Carolyn Hax
Carolyn Hax
Columnist

Mother bothered by having to defend drifter son

Hi, Carolyn: Since he graduated from college four years ago, my son has been drifting among friends and family but mostly staying with his cousin and his wife.

My son is searching for his dream job and shows signs of pursuing that dream but basically doesn’t work. I try not to feel ashamed, but it really bothers me.

Carolyn Hax

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997 as a weekly feature for The Washington Post, accompanied by the work of “relationship cartoonist” Nick Galifianakis. She is the author of “Tell Me About It” (Miramax, 2001), and the host of a live online discussion on Fridays at noon.

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My brother and sister-in-law always find ways to make comments about the situation. I have pleaded with my son to get a job and get out of my nephew’s home, and I have asked my nephew to put my son out. Although he also rails at my son, he won’t ask him to leave. It’s as though they enjoy taunting us with this.

I don’t have a close relationship with my son because I still “parent” him. I suggest, I gently nudge, I speak outright, etc.

How do I get through holiday gatherings with my chin up? What can I say when someone asks if the cousin is attending an event and my brother responds, “I guess they’ll have to bring their 27-year-old kid”? — Bummed Out

If it makes you feel better, you aren’t alone in your overinvolvement in the younger generation’s problems — how is this your brother’s business?

Let’s dissect: Your son is staying with his cousin and job hunting without much conviction; your nephew and his wife are housing your son; you’re suggesting, speaking outright, pleading, etc.; your brother and sister-in-law are commenting and taunting.

By my count, the youngers are the ones doing, and the elders are merely talking.

As adults themselves, your son and nephew are free to perpetuate this awkward residential farce as long as their taste for it endures.

You, too, are free to keep talking — but nothing you and your brother say is making any difference, except to keep the bad feelings in constant circulation.

To stay cool through holiday harping, keep this chain of responsibility in mind: You aren’t your son, don’t control your son, can’t re-raise your son, and can’t change how anyone deals with your son. So when anyone tries to use him against you, make the point (firmly, not flippantly) that no matter how hard you pull the strings, your son’s arms don’t move.

Maybe you did over-raise him into this paralysis — assuming that’s the implication here — but who appointed your brother to audit your parenting mistakes? Stop pining for the outcome that will impress others; I can think of no finer example for your son.

And when the snark flies, consider not responding at all, except maybe to have a cookie and ask yourself whether it’s really necessary to spend your holidays with such punitive people. Nothing says you must.

* * *

Dear Carolyn: My husband and I have two adolescent children and we are good friends with a couple who also have two adolescent kids. We consider their children extremely rude, entitled and very disrespectful of their own parents and, over the years, to us as well.

Last night at our house, while having dinner, the daughter told her dad to “shut up.” Nothing was said by either parent. This is just the latest misbehavior that my own children witnesseed.

I feel as if we could never reprimand their kids without jeopardizing our friendship. We really enjoy the parents’ company and try to minimize contact with their kids. Is it ever okay to say something to the kids? Only if they directly insult or disrespect us? — Anonymous

We all make calculations (or should) before speaking up about other people’s behavior, about the severity of the problem, the efficacy of addressing it, the standing we have to intervene, and the possible unintended consequences of stepping in.

Arguments in favor of correcting these kids: You have standing to ask for certain behavior in your home, of adults and children both. You probably also would be an effective voice for civility, since it can be startling to get a wrist-slap from an unexpected source.

Arguments against: Anything your kids witness now is a talking point later, so corruption is a non-issue. It’s also hard to believe you can reverse these kids’ slide toward entitlement — but it’s easy to envision your damaging the friendship with the adults. Even the parents who are grateful for village discipline tend to bristle at it when they’re present to do the job themselves.

But there’s also this: Biting your tongue just to keep these friends strikes me as a cop-out, a what’s-in-it-for-me expediency when there’s a question of right and wrong to be answered. “Shut up” is so hostile and so inappropriate, and your dinner table is so plainly your turf, that I believe it would have been worth the friendship risk to say, calmly, “Stella, I ask that you don’t use that expression at our table. Thank you.” Let the biscuits fall where they may.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Subscribe at www.facebook.com/carolynhax.

 
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