Care and Feeding

My 16-Year-Old Wants to Drop Out of School and Move to New York

Teen girl wearing a backpack and holding a rolling luggage, seen from the back
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Chinnapong/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My daughter, Olivia, is 16 and has a cousin, Lila, also 16, with whom she’s always been close despite living in different states. Lila was able to take a lot of extra classes while distance- learning and is graduating from high school this June; she is moving this summer to New York for college. Olivia hasn’t been doing well at all with distance learning, even though I hired an in-person tutor for her—she failed three classes last semester and might not graduate on time next year.

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Olivia has now decided, since she thinks she’s a failure at school, that she should quit school and move to New York with Lila. Lila thinks this is a great idea because she doesn’t want to live “by herself” (her college doesn’t have dorms, so she’ll be in an apartment with cohort roommates, with one room to herself). Olivia claims that a part-time job will be enough for her share of food and rent since she’ll be sharing Lila’s room.

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I don’t want to send my 16-year-old across the country to live when she hasn’t even graduated from high school! Honestly, I’m not in favor of Lila going to New York at 16 either, but I understand that she is in a very different place, scholastically and mentally, than Olivia is. I’ve suggested to Olivia that she work harder at school and plan to join Lila next year, but both girls think this is a terrible idea. I’ve suggested that Olivia visit Lila once a month during the school year, since Olivia’s school has a lot of three-day weekends, and Olivia said if she went to visit once, she just wouldn’t come home! I’ve suggested that both girls talk to a school counselor or a therapist but both have refused. Anything I say to Olivia is repeated immediately to Lila, and the two of them are forever hatching plans, determined to get around me. I think I need to talk with Lila and/or her parents, although I’m not particularly close to my brother or sister-in-law. I don’t want to rain on Lila’s parade, but she needs to stop encouraging Olivia to join her next year! Can you offer any advice?

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—Cousin Conundrum

Dear CC,

I certainly can. Tell Olivia she cannot go to New York to live with her cousin. Stop offering conciliations—stop suggesting things. Of course you don’t want to “send” her across the country. So don’t.

And don’t expect Lila to stop asking her. (For that matter, don’t tell Lila what she can or can’t do—that’s not your job.) And leave Lila’s parents out of this! Their daughter is nervous about being in New York on her own, and she’s probably nervous about starting college at 16, even if she’s “ready” (I did, and I was, and I was still nervous about it—and I didn’t travel across the country to do it). Lila will have to work that out, with or without the help of her parents. Both girls will be angry with you for not letting them have their way (a prospect that I imagine makes you miserable, which I understand is why you’re not just putting your foot down)—you will have to work that out, all by yourself. I hated that part of motherhood too, so I’m sympathetic. (I really do know how hard it is to say no to a determined teenager, especially if she’s a good kid who desperately wants to do something she is certain is a good idea, that you know is absolutely not. The handful of times I had to do it were painful.) But sometimes you just have to say no and take the heat. Olivia will get over it, I promise, just like my daughter did.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I grew up in the Deep South. I don’t know if it’s because I did a lot of theater as a teenager or just watched too much TV, but somehow I dodged the strong Southern accent everyone else in my family has.

After living overseas and in the Midwest for most of my adult life, my husband and I decided to move back to the area where I grew up so our children could be raised near my family. My oldest child is in kindergarten and has a fabulous teacher. There’s just one problem: She has a pronounced Southern drawl … and my son, who admires and loves his teacher and spends hours listening to her every day, has started speaking with one as well. I feel torn about this. Part of me thinks it’s adorable (and I also want to preserve his family heritage!), and part of me is concerned about the assumptions people make based on hearing a Southern accent. I’ve had highly intelligent friends who were seen as stupid by people in other parts of the country because of the way they spoke—and I have been told more times than I can count that I “lost” my accent because I am “educated.”

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Should I correct him when he says ain’t or turns a one-syllable word into at least three syllables? Or do I let it go because there are much bigger things to worry about in life right now?

—Dialect Angst

Dear DA,

As a longtime fan of a Southern drawl (I swear, there was at least one boy I fell in love with in my 20s strictly because he had one) who married into a Deep South family—though my husband, like you, is the outlier in his family—and as a writer and English professor, I have strong opinions on this subject. Me, I wouldn’t correct his use of ain’t—a word with a secure place in spoken English—but I’d model usage of are not or aren’t, etc., so that he’s aware of the other possibilities for expressing what he means and is as comfortable with standard English as with dialect. For example:

Adorable Child: I ain’t hungry.
Gentle Mother: You aren’t? Why not?
Adorable Child: He ain’t sharing and he ain’t going to.
Gentle Mother: He isn’t sharing? What makes you think he isn’t going to if you ask him nicely?

And I would leave the accent entirely alone. Not because there are bigger things to worry about in life right now (there are always bigger things to worry about, but that doesn’t and shouldn’t stop us from the important work of raising our children), but because regional accents are a beautiful thing—something to treasure, not to stamp out. And because the way to combat the ignorance of people assuming that someone who speaks with a Southern drawl is “stupid” is not to eliminate the drawl but to prove those ignorant folks wrong. (And to my dear readers who are poised to howl, “Shame on you! Defending ain’t? And you call yourself an English professor?!”: Allow me to refer you to my favorite grammar expert, who is wise on this usage, as on all matters related to grammar.)

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have four adult children between 20 and 30. Three of them are very similar (house, spouse, kids, money, politics) and one of them, “Raj,” is not. His politics, profession of choice, sexuality, and pretty much everything else about him is different from the others. And although I tried to teach the importance of inclusion to my children when they were young, clearly it didn’t stick. The three like-minded siblings are close to one another but not to Raj. They take family vacations together, have play dates with all three sets of their kids, take Christmas photos together, and engage in other exclusionary activities. Some of this is to be expected (Raj doesn’t have kids and doesn’t enjoy spending time with kids), but the three-against-one dynamic seems extreme to me. It makes Raj sad, too—he has confessed as much to me. I’ve tried to bring it up with the other three, but they brush me off or ask me not to get involved.

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I’ve watched this unfold for years now and I’m at my wits’ end. I don’t want to be in the business of regulating my adult children’s relationships, but I worry what will happen as they age and Raj, unlike the others, doesn’t have a family to take care of him. Should I just butt out and hope it resolves itself? Try Zoom family counseling with a therapist? Speak to Raj about it, or to the other three? I’m heartbroken and don’t know what else to do.

—Four’s a Crowd?

Dear FaC,

There is nothing you can do. It’s a pity all four of your adult children aren’t close, but the exclusionary threesome is right: You shouldn’t get involved. If it makes Raj sad, it’s up to him to broach the subject with his siblings (or to talk to a therapist with whom he makes an appointment on his own). And plenty of people don’t have a family to take care of them as they age—they have friends instead. (For that matter, plenty of people with a family have no one to take care of them as they age.) You’re going to have to find a way to let this go—not just by butting out, but also by accepting that it may never “resolve itself.” I know this will be difficult for you (it makes me sad for both you and Raj), but once our children our grown, we must let them live their lives as they see fit.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’ve never been a morning person. But when my wife and I had our son four years ago, I had to become one, of course, for his sake. My wife and I have been taking turns getting up with him on weekend mornings. For the last few months, I am happy to report, he’s been getting better at entertaining himself when he wakes up: He’ll stay in his room and look at books or play with the few toys we have in there, instead of immediately coming to wake us up. My wife, unlike me, gets up as soon as she hears him wake up. That’s her choice, obviously. But recently she made a pointed comment about how I “never get up with him.” I told her that as long as he seems content—that until he makes it clear that he’s hungry/done playing in his room—there was no reason for me to drag myself out of bed on the mornings when it’s my turn to start the day with him. She got further irritated and told me she’s always the one to “handle things.” Which is somewhat true, but also, often enough, unnecessary. For instance, if our son is running and he falls, she immediately goes to him, whereas I give him a moment to see if he actually needs help (and usually he’s fine; he might whimper for a second, if at all, then gets up and goes on about his business). Essentially, she’s always “there,” whereas I tend to let him figure things out for himself, only stepping in if he needs something.

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I don’t criticize her for the way she responds to him. If that’s how she wants to handle things, fine. But I’m not going to handle things the way she does and I resent her criticizing what I do (or don’t do). I should mention that we’re on the same page about the big things—discipline, bedtime routines, potty training when we went through that—so it’s not like we’re constantly sending our son mixed messages. She says it’s not the “mixed messages” that bother her; it’s that she feels unappreciated. And I just can’t wrap my head around this. Of course I appreciate her! I’ve told her so. But what am I supposed to do, thank her for getting up with our son, when she’s the one who takes it upon herself to do it unnecessarily? I’m at a loss here. How should I approach this?

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—Am I Wrong?

Dear AIW,

I’m glad you don’t criticize your wife (out loud) for the way she responds to your son, but you are critical of it, it’s clear (and maybe you’re “right”—maybe she is too quick to swoop in—but that’s not the point in question). She knows you don’t approve. How could she not know? And she doesn’t approve of what you’re doing, either. I don’t see that it matters much which of you comes out and says this. To my mind, it is perfectly OK for the two of you to handle these day-to-day matters in your own way—you are two different people with two different parenting styles and two different personal styles—but you are going to have stop judging each other. That’s part one of my advice: accept that you aren’t exactly the same sort of parents, and be glad that your child gets to reap the benefits of two different sets of instincts.

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Part two is another thing altogether. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that your wife is exhausted, stretched too thin, and (because she is a different sort of person than you are, who experiences things differently) deeply stressed. She may be feeling insecure; certainly she’s anxious. Telling her you appreciate her is easy (and words of affirmation may just not be her “love language”). Being appreciative, and showing it, in whatever ways are meaningful to her (stop and think about this: she’s your partner, you know her—what would make her feel properly appreciated?), is another. If the person you love tells you she feels unappreciated, don’t complain about it. Do something about it.

—Michelle

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