Nagging vs. Helping

By Sarah Fitz-Claridge

Originally posted on the Beginning of Infinity List, January 3, 2012

[This post took place in context of an exchange about the risk of children falling down stairs while playing on them. For an earlier post in the series, see Risks]

A poster wrote:

I see now. I should have only persuaded her by saying that she should be more careful on the stairs so that she doesn't fall next time because falling can hurt; leaving the decision to her. Its basically the same as I was doing but without the coercion. And each time she plays unsafely on the stairs I can just remind her, 'Oh looks like you're playing unsafe on the stairs again so you might get hurt.' The reminder serves to help her create a habit of thinking about safety.

The trouble is, when you are doing all this persuading and "reminding" and observing and commenting on what they are doing, it is not really taking them seriously as autonomous persons. You wouldn't do that to a close friend, would you? When an adult does this to another adult, it is called "nagging" -- people find it annoying to be "reminded" in this way. Yes, it is difficult, when we see a loved one doing something we fear is dangerous, not to keep trying to help by repeatedly warning them of the dangers, making comments about what we think we have observed or are observing, and reminding them that they once 'agreed' not to do that dangerous thing.

We think that they wouldn't do those things if they knew enough, or if they were rational enough. So we conclude that we need to try to get them to act differently.

This is a mistake. Tell the person your concerns once, to be sure there is no lack of knowledge, no more. Explain once, not repeatedly. Say more only when you have more to say.

It is not for us to instill "habits" or anything else in our children. Apart from the fact that the whole idea of "habits" is deeply problematic (where is the rational thought and creativity in a habit?) your paragraph above still seems to assume that parents should be in control, making sure that their children do X not Y. It is not just the rules that are
coercive, it is this whole way of thinking about the children. TCS is not about "having" children do X, or "reminding" them to do X. Those assume that we are in control. It is not about "letting" the children do Y: that assumes we are in control too, but that we are trying to be nice about it. TCS not about the parent being in control of the child's life but being "nice" in that control, it is about the child himself being in control of his own life.

It is not that parents shouldn't help their children. It is not that parents mustn't give their children the benefit of their wisdom. It is not that parents have no responsibility to their children. Parents have huge responsibility to their children; they should indeed help their children in countless ways; and they should indeed give their children the benefit of their wisdom to the extent that the child is interested and wants to hear about it. But none of that implies that parents should be in charge and "make sure the right thing happens". Adults can make all kinds of mistakes, and we don't conclude that it would be right for us to stop them, or that it would be right for us to "have them" do X or "let" them do Y. Such
ideas suggest a view of people that is inimical to their autonomy and not compatible with taking them seriously.

In a TCS home, the parent isn't wondering how to get the child to do what the parent thinks is best, he is instead devoting his creativity to helping the child get even more out of the thing. The child likes jumping off the bunk bed? Install mattresses on the floor. The child likes climbing up the outside of the stair rails? Put mattresses on the floor directly below. Is there a rock-climbing wall nearby that he might like? How can we help him do more climbing, more enjoyable climbing, more interesting climbing, etc, and to be as safe as he wants to be? If he likes climbing, are there other things he might like too? Trampolining? Building a super-high climbing apparatus? Might this child enjoy diving? Acrobatics? tightrope walking, gymnastics, Learning to ski or snowboard? Brazilian jui-jitsu?

Or maybe the child just wants to play on the stairs! Taking him seriously might mean installing a thick, bouncy carpet over a super-shock-absorbing underlay on the stairs and a mattress at the foot of the stairs, and not worrying. With a one-year-old child it might involve sitting quietly on the stairs below the child to catch him when he falls.

Even then, another trouble is that parents who feel the kind of anxiety evident in the quoted paragraph (and who aren't yet respecting the child's autonomy) are likely to be communicating their anxiety loud and clear to the child even if they manage to stop themselves saying anything, and this is likely to be throwing a spanner into the works of the child's rationality, and in such a case the child will want you to desist and go away. Their wanting you to go away is not irrational. Your anxiety is stressful for the child, and being under stress makes mistakes more likely, and it makes it more difficult to learn. And more dangerous.