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Text, Text, Text: Parental Nagging Evolves Electronically

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 6, 2009

As school starts again, there's so much more for a parent to nag about. Homework. Bedtime. Lost hours on Facebook and Xbox. The chores that need to be squeezed in.

But in the age of the digital childhood, Jacky Longwell, 45, mother of three in McLean, often text-messages what she once uttered as her children rushed out the door: Be nice to your brother. Walk the dog. Remember your reading.

"Without that noodgy voice," she points out.

So goes family life at a time when even that most basic of parental prerogatives -- to prod our children, to patiently remind them or flat-out harass them -- has shifted along with technology's advance.

There are changes in how parents nag. In what they nag about. In frequency. Parents know more about flubbed tests and skipped homework because of online grading systems. They know more about social lives because of Facebook and MySpace pages.

"The fact that you have more nagging options is what's good about it -- the plethora of nagging options," says Martha McGrath.

Her friend Suzanne Young, 52, a mother of two in Bethesda, mentions that she once discovered via Montgomery County's online grading system that her middle school-age son "hadn't done diddly squat in his history class."

Once she found out, she assures: "I did nag him."

With his older brother, a high schooler, she and her husband are more text-inclined, thanks to an unlimited text plan and cellphones with full keyboards. Now she can easily tap: Where r u?

Some digitally inspired nagging is an evolution of necessity, parents say, because many teens do not answer phone calls from Mom or Dad, especially in the company of friends. Text allows nagging remotely -- and discreetly.

Take Marcia Malloy. The 58-year-old Leesburg mom of five frequently sends her high school-age daughter texts of just one word:

Update.

Malloy's daughter understands that this means her mother wants to know where she is, who she is with and what her plans are.

When the teen responds, her mother texts back:

Roger.

"My friends always ask me, 'Who is Roger?' " says Nikki Malloy, 17.

At Gaithersburg High School, Principal Christine Handy-Collins says so many parents text students during school hours that she made a point of discouraging the practice at a recent freshman orientation.

When students are caught receiving text messages in violation of school policies, an increasing number, she says, have offered the same defense: "Look, I swear to God -- it was my mom."

In lots of families, dads are in on the nagging, too.

Reginald Black, 46, a Woodbridge father of three sons, checks online grade reports every morning during the school year. "That's the first thing I do when I turn the computer on," he says. "Some days it can make you feel good. Some days it can wreck your whole day."

Black says his sons hear about it when there is a problem. With technology, he concludes, "you nag more, and you are a little bit more precise with your nagging."

E-mail alerts about just-posted grades often go out before dawn in Montgomery County, where Elham Tabassi, 39, finds herself bringing up her middle schooler's latest scores at the breakfast table. A good student, her son mostly receives praise. But when an assignment is missing or a grade is low, the Potomac mother troubleshoots as he eats his Raisin Bran Crunch.

"What happened?" she will ask. Sometimes Tabassi lectures him on how each grade counts, about the importance of turning in every piece of homework.

"Can we talk about it at dinner instead of breakfast?" her son will groan.

Tabassi only wants to give him the extra push he needs to do well, she says. "I don't consider it nagging," Tabassi says. "I just consider it doing my job as a mom."

The trick, says Alice Houk, 47, a mother of two in Gaithersburg, is not to overdo it. She texts both children a few times a day, but, "I realize at some point that I'm like the teacher in the old Peanuts cartoons. Wa wa wa wa wa."

"I just hope that some of it gets through," she adds.

For many in the virtually nagged generation, this has quickly become part of growing up.

Charles Flowers, 17, a senior at St. John's College High School in the District, says his mother reminds him about laundry by text. About being on time to baseball practice. About mowing the lawn.

The tone of her voice can come through, too, with a bit of capitalization:

GET HOME!

Some say technology has made nagging less annoying.

Texts are less emotionally charged and seem to inspire less resistance, less eye-rolling, says Longwell, the McLean mother of three. "It's not as painful for them to hear it by text. It becomes grouped with the friendly communication," she says. "They can't hear the nagging."

Or so she hopes.

One key, she says, is to mingle text-nagging with text-kindness, perhaps asking about a child's day or simply saying hello.

Joe Lanzafama, 52, a father of two in Stafford, has another tech-minded approach. He nags his seventh-grade daughter about cleaning up after herself -- by text, by phone, in person. Recently, he landed on an idea that he thinks might get results.

A text: Take a picture of your room clean and send it to me.

But not all parents have embraced newfangled nagging. Joyce Bouchard, 51, a Fairfax County mother of four, texts her 14-year-old son but says that for a lot of things -- chores, homework -- the old-fashioned way works better.

"Why isn't your bed made?" she will ask. "I told you to do it 20 minutes ago. Why haven't you done it?"

"I am, Mom," her son says. "I am. I am."

Nagging by text, she notes, has risks. "I always think, if you're texting them something and they're with their friends, they are getting a big laugh out of it," she says.

Similarly, Hania Guirguis, 54, a mother of two in Vienna, said she could not possibly convert her nagging into electronic form, even though daughter, Elena, 15, is all about technology.

Guirguis, who calls herself "old school," values the emotion of the spoken word and the facial expressions that go with it. "If I want to nag, I want to talk -- 100 percent," she says. "If I'm going to nag by texting, I'm going to break the thing."

Parents are finding out that they sometimes get what they give, as teenagers appear to have developed a certain skill for reminders of their own.

Debbie Hetmanek's son sometimes peppers her with texts. When he was home in Vienna for the summer, it was: what's for dinner? Or: there's no milk. Or: where did you put my sunglasses? Away at college, it can be: mom pls add 100 to buxx.

She always responds, so he doesn't have to text her twice.

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