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A new study published this week in the Journal of Personality illustrates just how harmful nagging your child can be.

Conducted by Professor Geneviève Mageau of the Université de Montréal’s Department of Psychology, the study focused on 588 musicians and athletes between the ages of six and 38 who practice their hobby at different levels (beginner, intermediate and expert). Mageau used a Likert-type scale to measure how parents support the autonomy of their child and also evaluated the psychological well being of the child regarding their hobby, which in this case was piano, saxophone, skiing or swimming.

Professor Mageau’s conclusion: “The more controlling parents are, the harder it is for the child to have a harmonious passion for their favorite activity.”

The verdict on weight control is very consistent with this result.

To be sure, watching your overweight child cause herself harm through poor food choices or sedentary activity elicits incredibly powerful emotions. All parents naturally aim to get their children to take good care of themselves and to do things in constructive, not destructive, ways. This typically involves nagging, which is a common and miserable part of the lives of weight controllers, and their parents.

Instead of nagging, Wellspring recommends cueing. Cues are words that stimulate or suggest appropriate actions, without insisting on those actions.

In order to even consider this strategy, parents must accept one unavoidable fact: you cannot control your child into successful weight control. The research supports this conclusion. One recent survey of 9-year-olds showed that about 50% spend their own money on snacks and other foods. If 9-year-olds are buying food outside of the home, virtually all teens have or can find the resources to do so. As parents today, you must accept that your young weight controller is the captain of his or her fate in this regard. If you nag and cajole and argue, you’ll only put a greater distance between you and your young weight controller.

To understand the distinction between cueing and nagging, consider the following situation, taken from the lives of one of our students about two months after he left one of our programs. The father has a tendency to work long hours, to promise to come home for dinner, and then fail to show up as promised. The son has developed a considerable amount of resentment and anger about this.

On this day, the father promised to be home by 7:00 to have dinner with his son and wife. Very soon after the dinner hour had come and gone, after the son and his mother had eaten dinner, the son grabbed a large bag of low-fat potato chips and dumped it into a big mixing bowl. He was watching a movie in the living room when his father finally showed up, about an hour later than promised. (As you read, think about how you would handle this situation.

Father: Hey, how are you doing?

Son: I’m okay, I guess.

Father: I’m really sorry that I’m late again. I just couldn’t get away on time.

Son: Yeah.

Father: Didn’t you just have dinner?

Son: Yeah, so what?

Father: Well, I don’t get why you’re eating a giant bowl of potato chips right after eating dinner. That doesn’t seem like part of the Program.

Son: [BLEEP] you, dad! (Son storms out of the room and slams door to his room.)

What happened here? An angry teenager reacted to his father after his father tried using nagging to encourage his son to reduce overeating. Nagging usually doesn’t work, but can prove especially volatile when feelings of anger are bubbling up in the teenager at the time the parent starts to nag.

Consider an alternative, what we call cueing, applied in the same scenario:

Father: Hey, how you doing?

Son: Okay, I guess.

Father: Sorry I’m late again. I just couldn’t get away.

Son: Yeah.

Father: I can see you’re probably angry at me and I can understand that.

Son: Yeah, I really wish you would get home when you said you would.

Father: I am very sorry and you’re right. I really have to concentrate on that, especially when I make a specific commitment. I’m noticing the bowl of potato chips and I assume you’ve just finished eating dinner. I know this is your program, but I just wanted to mention that if you wanted to talk about something, anything, I’m here for the rest of the night.

Son: Yeah, it is my program and my bowl of potato chips. I don’t want to talk right now, but I’ll keep that in mind.

You can see many differences in the outcome when using this cueing procedure instead of nagging. The son didn’t storm off and didn’t explode with additional anger. He may or may not have stopped eating his bowl of potato chips. He may or may not have taken his father’s invitation to talk. However, by doing it this way, the father can help the son see the link between his current eating behavior and his long-term goals. At least this cue has a chance of changing his son’s behavior – if not immediately, then possibly later that evening or the next day. Nagging has virtually no chance, plus some unpleasant and potentially damaging consequences for your relationship with your child.