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Carolyn Hax: Smart strategies for parent whose child drifts off course

Adapted from recent online discussions.

Hi, Carolyn:

In theory, I am completely behind the “live and let live” philosophy of parenting — my kids’ lives are their own, not mine. But I love them deeply and cannot help feeling major concerns over huge, potentially life-ruining decisions they are making. I get not making a stink because, say, my kid chose to leave med school — it’s not the only path to success — but what about leaving high school? This strikes me as unjustifiably stupid and I feel like a failure for raising a kid who would even consider it. Help!

How Do I Live and Let Live?

First, disentangle your ego from your child’s decision. Yes, you raised him (choosing a gender here for simplicity’s sake), and maybe you made some mistakes, but correlations are not one to one; it’s not as if all parents who make mistakes raise high-school dropouts, and all college graduates who go on to productive careers have parents who didn’t make mistakes.

Second, in the empty space where that negative thinking used to be, put the understanding that people become good parents not by making a certain number of good decisions over the lives of their children, but instead by keeping their heads in the face of whatever their kids throw at them.

Third, don’t treat “live and let live” as a fixed approach that dictates sitting mutely on the sidelines. Sometimes it means exactly that, but other times a parent has to intervene; in those cases, “live and let live” means intervening to protect or optimize your child’s choices instead of imposing your own.

It’s hard to give you specific suggestions when I don’t know the specifics, such as how old your child is, why he dropped out, how solid/strained the trust is between you two, whether substance abuse is involved, etc.

But I can suggest that you not say “unjustifiably stupid” out loud — and, if you’re on speaking terms, that you explain to your kid that you’re not making value judgments, you’re just aware of the tough prospects that await people who drop out of high school (the numbers are grim).

Then you can say that some people end up defying these grim numbers, but the key to that is having a plan, which you stand ready to help him establish and pursue. Your financial support can be contingent on his having and sticking to such a plan.

I can also suggest you find the best family therapist out there and get to work (just you for now), to help you distinguish between smart strategies and unproductive battles with a child who drifts off course.

Dear Carolyn:

I was alarmed to find, in an old journal of mine, descriptions of a phenomenon in my relationship that used to make me miserable, furious and frustrated. The alarming part is that this phenomenon still occurs today, but I haven’t gotten upset about it in a long time. Do you think it’s a good or bad thing that I’ve learned to cope with something I used to consider breaking up with my boyfriend over?


Maturity does redefine “crisis.”

But, if the phenomenon is a harmful one you’re now numb to, instead of just a neutral one you’ve accepted, then please do heed the alarm.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or Subscribe at

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers.
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