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Dear Care and Feeding,
My 16-year-old daughter, “Fran,” is enrolled in an internship program at her high school, where, one day a week, she leaves school at 1:30 p.m. and shadows her pediatrician. Fran was initially excited about the program because she wants to be a doctor. Now she wants to quit the internship. A couple of weeks ago, she ran into a friend, “Henrietta,” in the doctor’s office. Fran wasn’t in the room with Henrietta when she saw the doctor, of course, but afterwards she observed that the doctor looked extremely upset. Fran was concerned.
The next day at school, when she saw Henrietta, she said, “I’m not sure what’s going on, but I care about you. Let me know if you need anything.” When Henrietta told her mother this, the mom called the doctor’s office, furious. She accused Fran of snooping into Henrietta’s personal medical information and spreading gossip to other students. (Fran assured me she did neither of those things, and I trust her—she’s a responsible, dependable, honest kid.) The doctor called our home and spoke harshly to Fran. Now Fran refuses to go back to that doctor’s office. My husband and I are at a loss as to where to go from here. I recognize that Fran was in the wrong for saying anything to Henrietta—but I also recognize that her heart was in the right place and that this is the sort of professional mistake that teens need to make in order to learn and grow. What should we do?
—Mom of a Future M.D.?
Oh, dear. So many mistakes were made by so many people in this scenario! The pediatrician ought to have prepared Fran for the possibility that someone she knew would come into the office, making sure she understood that anything seen or heard during her internship there was not to be spoken of—not even to the patients themselves. Assuming that Fran would know this instinctively was the first serious mistake on the doctor’s part; the second was taking that out so “harshly” on Fran, when the doctor was surely just ashamed of their own mistake. I expect more, and better, from a pediatrician, who is meant to be expert at dealing with children, including teenagers.
But Fran’s mistake was a serious one. She is 16, not 6: She bears some responsibility here. Even if no one prepared her for the situation in which she found herself, she might have stopped to think, relying on common sense—and empathy—to consider that if her friend wanted her to know what was going on, she would have told her. Her approaching Henrietta in this way was immature and insensitive. And then there is Henrietta’s mother. She overreacted, jumping to conclusions and thinking the worst of Fran—no doubt because she is worried about her child and thus not thinking clearly. This made matters worse for sure. And as long as I am listing everyone’s failures, allow me to point out that your defensiveness about Fran’s indiscretion (“she was concerned”; “her heart was in the right place”), while understandable, is not doing her any favors.
Forget the professional lessons you feel it’s important for her to learn and grow from: On a personal level too, there are multiple crucial lessons to be learned here. Think before you speak. Consider whose “concerns” are the important ones (it seems clear to me that Fran was more curious than concerned). Scrupulously guard others’ privacy when you’re in a position to do so. Don’t make assumptions based on what you see. But last—and this speaks to whether she can or should return to this internship—learn how to move on from a mistake, no matter how bad it was, by owning up to it, apologizing sincerely, accepting criticism, and re-earning trust. You can encourage her to do all of that. I wouldn’t temper any of it with “I know you meant well,” because, honestly, that is beside the point, even if it’s true.
If Fran can manage all of this, it would be good for her to get back on the horse, so to speak. If she feels too humiliated and resentful to do so, don’t force her to: The internship won’t end up being helpful to her, and my guess is that things between her and the pediatrician would only continue to deteriorate. But I would lay out her options very clearly. Running away from this unpleasant experience will only end up making her feel worse about herself. As I used to tell my daughter all the time (so often that it maddened her): This is a life lesson—make good use of it.