and pitch and culminate in a verbal explosion. Nagging greatly increases the risk that when you finally do act, you will act in exasperation and anger, saying and doing much that is not meant nor relevant to the issue at hand. This nagging-anger feedback loop is so treacherous that we will devote an entire upcoming section to it.

Nagging is deceptive. It is, as I said above, the masquerade of discipline. You literally talk yourself into believing you are inspiring self-discipline and responsibility, when in reality no such lessons are occurring. Nagging creates the impression that you are forever disciplining. But it is authority founded only upon words, and if the words fail, so too does the authority. Whereas discipline means putting action where your mouth is when necessary, nagging means putting only more words where your mouth is.

Nagging is a destroyer. It wears away your child’s respect for your authority. In a sense, nagging is pleading with your youngster to listen to you. It demonstrates to her that your ability to set guidelines depends solely upon her choosing to listen to them or not.

Lastly, nagging is a habit. It is a practice that can insidiously become second nature, evolving into your dominant mode of discipline. Almost always, the amount of nagging done is underestimated. I recall visiting with a friend whose little girl came upstairs from the family room to ask if she could have some ice cream. The dialogue went something like this:

Gina: Mom, can I have more ice cream?
Mom: No, Gina, you had some after supper. It’s almost time for bed.
Gina. Please, I’ll just get a little bit.
Mom: Gina, you know you never eat just a little bit of ice cream. I’m visiting now. Go downstairs to watch TV.
Gina: John (a visiting neighbor boy) wants more ice cream, too.
Mom: He had some after dinner, too. Now, hurry, you’re missing your show.
Gina: But I’m hungry.
Mom: It’s only fifteen minutes to bedtime and both you and John had snacks. Now go downstairs this minute.
Gina: That was only crackers and peanut butter. We want something cold.
Mom: Gina, I’m getting angry. I’m not telling you again to go downstairs.

The dialogue wore on like this for a few more minutes, and Mom did in fact tell Gina again, and again, to go downstairs, until Gina finally stomped away, out of arguments for the moment. At that point I couldn’t resist asking if I could offer an observation, something I’m cautious about doing outside the office since psychologists can bring out the paranoia in people without even saying anything. Since my friend wanted my input, I asked, “Stephanie, how many times do you think you told Gina is some way or another that she couldn’t have more ice cream and to go back downstairs?” Sheepishly, Stephanie said probably more than she realized, maybe five or six times. The actual tally was twelve; I had counted. (We psychologists do things like that; no wonder we bring out the paranoia in people!) But the story doesn’t end there. About a half hour later, Gina returned, requesting an extension of bedtime. Stephanie, still reeling from her twelve rounds of verbal sparring, assertively told Gina that she had already stayed up past her usual bedtime and that it was time to call it a day. Then she proceeded to tell her basically the same thing ten more times as Gina argued her cause. Needless to say, I kept my second tally in my head.

It is painfully easy to slip into a pattern of doing little but rewording your original decision, maybe altering your reasoning a bit here and there, but nevertheless embarking upon the same tiresome trek nearly every time your wishes collide with your youngster’s. Without doubt, nagging is one tenacious habit, hard to break. But it is breakable.

Dr. Ray Guarendi is a father of 10, clinical psychologist, author, public speaker and radio host. His radio show, “The Doctor Is In, can be heard weekdays. His latest book is Marriage: Small Steps, Big Rewards. Visit Dr. Ray’s website at:

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