Barrow accepts that there is. She makes me feel better by categorizing what I do as "motherly loving" nagging, in which "the origin of the stream of 'Remember to...' sentences is a desire to nurture and be helpful."
There is also "be like me" nagging, she says. Couples who at first revel in their similarities but gradually come to see their differences often try to nag each other back to safe common ground, Barrow explains. Parents also do this to children. From the inside it feels like love—protecting kids from having to learn lessons the hard way, by telling them how you would do things. But from the outside it carries hints of something darker—of trying to mold them into "what a child of mine should be." Children can be guilty of "be like me" nagging, too (ever heard a grown daughter nagging her mother to dress better?), for all the reasons that parents nag children and lovers nag each other.
And then there is what Barrow calls aggressive nagging: the "constant, no-let-up stream of criticism from a frustrated or angry mate who simply cannot be satisfied. This is nagging for self-benefit, not to help someone else. The nagger is in pain and wants you to be in pain, too."
I have enough self-awareness to know I'm not guilty of aggressive nagging, but I am struck by the blurred boundary between Barrow's first two categories: the maternal instinct to guide, and the more problematic instinct to "change you into the person I want you to be." Yes, it is my job as a parent to make sure homework is done, and done responsibly. But my boys are 12 and 15, old enough to keep track of things on their own. Which means that my homework haranguing may be more about my own need to make them as successful in school as I was than it is about their knowledge of math or chemistry.
I am also struck by the realization that what I choose to nag about may have more to do with my irrational fears than with reality. I see my sons eating a bag of potato chips; I fast-forward to obesity and diabetes. They procrastinate over their homework; I see them on the unemployment line.
But what a waste if the effect of all my nudging is the opposite of what I intend—if my message is heard not as "Look at all you can be" but rather "See what you are not?" What a shame if what I do in an attempt to strengthen my sons only weakens them—and their relationship with me.
Which leads to the final, and most crucial, problem with nagging: It simply doesn't work. "You can't nag someone into permanent change," says Charles Goodstein, MD, a psychoanalyst and clinical professor of psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine. Nagging appears to work, he says, because "it will produce a short-term result that looks positive. But in order for that result to recur, the nagging will have to recur." In other words, the very fact that we feel we must nag is itself evidence that nagging doesn't work. If it did, we would say something once and never have to say it again.