Care and Feeding

My Kids Are Turning Me Into a Horrible Nag

I hate asking them repeatedly to do things, but they never listen!

A dad lectures a teen boy holding a dish with food on it
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by monkeybusinessimages/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

How do I not become a nag? I feel like a huge percentage of my interactions with my kids are asking the same questions over and over and over—have you brushed your hair today? Have you cleared the table I’ve asked you 45 times to clear? Have you finished your assignments? Really? If I check them, will they be done?

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I love spending time with my kids. I want to spend my time with them in positive ways, but also … the same things have to actually get done from day to day so they’re not purely feral children living in a trash heap. I’ve tried the logical conversations, which go in one ear and out the other, and we’re right back at asking 14 times a day. We don’t ask them to do a lot—a few simple household chores and basic personal upkeep—but it feels like every single ask turns into a several-day campaign of nagging. They’re really great kids, and there’s no outright defiance or intentional stonewalling, just … perpetual not-doing. How do we have these conversations in a way that the few simple things don’t become the bulk of our interactions?

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—No-Nag in North Texas

Dear No-Nag,

You don’t sound like a major nag to me, so much as a parent whose kids still need a lot of guidance. Honestly, I know it’s annoying to have to remind them of everything, but there’s a lot going on in their still-developing brains and sometimes they just forget things. Even really important things! (Occasionally I have to remind my kids to drink water, even though they literally need it to stay alive?)

Anyway, I’m happy to be able to reassure you that this is super typical and fine, but I’m afraid that also means there is no magic solution here. You want to pick your battles—to steal a line from one of my favorite teachers: What’s essential, what’s important, and what’s nice to have? Obviously you don’t want to spend all your time asking or reminding your children to do all of the things, so maybe think about which things can just … not get done all the time?

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Whenever there’s a particular task we really want or need our kids to get, we home in on it for a week or so. Sometimes it helps it stick if they’re focusing on one crucial thing for a while, instead of getting a constant stream of to-dos of varying importance. A pandemic seems like an ideal time to focus on whatever feels most necessary and coast on the rest, which is why I don’t do laundry until I run out of soft pants. Your kids aren’t raised yet—they’re going to get better at all (or at least some!) of this! It’s just going to take some more time.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My grandmother and mother are so overbearing. I have two boys, both on the spectrum. The little one is nonverbal and isn’t potty training yet, and he’s too scared to try. So we’ve been slowly working up to it at home. Both my husband and I work, so my family babysits sometimes. They insist on trying to force my 4-year-old to talk and use the potty, and I’ve been told by my twin brother recently they’ve been threatening to spank him for using his pull-ups. It seems they think that autism is fake and that my husband and I are bad parents—this is coming from people who treat my youngest sister (age 17) like an infant because she is also on the spectrum and nonverbal, and constantly make her feel different from everyone. My boys have been reluctant to go because of how they make them feel, but Grandma especially pressures me into visiting anyway. How do I get it through their heads that they are not the parents? Or am I just overreacting?

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—Overprotective Mom

Dear OM,

You are not overreacting. You don’t need to focus your energy on changing your relatives’ minds, or on convincing them that autism is real or that they are not your kids’ parents. You need to make sure they don’t have any more opportunities to be with your children unsupervised. You wrote in part because you know something is wrong—pay attention to that instinct! It is abusive to try to “force” a nonverbal autistic child to speak, or to use the threat of physical punishment to try to make any child do something they cannot do. The behavior is so abhorrent it hardly seems worth mentioning that it also won’t work, but of course it won’t—it is bound to undermine any potty training or communication efforts you have underway at home. And it amounts to targeting and punishing your child because of his disability.

Do not under any circumstances allow your mother and grandmother to continue as babysitters. Your kids’ reluctance to spend time with them may be—especially in the case of your nonspeaking child—one of the only ways they have to let you know that something is really wrong. I know it’s incredibly hard to find affordable child care, and your relatives will probably tell you that you’re hurting them by not allowing them to babysit, but remember—they are the ones who violated the trust you placed in them by not providing a safe and nurturing environment for your autistic kids. That’s a deal breaker. Given the choice between anyone else’s feelings and your kids’ safety, you have to pick your kids every time.

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If your mother and grandmother have threatened your 4-year-old for not speaking or being potty trained, I honestly worry about how they might treat a nonverbal autistic 17-year-old. You’ve noted that they also single her out, “constantly make her feel different from everyone,” and infantilize her. I consulted Zoe Gross, director of operations at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, who recommends that you extend your support to your sister—“including looking for communication supports” that could help her report any potential abuse or other harmful behavior. Remember that not all abuse is physical; verbal and emotional abuse, which often goes unnoticed or unreported, causes serious and lasting harm as well. (You might find this Autism and Safety Toolkit: Ways for Family Members to Support the Safety of Autistic People helpful; there’s a section called “How to Help Autistic People Stay Free from Abuse and Neglect,” which begins on Page 13.) Gross also recommends discouraging your mother and grandmother from pursuing guardianship for your sister—who is now nearly an adult—as that could keep her in a vulnerable or unsafe situation for the rest of her life. She adds that your sister should be given opportunities “to learn life skills that could allow her to live apart from her family, with support if necessary,” and says that you could look into supported decision-making—an alternative to guardianship that would allow your sister to receive support while maintaining her legal rights.

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I know this is an awful situation, and that it won’t be easy to do what must be done. Please know that I wouldn’t raise such upsetting possibilities if I weren’t genuinely concerned for the people in your family. I also have an autistic child, and I’m not telling you anything I wouldn’t want someone else to tell me if I were in your position. Depending on what’s happened, your sister and/or your own kids might need more professional intervention and support; for sure, you need to look more closely into how they’ve all been treated while with your relatives.
Perhaps your husband and/or your twin brother will be willing to assist you in this—your brother made a point to tell you about your mother and grandmother threatening your son, so perhaps he was trying to raise a red flag? In any case: Put an immediate stop to the babysitting, and do everything you can to help empower your sister and your kids to recognize and report abusive or harmful treatment and advocate for themselves as much as possible.

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• If you missed Tuesday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I have an almost 3-year-old son, and he’s the joy and love of our lives. But it hasn’t been easy—after a complicated birth, he still has persistent health issues, though they’re not life-threatening. I really want a sibling for him. He’s a very social child and he loves being around other children. I grew up an only child and always longed for a brother or a sister, so perhaps I want to fulfill that dream through him.

My husband is terrified of having another child because of the difficult birth we had—our son almost didn’t make it, we were in the NICU for months after, and we still have PTSD from this time. I think I would like to adopt or give birth, but I am an older mother, so time to give birth is running out, and I am also afraid of having another child with special needs and the physical and emotional turmoil that follows. My husband doesn’t want a second child for the same reasons, and is definitely not in favor of fostering or adoption. I just keep thinking about a sibling for my son—and also about a child out there all alone in the world, when we can offer a home—and the idea won’t go away. I know if I push hard my husband will over time give in, but I would hate to commit him to an idea he doesn’t support and bind him to many years of caring for another human being. At the same time, I can’t rest knowing that we have the love and the means to raise another child, and we would all benefit from an addition to our family.

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—Wishing for a Second Miracle

Dear Wishing,

The PTSD from your difficult birth is so understandable, and I get really wanting a second child and wanting your first to have a sibling. But if your primary motivation is to give your son a sibling, I don’t think that’s enough, especially given all the other fears and factors at play here. Ideally, you’d want that child for that child’s sake, not to make another child a big sibling or fill an imagined hole in anyone else’s life.

I also don’t think you should try to steamroll your husband into accepting adoption if he’s “definitely not in favor” of it. Adopting just isn’t something you should push someone else into. Even if he eventually gave in for your sake, who knows what kind of problems that could cause within your marriage? And it would be deeply unfair to your adopted child if they had one parent who actively did not want them. Your husband might come around and love and be a good father to that child, but honestly? He might not, at least not fully. Adoption is truly not for everyone; I say this as an adoptee.

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The fact is that whether another child is adopted by or born to you, they could wind up having a disability. Many children are born or become disabled; many children available for adoption are disabled; many children available for adoption have also experienced trauma of one kind or another, and may have needs arising from that. Every child will have their own distinct needs, which you cannot fully anticipate ahead of time. If you and your husband are both afraid and overwhelmed, still dealing with the aftermath from your first birth, and unable to accept the uncontrollable unknown-ness of having or adopting a second right now, I think those are important feelings to pay attention to and continue discussing together—perhaps you could also seek counseling if you feel you need more professional support in order to do so. For now, I would focus on acknowledging and dealing with these feelings and the fears you both have, instead of trying to convince your husband to go ahead and have or adopt a second kid he’s just not ready for.

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Slate is looking to interview parents and children together—young parents and older ones, younger kids and adult children—for an upcoming project. To participate, send us an email at pandemicparentingproject@slate.com with a few words about your family.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a 17-year-old who, like many youth, is suffering during COVID social restrictions.  She got her license, was enjoying the freedom that brings, and made a lot of friends, all while continuing to be at the top of her class and just a great human being. Now these freedoms are stripped away, at a time when she is biologically designed to be social and take risks.

The hardest part, though, has been that other parents aren’t putting the same restrictions on social gatherings that I have. I ask her to not be indoors or in a car without a mask. I encourage outdoor gatherings, but we live in the mountains, so it is quite cold, making outdoor socializing less desirable. I encourage her to go skiing, sledding, and ice-skating with friends, which she does, but she is frequently invited to indoor gatherings and sleepovers, which she turns down. Other parents have flat-out told me that they are not putting restrictions in place because they feel their child’s mental health is at risk. I understand that (my daughter is depressed), but I think it sends the wrong message to teens not to act responsibly. If all of her friends aren’t being COVID-safe, I can’t expect her to cut off all social activity. But considering that her friends are not even trying, even a limited interaction is a big exposure.

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We have always had a close relationship, but that has deteriorated greatly. In her mind, I am the source of her depression. I don’t want to ruin the last six months I have with my daughter living under the same roof. What should I do?

—Unsure Mountain Mom

Dear UMM,

You should keep doing what you’re already doing: keeping your family and community safe, and encouraging your daughter to do the same. I know it’s hard, especially in the middle of our bleak COVID winter. It’s also not fair that doing the right thing is affecting your relationship with your daughter. But it’s still the right thing to do.

It makes total sense that your 17-year-old would feel depressed—we know the pandemic has been hard on many people’s mental health. If you’re seriously worried about her, you can encourage her to share with you and also perhaps help her find a good therapist who will see her virtually. Be available to her whenever she wants or needs to talk, even (especially) if what she’s expressing are feelings of sadness or anger or frustration. Often, when our loved ones are struggling, we want to get them through it as fast as we can—we have a tendency to kind of hurry them through their feelings by saying things like “Try to focus on other things” or “This will be over soon” (I’m not saying this is what you’re doing, just that you would hardly be alone if you were! I catch myself doing this all the time, in spite of myself). But sometimes what we really need, and what our kids need, is to just acknowledge that something hard is hard—that we cannot do anything more than we’re already doing to address it, and we have a right to feel the way we do about it.

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It might help your daughter to know that you really see and recognize her many disappointments this year, that you share her feelings about the nightmare we’re all living through. Being honest and talking about where you both are and how you truly feel might even bring you closer, in addition to releasing some built-up tension. It’s OK to be frustrated and sad and worried together, with our kids—to feel our losses, big and small, and mourn them together. Sometimes, that’s all we can do.

—Nicole

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