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Carolyn Hax Live: Advice columnist tackles your problems

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Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 9, 2010; 12:00 PM

Carolyn was online Friday, April 9, taking your questions and comments about her current advice column and any other questions you might have about the strange train we call life. Her answers may appear online or in an upcoming column.

E-mail Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com.

Good news! Carolyn's archives have been updated. Check out the sidebar on Carolyn's archive page to find even more transcripts from past Hax chats.

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Carolyn Hax: Hi everybody. I'm just reading through questions and will get started as soon as I can.

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Athens, Ga.: Do you have any advice for how to deal with a feeling of total humiliation/mortification? Basically I've found out that a secret crush I'd harbored until recently, was not as secret as I thought it was. Even though I've gotten over the feelings and realized our basic incompatibility, I'm still incredibly embarrassed that apparently I was so obvious about it and I feel really, really foolish -- not to mention kind of clueless about how to act around said former-crush now.

Carolyn Hax: There isn't much you can do now except embrace the law of dissipation: Whether your sense of humiliation is mild or severe, it's worse right now than it will be tomorrow, and it'll be worse tomorrow than it is the day after that, and so on. Given enough time, it'll fall out of your conscious thoughts entirely, except to pop up and make you wince every few years or so (unless it ripens into a funny story, which is always possible).

As for the way you deal with said former crush, just go about your business. Repetition will beat down any lingering awkwardness, as only repetition can.

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San Francisco: My 6-year-old niece is beautiful, friendly, smart, and very sweet, but I often hear her say things like, "I made this. It's good right? It's pretty, right?" She'll jump in to a conversation with, "Oh, I know about this..." tell us what she knows, then ask, "That was really cool that I knew that, right?" She'll help her sister fix her sippy cup, then turn to the nearest adult and say, "It's fixed because of something I did, right?" If I simply say, "Yes, it was," she'll press on with "Well, that was a good idea, and it was good that I did it, right?" And she'll keep saying these things until someone praises her. She does this after going to the bathroom, eating her dinner, or putting her coat on, too. Her parents (my husband's sis and b-i-l) give her tons of praise and encouragement (and discipline), and tell everyone she's a confident child. I think my niece is under-confident, and as much as I love playing with her, I find this need for praise annoying. It also makes me sad to think she feels the need to seek validation, if that's what she's doing. What do you think is going on, and is this normal?

Carolyn Hax: I'm not a child-development expert, and so I'm not going to try to speak to the degree of approval seeking; it's possibleyour niece is asking for attention to a degree outside a healthy range.

With the disclaimer out of the way, though, I can say that 6-year-olds are at a developmental stage where they are very performance-aware, and anxious about doing well, and intent on getting outside approval.

It might help you when you're with your niece to have some healthy praise-phases ready. It's important not to talk about things she can't control ("You're/It's pretty," "You're smart," "It's really good," etc.) and encourage things she can: "I like how hard you worked on that project," "I noticed how you stuck with it when you got to words you didn't understand," "Your doing X was really helpful to me, thank you." It's a mindset that might take some effort to adopt, but once you get into the habit it starts to come naturally.

It can be annoying just to have to feed an approval need, much less work to stay a step ahead of it at all times so that you can have the most useful encouragement at the ready. However, you seem invested in guiding her, and such targeted, effort-based praise can really help her feel good about herself from the inside out vs. outside in, which is the whole point of encouraging kids.

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Bethesda, Md.: I recently got married, and several cards fell off several wedding gifts in the process of transporting them from the reception. By process of elimination, I can narrow down the possibilities of who may have been the givers. My first thought was to send a vague "Thanks for your generous gift which will be used often in our home..." note to all the possibilities, thus making sure everyone is thanked even if we aren't 100 percent clear as to who gave the picture frame and who gave the appetizer plates.

However, there were also several guests who didn't give us a gift, and the last thing I want to do is embarass them by sending such a note. I thought of discreetly asking around to see if anyone knows who got us what, but the pool of non-gift/unidentified-gift people don't all know each other.

So what to do: send a note to everyone and possibly make those who chose not to give a gift feel awful, or send no notes and not acknowledge the gifts we did receive? Any other suggestions?

Carolyn Hax: I'm going to use your problem for a second to encourage two ... conventions, for lack of a better word, that tend to get lost in the wedding shuffle: 1. Not bringing gifts to a reception, but instead shipping them to the couple's home (or some other designated recipient's home); and 2. the "Did you receive my gift?" inquiry by guests who have not had their gifts acknowledged by, say, a month or two after the wedding.

The latter in particular has gotten a bad rap as a punitive gesture by the resentfully unthanked, but it's really a practical and necessary element of etiquette (wedding etiquette in particular, but not limited to that). Packages get lost in the mail, and cards fall off gifts, and the imperfect universe otherwise has its say sometimes. The simplest, most effective way to fix these problems is for the gift-givers to inquire after gifts--"Just calling/writing to make sure, did you receive our crystal candlesticks from Registries R Us?" Then, you know--you either need to fire off a note ASAP to say thanks, or you need to let the gift-giver know the gift never arrived, or whatever.

Since you, Bethesda, are the beneficiary of neither of these good practices by your guests (not to malign them--many just don't know this stuff), you're stuck having to improvise. I would suggest sending a note to every one who wrote an orphaned card (you do have them?), or just everyone in your narrowed pool: "Several cards fell off gifts, and so I'm writing to say that if you gave us a gift for which you haven't been thanked, then the oversight wasn't deliberate; we just don't know whom to thank for what." Then thank them for sharing your wedding celebration, etc. People who receive this but didn't buy you a gift won't be shamed; it'll likely just be taken for what it is--an honest attempt to do right by the people who gave gifts.

Congratulations, btw.

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Pennsylvania: Hi Carolyn,

I'm childless by choice because I don't enjoy being around small kids. However I've always suspected I might be missing out on that aspect of life. In a broader sense I do think I would be happy to add to my family long-term.

My sister (who has three kids and really loves being around young people) recently said something that really got me thinking. She commented on how fast her kids were growing up and that she has forgotten what it was like for someone to need her every second. This made me wonder whether the thing I dread most about having kids--that exhausting, annoying stage between infancy and eight or nine--is really less of a big deal than I think it is in the scheme of raising children. Do you think the fact that I don't like babies or small kids means I am right to rule out being a mom, or is there a chance the ends would outweigh the journey?

Carolyn Hax: Of course there's a chance, but you won't find out whether you (and your kid(s)) come out on the right side of that chance until you've reached a point where your decision can't be reversed.

So, I can't in good conscience say anything to encourage you to go for it when there's any chance you'll be a cranky, put-upon nightmare to your kids for the first 8 or 9 years of their lives.

And if you are a grudging parent while they're small, they're hardly likely to behave like angels for you when they hit your hoped-for age of reason. Kids who click into the smooth(er), (more) reasonable behavior of maturing kids tend to be the ones whose parents really hung in there and did the hard work--of saying no despite the risk of touching off a tantrum, of getting up in the middle of the night to soothe away nightmares despite being stumble-into-walls exhausted, of paying attention to their school lives even when it feels like an avoidable time-suck, of letting them have normal kid spills and accidents without getting shrieky and punitive on them, and so on.

Even the best parents are going to fall short here and there, on one or another of these things. But the best ones are, in general, with their kids in the moment, and not looking off to a distant somewhere else they'd rather be.

So, I'll say that if you really believe you have it in you to be that kind of parent for as long as you need to be,* and if you really believe your life would be enriched overall by the experience of having children, and, as always, if you truly believe you'd be the kind of parent you'd want to have, then it might be worth revisiting the idea of having kids.

*Remember, not all kids come out with a full set of abilities. At the extreme, some need attentive care for all of their (or their parents') lives; in the mid-range, some need intense parental dedication for years beyond the point where their peers are growing independent. You have to be ready to be a whole-hearted parent to these children, too.

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Accused Ingrate: I recently admitted to by parents that I feel slighted that they couldn't afford keep me at xyz university for undergrad but now they are willing pay for my brother to go to abc university for graduate school which cost almost 4 times more.

They were really upset with and basically called me ungrateful. I am now in grad school and paying my own way...

The bottom line is it seems like they refuse to see my point of view, I was accused of not being proud that my brother got into this top notch school. And while I was trying to talk to them they walked away from me.

I'll be home all weekend...any thoughts on how to lessen the potential awkwardness of the next few days?

Carolyn Hax: Is there an evidence-backed history of their favoring your brother over you? Or is this the first time you've felt stung. (This does affect the answer.) Thanks.

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Silver Spring, Md.: For the 23-year-old who wrote in about getting married at that age:

My husband and I got married young, when he was 25 and I was 23, and it was definitely the right thing for us to do since we're still married and happy 26 years later.

However, I will tell you that I was certain at the time. While friends and family did not try to disuade me, it wouldn't have mattered if they had.

To do something as serious as getting married, you must be sure. If you are an adult, you don't contemplate putting off a life decision you are certain about to accommodate the worries of your parents. And if you're not an adult, you shouldn't get married. Wait until you can move forward with full confidence in your ability to make your own decisions.

Carolyn Hax: Nice way of putting it, thank you.

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Washington, D.C.: An engaged man wants to have an affair with me. Do I tell his fiancee?

Hi, Carolyn, I sent this in several days ago but don't know if it reached you.

I met an engaged couple a few months ago. He's moving here for her, so he doesn't know many people in the area -- or so I thought, when he 'phoned me for lunch.

The first time seemed innocent, as we discussed our overlapping areas of expertise.

Also, she can't get away for lunch. And also, maybe I was dumb!

The second time, he let me know that she had no idea he was in touch with me, and would disapprove -- and he brushed my hand suggestively.

So, he's a slime. Do I look her up and tell her, or mind my own business ... and never have lunch with him again?

Thanks!

Carolyn Hax: Call her. When you have information that's even a little bit shaky--i.e., leaves you to draw your own conclusions in any way--then I always advise butting out. But you have real, first-hand, alarming information.

Your own words will always be better than a script, but if you're really stumped about what to say, then try this: "Hey, I had lunch with Fiance a couple of times, and he happened to say something to make me think you didn't know about it. That seemed odd, so I thought I'd call."

If you were closer friends, I might suggest other wording, but your saying you have to "look her up" implies you're really just acquaintances.

Anyway, ah, good luck.

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Reluctant mom: She could consider adopting. There are MANY children needing homes, and usually the older kids have a more difficult time getting adopted...

Carolyn Hax: True. They also, often, need parents who are really dedicated to helping them through the aftermath of traumatic childhoods. I realize that can be used to support two completely different arguments--1. they need the most awesome parents out there, or 2. any non-abusive, permanent home is better than life in the foster system--but either way, I'm reluctant to say to a reluctant parent, "Adopt an older child."

But I will let you say it, and add a caution that it can't just about getting a child after they get "easier." It has to be about giving an older child a chance, for the sake of the older child. Thanks for posting.

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Re: Pennsylvania: Remember, you might be thinking of it as just 8 or 9 years, but for your kid it would be their whole life so far. They wouldn't see your being less than thrilled with their needs as a temporary stage, they would see it as all of reality as they've ever known it. They'd see it as "this is the way my parent always has been, and I have no reason to believe they ever would be otherwise."

Carolyn Hax: Breaks my heart just to read this, but it's so true. Thanks.

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For San Francisco: Yeah, I have one of those, too. Carolyn's suggestions are great (it's what we do). One other idea: ask "what do you think?" Sometimes it's insecurity, sometimes it's typical little kid trying to figure out her place in the universe, and sometimes it's just a habit or vicious cycle (the more she senses your frustration, the more she needs reassurance). Turning it back on her in a pleasant way can break the pattern -- not to mention possibly open some interesting conversational pathways.

Carolyn Hax: Enthusiastic agreement, thanks--questions are a great way to approach kids in general.

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Affair With Engaged Man: Do you think maybe the letter writer WANTS to have an affair with the man??

Carolyn Hax: I didn't get that at all.

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On lost card on wedding gifts: This is too late to help your questioner but since wedding season is coming I thought I'd pass on a tip.

At our wedding, we had guests put gifts at the coat check, and ahead of time gave the woman staffing the coat check area a roll of tape and instructions to tape, securely, all cards to presents that the guests dropped off. (If you don't have an official person, it could be a job you give to an awkward adolescent cousin who might like having some busy work to do rather than mingling).

Also, when I give a gift I always put a second card or just slip of paper with my name on it UNDER the wrapping paper, just in case the real card falls off.

Carolyn Hax: I like stationing a kid at the gift table.

AND, bonus for thread-tying junkies, small jobs are another great way to divert the approval-seeking 6-year-old. The occasional, "Fifi, would you please help me set the table?" can really channel the independence urges into a more useful, less clingy direction.

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Educated Ingrate: Accept that your parents get to make decisions that won't make sense to everyone.

Be very very very very proud of having Done It Yourself. Yay you.

Carolyn Hax: I like this, thanks.

Another one coming, but still hope to hear back from gard student ...

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To Accused Ingrate: Another question: is there any chance that your parents are in a better financial situation now than they were when you went to college?

Carolyn Hax: Thanks, two useful takes on the situation. (Though in this case, the parents coulda said something, no? And offered to chip in for his/her grad work now?)

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College: Not sure if you'll take this, but I'll give it a go. I'm 21, a junior in college, and I can't seem to find it in me to become more independent from my mom. I'm in college several states away but my mom calls me several times a day, and I do pick up. I would feel guilty not picking up because she loves to talk to me and she's a wonderful person, raised me for 18 years, and is helping me pay for college. She says talking to me several times a day is one of her greatest pleasures in life. Who am I to deny that? I don't have that desire.

At the same time, I think this is probably abnormal...most people go for weeks, or at least a week, without talking to their parents. I'm not really sure how to go about becoming more independent while this is going on. Any suggestions? I've been struggling with this for a while now and never seem to get anywhere.

Carolyn Hax: How often would you like to talk to your mom? Forget what you perceive to be "normal"--just go with what gives you pleasure, be it the pleasure of talking to your mom, or the pleasure of making her happy.

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Accused ingrate again: No, this is not the first time. I have always felt like he was golden child, he has no missed opportunities, he was never told he couldn't so something because it was too expensive. They always "made a way". This feeling has been eating away at me for years. My brother has admitted this observance to me as well.

Carolyn Hax: Okay, this is huge. Thanks for writing back.

First, I'm really sorry. It's one of the crappiest things parents can do to their kids. Not just to you, but also to your brother, since favoritism has a way of putting a wedge between the have-sibling and the have-not.

Second, there are some good things here, even great. I count it as great that your brother has acknowledged this to you. Validation is huge. So is communication between sibs in this situation. You may not feel as if your parents have your back, but if your brother does--instead of competing with you/defending/justifying his unfair advantage, which is unfortunately common--then that's not just love and support from a family member, that's justice.

Also, when you combine your history, this incident, and your brother's observation, you have real evidence that says, yes, this is really happening. And while it would obviously be better if it weren't happening, at least you're now in a potentially liberating situation: You know the truth. You no longer need to look to your parents as sources of fairness.

That's because that ship has sailed, and your ship is the U.S.S. Screwedover. With that knowledge, you can now make a choice: Sail it off to perpetual bitterness, or to a place where you take pride in what you accomplished after you were handed this clear disadvantage. As the other poster pointed out, that includes getting where you;ve gotten the hard(er) way, and being all the stronger for it.

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Accused Ingrate: It also sounds like they are rewarding son for getting into a top-notch school, which is understandable to me. Not my approach, but I see where they are coming from.

More likely, there were real money issues in the past and they feel ashamed and like they let her down and having it thrown in their face (from their perspective) made them mad. I'm often maddest at someone else when I'm really mad at myself.

Carolyn Hax: This certainly does happen, but would also make these some seriously childish parents.

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Re: Pennsylvania: : I have to give her credit for being thoughtful enough to ask herself these questions. And just because you aren't great with younger kids doesn't mean you won't be a great parent.

Some who are great with kids turn out to be less good parents. And some who aren't as responsive when the children are little are fantastic with tweens and teens.

Carolyn Hax: All true, and it all goes into the hopper when you're making the decision.

Good parents aren't all good in the same way. But I do think they have the common denominator of being willing to work hard at what they know they aren't good at--which of course starts with a willingness to admit their own faults and weaknesses. Someone who's got the magic touch with babies, for example, but never admits s/he's wrong, is going to be that person you conjure here with your, "Some who are great with kids turn out to be less good parents."

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The Ex Files: So my ex-boyfriend and I have agreed to be friends (due to severely intertwined social lives and genuine affection). I just found out through his relative that he is seeing someone. He has not told me yet and has clearly been avoiding me. I would chalk this up as his problem (avoidance on his part kind of helped along our breakup) and leave him to tell me when he's ready, but for one thing. We are scheduled to take a trip together to a place of mutual interest in about two months. I have no idea how this new relationship will affect said trip. The tickets are already bought, and we are staying with a close friend of mine (separate sleeping arrangements). Including the new girlfriend would not really be an option unless he is going to stay in a hotel - though the point of planning the trip together was to save him money and let him meet my friend, who has much in common with him and could help facilitate his move to the area. How do I approach this? Admittedly, the twisted evil side of me is deriving a great deal of amusement from the fact that he is likely squirming and writhing over the subject, but I don't want my trip wrecked, and I'd like to keep things civil.

Carolyn Hax: Maybe I read the question too quickly, but it looks to me as if you're the one in the position of strength here. If he cancels, then you can still go--it's your friend you're crashing with--and likewise if he brings the girl and chooses a hotel. That would be awkward, maybe, but endurable in the grand scheme of things.

That doesn't even get into the possibility that this new thing is long over two months from now. I would suggest just proceeding as if the trip is on as scheduled, unless and until you hear otherwise.

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Parents favoring one over the other: My mother has spent her life being bitter that her parents favored her younger sibling. Did they? I don't know. What I do know is that, decades later, she's still living with resentment towards her parents and sibling. Her life would have been so much better if years ago she'd said "It's their problem, not mine" and let it go.

Carolyn Hax: It's the universal answer to injustice: Fix what you can, and grow beyond the rest. Thanks.

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"Is there an evidence-backed history of their favoring your brother over you?": I'm not the original poster, but I'm interested in your take if that is the case, that the parents have a history of it. I was in a very similar situation to this. I'm still a little bitter to both my parents and my brother (although it wasn't his "fault") that I had to struggle to get by (full time work and full time school) when he got the easy road (no work because parents paid). I know a lot of people have to struggle, so I feel guilty even saying this, but there it is.

Carolyn Hax: Don't feel guilty, kids who get the short end of unequal treatment have a legitimate complaint.

If it helps, though, the kids who get the long end also, often, have a legitimate complaint. While there are plenty of kids who use their advantages well, my inbox is crammed with stories of these indulged, clearly favored kids who wind up stunted by their own expectations. They're victims, too, and when the support is pulled out--when the parents die, or run out of money, or when said pampered kid spends it all on drugs, or whatever--the "golden children" end up being bigger victims than the ones who had to tough it out. The neglected ones, at least, learned -how- to tough it out.

Oddly enough, bitterness is endemic on both sides of the unfair treatment. If you can do something to offload that residual anger--looking at your parents objectively as flawed (even stunted) people themselves can help with that--then this might be something that genuinely doesn't diminish the quality of your life any more.

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Washington, D.C.: My boyfriend and I just broke up after dating over a year. Basically, we couldn't seem to move forward because he is recently divorced and essentially pulled away once I brought up thinking about getting married in a few years. But we've been talking about how that is something that can change over time and about what can be done now and how our fundamental relationship was really good. So, now we're more "on a break" than broken up. What is your prognosis on our potential for getting back together?

Carolyn Hax: Grim, if you're making concessions just to get him back.

I realize that being part of a couple involves countless small adjustments, but it's a delicate business; it's not uncommon for poeple to wake up years into a relationship and suddenly not recognize who they've become, and that's rarely because they made some huge milestone compromise. Instead, it's a little here, a little there, nothing that catches your attention, until you're so many miles from where you started that you're not only clueless about how you got there, but also clueless about how to get back.

So, if you want to be married in a few years, then don't throw that away just because this guy feels better when you do. Challenge it, certainly, since you don't want to make big like decisions based on assumptions you haven't revisited in years--but ask yourself why you want this, and whether it's a goal you'll regret discarding if things with this guy eventually don't work out.

In other words, "GET GUY BACK" is not a constructive life purpose. "Be with right guy, or no guy," is constructive. Be as tough in deciding whether he's right for you as he's being in deciding whether you're right for him.

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Anonymous: I know you are supposed to make peace with and grow past things that are unfair, like crappy parents who favor someone else, bad exes who seem to sail through unscathed, etc. But I'm so tired of being told some variation of life isn't fair and its my choice to be angry to to be upset. I know life isn't fair. I'm trying like hell to not be resentful and bitter at holding the perpetual short end of the stick.

But. I am angry. I am resentful. I am in therapy as well, but I need some concrete advice on how to really not feel a burning pit in my stomach on occasion.

Carolyn Hax: All you can do is force yourself--and it really will take force sometimes--to take actions that remove the "perpetual" from the equation.

It's normal, understandable, and common for people who feel they've been shorted to put their hands out to receive what they think is their due. Usually, though, that only heightens the bitterness and sense of injustice, though, because good things just don't come to people who have their hands out.

One alternative is to make concerted efforts to go out and earn the things you want most. That's a little more productive, but, at the same time, it's not perfect; the things so many people want most are dependent upon others to come through for them. To be loved someone has to love you, to be rich someone has to pay you, etc. Hard work can be its own reward, but when you're looking for cosmic payoff, it often doesn't feel like enough-and even feels like yet another burden without as good a payoff as everyone else's.

That's why a counterintuitive alternative is often the best one: Putting your hand out to give. There's something about being generous with your time, your love, your expertise, your money--whatever you've got to spare--that acts like antivenom on the bitterness of not receiving. In a way, it puts you in the position of being the person you always wanted to have in your life: The one who recognized you were getting shorted, and who makes it up to you. You can make it up to others, others who got an even shorter end of the stick.

Try it, at least. Even if it doesn't work as a magic bullet against bitterness, it will at least leave however many people better for your having suffered. That's got to be something.

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Buttoutski, Calif.: Re the writer about the affair-wanting fiance: I would say butt out entirely and forget about both of them, since you don't know either well. If he asks why you have disappeared, tell him straight up.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks--I suspected there'd be disagreement, but I wasn't seeing it till now.

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Talking to mom: Good advice, Carolyn. But one caveat -- fast forward five years when student is maybe working and in a signficant relationship. How will you feel about your mother calling several times a day then? There is something to be said for weaning her a bit now. A reasonable person wouldn't object to being told "around lunch time and 8 PM are good for me, but otherwise I might not be able to pick up."

Carolyn Hax: Thanks. I was actually hoping to hear back from that poster to see what the "right" call frequency would be. With that, I was going to follow up with advice to start nudging things in that direction, just by not picking up when it's not an opportune time, and then saying as much next time she calls. "Sorry I missed your call earlier, I was studying," or whatever. That sets a not-needlessly-confrontational precedent of her being available often but not always. Through repetition, it would likely become a new norm without upsetting anyone.

It's a slightly different approach than weaning for the sake of weaning--and I guess I could have included it in the original answer without feedback from the poster, since I just did that here--but it's based on the same idea, that there's no need to apologize for not being available 24-7.

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For Accused Ingrate - His Actual Question: was how the heck does he deal with the parents when he has to be home with them? What, if anything, does he say to them about this?

Carolyn Hax: If they bring it up, he says, "It's your money to spend as you please; it just hurt my feelings, that's all. I'm still grateful for what you've given me and I'm proud of what I've done with it."

If it doesn't come up, he doens't bring it up. Time to leave it behind.

Either way, his weekend mission is to try to get back to normal with them--or, more accurately, to get to a new normal with them, where he stops hoping they'll be fair or recognize their unfairness. Sad but necessary.

BTW, I'm using "he" b/c you did, but I don't think we know sex of child here.

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Carolyn Hax: Time for me to go. Thanks everybody, have a great weekend, and type to you again next Friday.

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In her daily column in The Washington Post Style section, Carolyn Hax offers readers advice based on the experiences of someone who's been there. Hax is an ex-repatriated New Englander with a liberal arts degree and a lot of opinions and that's about it, really, when you get right down to it. Oh, and the shoes. A lot of shoes.

Got more to say? Check out Carolyn's discussion group, Hax-Philes. Comments submitted to the chat may be used in the discussion group.

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