Nagging

The best way to make advice stick? Nag incessantly
Shoba Narayan

April 22, 2014 Updated: April 22, 2014 18:18:00

One of the perks of being a parent is that you get to offer advice to your children. One of the problems of being a parent is that you forget how little advice you took from your own parents. This inherent paradox is being played out in countless living rooms and dens in this, one of the peak seasons for parenting advice.

In many parts of the world, students are applying to go to colleges abroad. The prospect of losing their children to the world produces a great deal of anxiety amongst parents. This is certainly true of me. To paraphrase Jack Nicholson, my children make me want to be a better human being. Even better, they lull me into thinking that I am one.

When I nag my children to study hard, stay focused and stop fooling around with the iPad, I can almost believe that I did not indulge in any distractions at their age. Children are great that way. Give them an old-fashioned scolding and you are guaranteed to feel good.

My time is running out though. In a few weeks, my kids will be in the full throes of summer holidays. They will be swimming, cycling and practically teleporting themselves to friends’ homes. I, meanwhile, will chase after them with important life lessons running on auto-loop. Seize the day, I scream. Opportunities are abundant, I extort. Don’t miss the wood for the trees. None of these pithy dictums are particularly relevant, but they make me feel useful.

The self-help section of any library is full of books by people who have figured things out. Why they call it self-help when it is usually other people trying to help you is beyond me. Shouldn’t self-help books be written by the self? A diary or a journal in other words? Instead, we have websites like Lifehacker and 99U devoted entirely to self-improvement. Recently, I read a book called, What I wish I knew when I was 20, written by Tina Seelig, a Stanford University professor. In it, the author lists out insights that would benefit any 20-year-old. Things like “don’t burn your bridges,” and “ask the right questions.” The only problem is that such insights have to be realised after painful failure in order for them to stick.

How do you give advice to your children, and how do you make it stick? It is a dilemma that has been faced by generations of parents, made somehow more poignant by memories of childhoods past; or rather the realisation that you don’t have memories of parental advice given in childhoods past. Except those all-inclusive ones like “Eat your vegetables,” and “Dot your i’s and cross your t’s.” Beyond that, it is probably one happy blur, both for you and for me.

My method of making advice stick is to nag – to keep repeating the same phrase over and over again. This has a rather unfortunate side effect. They stop hearing me after a while. However there is one method that works: self-flagellation. When they see me fail and fall down, my children learn the lessons inherent in that failure. It is like me getting the halo effect when I chastise them.

Last week, I discovered a tear in my coat just as I was rushing out to an important meeting. As I ran around the house, muttering and stitching the tear with a needle and thread, as best as I could, my two daughters who were silently witnessing the scene chorused the girl scout motto that I had been trying to drill into them all summer: “Ma, don’t you know: be prepared.”

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir

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