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Oregon Family Magazine

Nagging: Our Least Glamorous Job

04/29/2013 ● By Sandy Kauten

It’s noon on a Monday and a teenage girl lies asleep in bed. The bed is surrounded by mounds of dirty clothes that have risen up around it until they are almost level with the mattress.

A languid movement pushes a half-empty bottle of pink lemonade off the bed and onto the laundry. Glugging quietly, the bottle empties. But the old homework papers way down near the floorboards are in no danger. The layers of laundry can absorb 8 or 9 ounces of lemonade no problem. Her retainer, an uncomfortable wire device designed to preserve the orthodontist’s costly handiwork, lies unused among crumpled tissues on her night-table. Overnight, her incisors moved a millionth of an inch toward sticking straight forward. Her cell phone vibrates quietly from under a bra, a sweater and a sticky dish containing a spoon and an earring. A text message from the cafeteria: “Where R U?”

The land line’s answering machine has recorded a more official inquiry: “This is the attendance office calling. Marie Epstein is not in school again today. Our child-study team suspects that Marie is insufficiently nagged. I must speak with a parent or guardian. Please call 996-2131 at your earliest possible convenience.”

The un-nagged girl opens her eyes about half-way. She does not move her head but accepts the view as-is – of the ceiling and part of a wall that is decorated with weird pictures cut out of magazines. The degree of illumination on these surfaces tells her all she wants to know about the time of day; the get-out-of-bed nagging that had been scheduled for 6:45 a.m. had not taken place. The eyes close...

This is my little nightmare fantasy. It is a vignette not of what is, but of what could be – if my wife Betsy ever gets tired of nagging. Of course I nag too, but without her conviction and persistence.

As Mother’s Day approaches, let’s pause to acknowledge this least glamorous of parental functions. Sure, the experts say nagging is ineffective and corrosive to the parent/child relationship. But if you augment it every so often with a burst of temper, it does make things happen.

Now, don’t confuse nagging with giving advice. Advice is meant to haunt a child for a lifetime; nagging just keeps the world turning day-to-day – like a stick in the hands of an old-time boy who runs along giving propelling whacks to a rolling hoop.

Because Betsy works outside the home, she isn’t around to nag as often as she’d like. So she phones Marie from her job and leaves messages on her cell phone. Marie sometimes plays them for me. Betsy’s tone is affectionate, yet insistent: “Listen Brainiac, be sure to take your asthma medicine, and remind Dad to take you for your allergy shot at 4. Make a salad for dinner and pick up your room a little. I love you. G’bye.” Brainiac is kind of a pet name Betsy has for Marie, alluding to her tendency to space out and forget things. (It has nothing to do with the super-intelligent villain who was Superman’s foe in the old DC comics.) Once I asked Betsy, “Does Marie obey those orders you phone in from work?”

            “About half the time,” she said. “But sometimes I get the feeling that Marie thinks of me as kind of a harmless crank and tunes me out.”

Out of curiosity I followed up with Marie. Does she resent the messages or what? No, she likes them. But she is indifferent to their content. “I save them up,” she explained, “And when I have a few dozen I dub them onto a disk so I can remember what my life was like when I was 17.”

I said, “Don’t tell Mom; her head would explode.”

Sometimes I wonder how our kids will remember us after we’re gone. When Marie is my age, will a mention of South Dakota remind her of the time we fed peanuts to prairie dogs? Will she blow the dust off an old photo album and show her children the fading pictures from her childhood? Maybe afterward she’ll fit a quaint old disk into an antique CD player and say, “OK kids, listen to this:”

And they’ll hear: “Now, listen Space Case, the lasagna goes into the oven at 5 o’clock so you can eat at 6. The broccoli’s already in the pot, just steam it up. And don’t forget to use your inhaler. I love you. G’bye.” Whereupon little Marie Jr. will tap her own head, right over her tiny ElectroNag cerebral implant, and say, “Gee, Mom, that sounds just like one of your broadcasts!”            Rick can be reached at [email protected].