Dear Prudence

The Old College Sigh

My son is floundering at school. Should I withhold his tuition?

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

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Dear Prudence,
My son is a sophomore at an elite liberal arts college. College started out well, but he has been on a downward trajectory caused mostly by lack of sleep, poor time management, and bad decision-making. (Drugs and alcohol don’t play into this.) He finished this semester with two incompletes. Although he says that he intends to make changes, my son has shown little to no inclination to do anything to improve. He performed superbly in a rigorous high school program, but he sees the students around him sleeping little and being completely overcommitted. My son requires more time to complete his assignments, needs plenty of sleep, and becomes anxious when the work piles up. He has the maturity of a middle-schooler and my wife and I are at our wit’s end. We don’t want to continue funding his college education until he decides to make some meaningful changes. Our son is adamantly opposed to taking a leave of absence, yet his performance has degenerated despite numerous warnings and ultimatums. We think he should get a job, perhaps take a class or two at a local college, and mature a bit before continuing his education. We don’t think he belongs at college, but we don’t think we can survive with a belligerent 19-year-old at home. What are your thoughts?

—To Yank from College or Not?

Dear Yank,
Before you impose a plan on your son, you need to have a better idea of the cause of this slide. He’s at the age when many significant mental disorders first emerge. Perhaps his sleeplessness and inability to complete his work are signs of something that needs diagnosis and treatment. Your son is also at the age when young people who have been carefully managed by their parents are set loose to make their own decisions, which unsurprisingly can be bad ones. I have the sense that you and your wife closely monitored your son while he was at home—your supervision may even have been key to his getting into a competitive school. But now that’s he’s there, he lacks internal discipline and might be intimidated by his dazzling classmates. Your son has messed up and wasted a bundle of money, but surely he’s as miserable as you are about this spiral. So you need to have some calm, understanding discussions about what’s going on. It’s possible a job and classes at a less demanding school could be the break he needs; it might also make him feel like more of a failure. He says he wants to stay in his college, but that might not be possible if he continues to bomb out of classes. Ask him if he is willing for the three of you to meet with an administrator (by Skype if necessary) to come up with a plan to help him turn things around. You say your son lacks maturity, but imposing your solution on him against his will is likely to provoke rebellion rather than reflection. And when you talk to him about what’s going on, you and your wife should tell him about the times in your lives when you each were at sea, and how you managed to get back to shore.


Dear Prudence,
I am a thirtysomething female engineer who cannot stop laughing. Whenever I have a work conversation or an interview I chuckle throughout the conversation no matter the topic. This is harming my work relationships because people feel I am not taking them seriously. My dad is the same way. I would say it is partially nervousness except that I also do it with close loved ones. I have had a work discussion go like this: “Are you laughing because you think it’s funny that my land rights are being litigated?” And I reply: “No, I am laughing because it is so terrible.” Is there a short-term behavioral therapy that might help or something easy that could help in work situations? I don’t want to erase this feature; I like laughing and I think my friends understand.

—Enthusiastic Engineer

Dear Enthusiastic,
It is impossible to make the case that “Did you hear the one about the land rights litigation?” is a knee-slapper. You’re right you have an issue that indeed needs addressing. Occasionally I hear from people who can’t control their tears at work (and stop writing to me Speaker Boehner!). When someone cries on the job inappropriately, it makes the other person feel uncomfortable and embarrassed. When someone laughs on the job inappropriately, it makes the other person feel annoyed and mocked. This is not the impression you want to leave with colleagues and clients. Given your father’s similar tendencies, you likely have a double-whammy of nature and nurture acting on you, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get this habit under control. Since you are aware of your tendency, focus on redirecting it. When you feel one of these chuckles rising, instead of letting it out, start squeezing your thighs and gluteus. This will be undetectable and have benefits for your muscle tone. If that doesn’t work, then seek out the services of a cognitive therapist who will help you with a program to tame this habit. Your friends may be understanding of your indiscriminate solo giggling, but think how much more delightful it will be if going forward, most of your laughter is followed by the sound of others joining in.

Dear Prudence,
Two years ago, my mom was in a tragic accident on her way to work. She fell down the stairs at a train station and suffered a traumatic brain injury. She entered a coma while in the hospital and is now in a persistent vegetative state. Her doctors say there is no hope for recovery. Unfortunately, my mother did not discuss end-of-life treatment options with anyone, and my father refuses to consider the withdrawal of her feeding tube. Two years later, I have worked through most of my grief and consider my mother to have died shortly after her accident. But I find myself unable to address the issue of my mother with new friends. I am also not interested in discussing the particulars of her prognosis or my family’s conflicts in this matter, and legally my mother is not dead. Any suggestions on how I talk briefly about my mother’s current state without having to leave things open for discussion?

—Still Loves Mom

Dear Still,
Here’s a New Year’s resolution for everyone: Have that discussion with loved ones about your final wishes. It’s hard to believe that given the choice anyone would want to be kept in the endless limbo you describe. I hope that someday soon you will be able to reopen with your father the subject of letting your mother go, freeing her, as well as the rest of you. As for your question, I once had a hairdresser in the same situation. Her father had been struck by lightning on the golf course several years before and had been in a vegetative state ever since. This came up during the kind of casual conversation you dread. I admired the way she told the story in a few sentences. She explained his accident, said he was in a nursing facility, that there was no chance of recovery, but that her mother wanted to keep him alive. I expressed my condolences, and we moved on. You could tell new friends your mother died, but I get the sense that you wouldn’t feel quite right about that. Instead, you can tell this sad story succinctly, including the fact that you feel you lost her that day. Then you make the next conversational move. If you wish to end the topic, say, “I know you weren’t expecting that, so let’s talk about something else,” while having that something else in mind. You will be conveying that you’re able to mention your mother without terrible distress, but that her situation is something you talk about only with those closest to you.


Dear Prudence,
I have two wonderful friends whom I have known for a number of years. Our kids went to school together and we have been like family. But things changed since my friends’ daughters had children. My children have not yet married or had children. The grandmothers now exclude me from almost all social events, and I usually find out afterward when one of them mentions it. When I try to contact them regarding a night out or event that I am planning, I am told that they need to babysit their grandchildren and can’t make it. One told me that I don’t understand because I am not a grandmother. When we do get together, all talk revolves around their grandchildren. Am I right to feel hurt? I truly care for my friends and their children, but they act like they belong to a secret society and are the only members. At this point, I am tired of trying to continue this friendship. Please help.

—Not a Grandmother Yet

Dear Not,
This is something to look forward to: diaper obsession, redux. It’s true that some new parents become so subsumed in their baby’s life that they lose touch with friends who can’t discuss lactation or language acquisition. Usually this settles down as people find that while parenthood is a central thing in life, it’s not the only one. So it’s discouraging to hear about new grandmothers wanting to play this out again decades later and to such a degree that they refuse to socialize with a dear friend just because her children haven’t reproduced. It would be hard to feel anything but excluded and offended: They not only are cutting you out, they have expressly told you that you can’t understand their new phase of life. I suggest bringing this up explicitly. Ask for a brief meet-up during the day that shouldn’t interfere with their granny duties. Let’s hope these two can get free from the nappies long enough to come to brunch at your house or join you somewhere for coffee. Then, at some point during the get-together, say that you understand having grandchildren must be glorious, but you’ve been missing them and would like to be in better touch. Then it’s up to them to put in a better effort. If they can’t even find time to have this conversation, then for your own sake, start socializing with people who don’t suffer from grandmother monomania.


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