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The Vine: February 17, 2016

Submitted by on February 17, 2016 – 1:59 PM18 Comments

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I have a 21-year-old daughter, who is in her fourth year of college. The problem is she has tanked her last two semesters.

The only reason she can still go to school is she took online courses during the summer and brought up her grade point average.

A quick background, my husband and I had no kind of parental support from an early age, he had extreme physical abuse at the hands of his stepfather — but he was able to forgive him when the stepfather asked for forgiveness. My childhood was very happy until my teenage years, when my mother, who was an alcoholic, but had been sober for years, started drinking again. My dad left, and I also suffered physical abuse.

We met, had our daughter and basically tried to be the parents we never had. We were there for every single thing, no hitting, to be honest — if I could have asked for a perfect daughter in terms of temperament, she was ideal. We never heard the "I HATE YOU" — it was all just so easy.

I think she is a wonderful person, empathetic, kind, great sense of humor. But for the last two semesters she has refused to do the work to pass her classes. She tells us everything is great, and then we find out she may have passed one class. My husband and I work, and money is tight — this last semester really hit me hard — how do I trust her anymore?

I suppose what I am asking, she has 85 credit hours, and we have supported her all the way. Is it time to give up? The funny thing, I didn't want her to experience what we did, yet I expect her to work like I did, knowing I had no choice. Isn't that silly? She's not me working almost fulltime at college with no support, and I didn't want her to be, yet I expect her to be grateful like I would have been.

I feel like I need some perspective…

Signed,
I'm hoping for the best

Dear Hope,

"Give up" isn't quite how I'd put it. Nor "silly," while I'm up — you and your husband have tried to give your daughter opportunities and security the two of you didn't get to enjoy at her age, because of course you have, and expecting her to respect and be worthy of the advantages you've provided is natural.

But it's not the reality; the reality is, she doesn't care enough to make the effort. That's fine — college isn't for everyone, or for everyone around 20 years old, or for everyone to finish in four consecutive years. I feel like I don't have all the information here as far as her "refusing" to do the work — is she saying, in so many words, "I refuse"? is she pretending to study and getting drunk every night? would she do better if she liked her courses more, or is it a matter of her needing to spend her own money on it in order to value the experience properly? — but it doesn't really matter. It's time to sit down with her and tell her you can no longer afford to subsidize classes she fails.

It's tempting to go into the conversation with all youuuuu-INGRATE guns blazing, but try to keep it just that: a conversation. Start by saying the three of you need to talk about her educational future. Mention that it is something of a hardship to pay her tuition, and while you don't want to make her feel guilty, it doesn't seem like it's a worthwhile investment for any of you, so she needs to take this opportunity to speak frankly: what's the problem? Does she hate her coursework/major? Is she having trouble concentrating or struggling with a learning challenge? What is her plan — both to finish school and afterwards? Does she think it's a good use of your money or her time for you to continue financing a course of action she's mostly checked out of?

Get a sense of what's really going on with her grades, and if she's really going to fail most of her courseload, it's time to stop writing checks, at least for a semester. Let her withdraw from school and figure out what she really wants to do — and how she's going to do it, with or without your financial support. Stress to her that you love her and you support her emotionally, but the current situation amounts to throwing money away, and you just can't anymore.

Fucking off has consequences. Shielding her from that is not going to help her, now or in the future.

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18 Comments »

  • holly says:

    Sars, as always, is right. You should talk to her, not in an accusing way, but in a "what is up with you and what do you want to do" way.

    She could also be sabotaging herself because she doesn't feel ready to graduate and be an adult. She could be having issues with depression, with relationships, with alcohol that she hasn't been willing to talk to you about.

    Or she could just be done with school and afraid to say anything.

    Find out.

  • nem0 says:

    That was me. Totally different parental situation (my parents are so perfect my friends want to be adopted by them), but I was an ultra-responsible teenager who turned into a total burnout in college. It wasn't drugs, it wasn't drinking, it wasn't boys or girls or illness or depression or anything at all.

    I was just fried. Busting my ass all through high school to get good grades and get to college burned my brain out, and all I wanted to do was take a rest. But I didn't know how to ask, and my parents insisted I had to go straight from high school to college or risk living in a trailer full of cats for the rest of my life, so I followed along.

    At the end of my first year, I had a 1.8 GPA and was on academic probation, and only managed that much because I tested out of half my classes so I'd have more time to play Tekken in the TV lounge.

    My parents sent me to a study skills class, because I desperately needed that shit. Then I transferred to a school in the same university system with more diverse programs, so I could try to double major in art and science instead of being at an engineering school with no art whatsoever. The change of scenery, combined with the shock of nearly failing my first "grown-up milestone," scared me straight, more or less.

    In retrospect, I wish I'd taken more time off, made some money, and spent some time reflecting on what I really wanted to do with my life. Hashbrown yolo no regrets etc, but academia wasn't for me and that's tens of thousands of dollars my parents and I won't get back. Long story short, I got my art history degree because writing papers is easier than most school work for me, then used my job skills from pre and post university to get into the tech industry, and now I'm a wildly successful platform release engineer at a Fortune 500. With an art degree. For writing papers.

    tl;dr: your daughter is probably fine. This is a crazy time in any person's life, and it takes time to adjust. Maybe let her talk to a counselor, especially one who specializes in life phase difficulties and academic or career issues? Also, try not to be judgmental. My worst fear was always making my parents disappointed in me, and it fucked up our relationship for years. We're just now getting over it, and it's taken a lot of talking. A LOT OF TALKING. SO MUCH TALKING, UGH.

  • Cora says:

    I would also add some self-reflection here: why is it so important to you that she finish college on a certain timeline? If she doesn't finish college in four years — or at all — why does that mean you have failed her?

    Newsflash: it doesn't.

    I work at a four-year private university, and I see a lot of this, especially the first-generation pre-med kids. Their parents want them to be a doctor so badly, because that (along with law) is considered the absolute pinnacle of success, right? Except it's not. These hardworking, respectable, great kids get to senior year before they finally pull their heads out the books, look around and say "Wait minute! I don't want to be a doctor!"

    And then they face a MOUNTAIN of guilt, because they don't want to tell their parents what's happening. Their parents — in this case, you — worked so hard and overcame so many obstacles and gave them so much love and encouragement that they should want what you want. That's why she's not talking to you, I'll bet. She's afraid that you're not going to understand her more developed sense of self, and just label her a huge disappointment.

    So try talking to her from that perspective. Make it clear that you recognize (do you?) that what YOU may have wanted for her isn't necessarily what SHE wants, and that's okay, as long as she has a plan, like Sars says. Maybe she doesn't have a plan, but that's where you can help her, with judgement. It would probably do wonders for your relationship.

    She is an adult, albeit a struggling one. Treat her like an adult.

  • OLW says:

    I am the original letter writer-and thanks to everyone who has commented-this is exactly why I wanted to write, I am really grateful to have other people's thoughts and perspectives.

    Sars, when I said she refused to do the work, I guess I should have said-she doesn't do it. She is in a major she chose, and we put no pressure on her with that-we wanted her to follow her passion, and be interested and invested in her education. One thing she has said is that she misses classes, then gets behind, then feels like she can't catch up, so it seems like she gives up. Your advice is excellent, as usual-and I think I really need to work on not being emotional about this.

    Cora-you have a great perspective, working at a 4 year university. We have talked to her about whether she feels like she needs to change her major, but she says no.

    I tried to keep my letter short, because I feel like I could have written pages, but we did ask her if she wanted to take a break, or to just leave it for now. She said she wanted to go back, so we said "ok, fresh start, we aren't going to bring up what has happened in the past.". So when I wrote this letter, I think in a way I was trying to prepare myself for what might happen next.

    Plus, I really wanted to hear experiences like nem0-to try and gain better understanding with what might be happening.

    I don't think there are alcohol or drug problems-she does live with her girlfriend, but they seem to have a good relationship.

    Once again, many thanks for all your thoughts.

  • Karen says:

    I also work at a four year private school, and I see a lot of students who panic at the idea of leaving academia- the only world they've ever known- especially if they don't have a job/grad school/trust fund.
    Sometimes, kids sabotage themselves unconsciously to stay in school.

    A year off won't hurt her at all, and could help.

  • Jenn says:

    My mom probably could have written this letter about me when I first started college. I was completely burned out from being a high-achieving high school student and I developed an anxiety disorder (with depression), which made it hard for me to go to class. Once I missed a few classes, I realized I could never catch up. Even living at home, my parents were working, so they didn't know if I was going to class. Sometimes I would drive to campus just to eat Chik-fil-a in the student center, so I left the house that day. I was so scared of disappointing my parents (and I knew I was wasting their money), but I didn't know how to get off the higher education train and just deal with all the other stuff going on in my life. I did well in the classes I actually went to, but some days I just couldn't get out of bed and that just made it harder to go back the next time.

    I lucked out that with a change of scenery (I moved from DC to LA), I was able to get my academic groove back. It took me seven years to graduate from college, but I learned a lot from the experience (even if I still feel guilty about all my parents' money I wasted). My parents were totally at a loss at how to deal with a daughter who was just a mess because it seemed to come out of nowhere for them and I didn't know how to talk to them as people and not authority figures. I got some therapy and we had some group sessions, so I could talk to them about what was REALLY going on in my life, which really helped.

    Not to say that any of this is going on with your own kid, but there could be more than meets the eye and she just has no idea how to start a conversation with you, where you are partners in this process and not parent/kid. Best wishes!

  • LaSalleUGirl says:

    I'm an academic advisor at a four-year university. In addition to all the great advice Sars and others have offered, I would suggest asking if your daughter's university has an academic coach or learning instructor. The academic coach where I work helps students with time management and stress management. An academic coach can also act as an accountability partner (especially because s/he may have information about your daughter's academic performance than cannot be shared with you because of FERPA regulations).

    It would also be worth asking your daughter if there is a professional advisor or faculty member that she especially trusts and feels will be supportive of a decision to take a semester or year off. That person may be a good resource for looking for jobs during the gap semester/year, as well as being a general sounding board for what's next. (It's important that she feels that this person has her best interests at heart, though, and isn't just set on "how do I retain this student at any cost?")

    If she is completely resistant to taking some time away from school — or if she does the gap semester/year and goes back — you might want to ask her if she's willing to sign a FERPA waiver. That might give you a little more leeway in checking in on her progress, rather than having to wait until after the semester ends to learn that she only passed one class. I have mixed feelings about FERPA waivers, because I worry that they enable helicopter parenting, but that doesn't sound like what you're doing, and I think it's fair and reasonable for the people who are footing the bill to have a heads-up about pending academic catastrophes when there might still be time to fix them.

  • Faux McCoy says:

    There's also something to be said for earning it vs. having it handed to you. I've met so many folks who partied themselves out of college when they were on mom and dad's dime, but then went back later on their own money and graduated with honors. The reality is that it's a lot easier to piss away someone else's money.

  • Elle says:

    Couldn't this behaviour be simply a symptom of depression?

  • Bopper says:

    1) Have her checked for depression, anxiety or other mental illnesses

    2) Did she do okay the first couple of years? One wonders if parents doing everything for the child makes the child less self reliant

    3) Does she not want to be a ? Does she not want to graduate?

    4) Has she started taking drugs/drinking too much?

    5) Is she contributing to paying for college at all?

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    All the posts here have outlined what I was going to say. It's hard to admit in our society that school isn't for you, or that school is all you know and graduating and moving into actual working life is so terrifying you're paralyzed. Or that you've hit your personal wall and have no energy left. Or that it's harder and harder to get out of bed but you don't feel bad–just blank and drained.

    It's good that you and your daughter have the lines of communication open. And it's great that she seems to have a loving, supportive relationship with her girlfriend. As long as she knows that options are possible–a gap year, an internship, just working a regular, low stress job–she should pull through one way or the other.

  • OneoftheJanes says:

    Hope, it also sounds to me that with all the backstory here you're considering this situation to be a referendum on you as parents. And it may have nothing whatsoever to do with you, and considering that might give you an easier perspective on the situation.

    That doesn't mean you can't play a role in assisting your daughter, if there are things (I definitely agree on getting a doctor or therapist into the mix) you can help with. But twenty-one-year-old women tank at a bunch of things all over all the time, and it's mostly because people tank at things all the time. You can't tank-proof your kids, and it's not a reflection on your parenting that you didn't manage that.

  • Jon says:

    Compassionate, yet realistic, and great as always. Slate should've hired YOU as the replacement for Emily Yoffe.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    Aw, thanks. As long as they replaced her that's what counts. Heh.

  • Maple Donut says:

    While the background specifics are different, my friend's family went through this kind of situation. (Let's call them "Dude" and "Dad"). Dad came from a very poor background but became a wealthy, self-made man, achieving a PhD in the process. Dude attended wealthy all-boy prep schools and when it came time for college, of course Dad and Mom paid (because they could and they wanted to). But Dude kind of went a little co-ed college wild with the drinking, partying, and ohmigodtherearegirlshere! Dad talked to me about the situation and we realized, together, that Dude didn't appreciate what had been given to him like Dad and I did. (I didn't come from a very poor background but I was in a position where my mom couldn't afford to send me to college so I was taking a couple classes at a time as I could afford it on my own while working a full-time job at the mall.) So Dad sat Dude down and told him, "Either stop messing around or I'm going to stop paying for college." I'm sure the conversation was much more detailed than that but that was the main point. Dude got this shit together and graduated. But there had to be that consequence for him – he had to know that if he didn't make the most of what he had been given, it was going to be taken away and he was going to have to make his own way, on his own dime.

    With that said, I didn't apply myself wholeheartedly at college even when I was going because that's who I was then. So college took a backseat for a long, long time. I started going back to school with determination a couple years ago and finally graduated, having made the Dean's List four years in a row and joining the honors society. I was paying for it with my own dime via student loans and I was there to work. The youngsters around me in class acted like it was quite the chore to be there – but I gave it my all and aced it. Sometimes people bloom later in life, too. ;)

  • Elizabeth says:

    I am not making any assumptions, but one of the things I would wonder about in this situation is whether she might have been sexually assaulted before the grades slide. I've seen it happen to too many women in college (friends when I was a student; students now that I am a professor) not to wonder. I definitely do think that an open-ended, non-judgmental conversation is in order where you try to find out where she's at.

  • Megan says:

    I was just about to say what Elizabeth did. Sudden changes in behavior that was previously even-keeled make me wonder. In a case like that, she might not want to hurt her parents with the news, but is reacting to the trauma on her own.

  • Red says:

    Just wanted to say that once upon a time, I went from a 4.0 to a 1.8 in grad school over the course of one semester. I didn't say anything to my parents because I was ashamed and kept thinking I could catch up, but the longer I didn't leave my dorm the more impossible it seemed to do anything about it.

    In my case, the issue was that I had really low thyroid levels and that was causing depression and social anxiety. We found out because I was driving to meet my family somewhere for a football game and burst into uncontrollable tears and had to pull over by the side of the road and call my mom to meet me at a restaurant and take me home.

    I took a semester off school and my parents got me to the doctor, the doctor got me on a proper dose of medication, and I was fine afterward.

    I never did go back to grad school, though. I got a job before the semester was over. But now I'm profitably employed and live a good life! So: a check for mental and/or physical health issues that may be contributing to the problem, and be reassured that something like this is totally recoverable-from.

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