Mon. Apr 15th, 2024

My daughter is failing all her classes. I suspect I know why.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 14-year-old daughter “Molly” is pretty anxious and has a tough time making friends, so she’s really close to the friends she does have.

One of her friends, “Tim,” has been battling cancer. He’s taken a leave of absence this year to undergo treatment due to the amount of time he’d have to be out of school. He’s expecting to be done with treatment by the start of the summer, and he has tutors to help him stay on target for continuing school next year. My wife and I are very proud of how considerate and compassionate Molly has been with Tim. Molly has been crying a lot and been generally very emotional at home but is always there for Tim when he needs it and tries not to let a lot of her worries show. We’ve gotten calls several times from Tim’s mom just to tell me how wonderful Molly is and how happy she is that Molly and Tim are friends.

However, I think she’s going a bit too far. Molly’s grades are slipping dramatically—to where she’s at risk of failing French and algebra—because she’s spending certain class periods on her phone the whole time texting Tim, or she isn’t getting any schoolwork done because she’s spending the afternoons with her other friends in the hospital or at Tim’s house visiting him or just Facetiming him. I want to limit Molly’s visits so that she’ll have time to focus on her schoolwork, but my wife thinks that’s cruel. We’ve talked to Molly about keeping her grades up, but she just dismisses us. I think, having known Tim for some years now, that Tim is a wonderful kid, very thoughtful and kind, and if he knew that Molly was throwing away her education to spend time with him, he’d be upset too. We’ve tried that angle with Molly as well; it hasn’t worked, and I don’t want to interfere in my daughter’s friendships in that way. How can we support Molly through supporting her friend while making sure she prioritizes herself?

—Hate to Be the Bad Guy, But…

Dear Hate to Be the Bad Guy,

I think there are a few different things you can do to thread this needle. The first is to call the school and see what options Molly has if she does indeed fail these classes (summer school, independent study, etc.) and whether there would be any extenuating circumstances they’d consider granting her. The second is to have a heart-to-heart with Tim’s mom where you affirm unequivocally that you want Molly to keep supporting Tim through his treatment but that you’re going to try a little course correction with Molly regarding school, and you don’t want Tim to be hurt or confused. Tread carefully here—Tim’s problems are way bigger than algebra and you don’t want to give the wrong impression, but you can learn a lot from Tim’s mom about what Tim needs and how to adjust Molly’s time in a way that isn’t detrimental. Keep those conversations to yourself—it could backfire if Molly feels you went behind her back on a fact-finding mission. This is just a way for you to be more informed.

Then involve Molly in a collaborative conversation about how to move forward. The book 14 Talks by Age 14 provides a great formula you can follow. In this conversation, underscore that Tim is allowed to be Molly’s priority, but not to the detriment of everything else. Also emphasize that you don’t need her to be on the honor roll—you just need her to pass her classes. The 14 Talks formula will guide you through a conversation style where she can suggest ways to address the problem, and you respond, eventually getting to a place where you reach a consensus.

A lot of this really isn’t about algebra at all; it’s about helping Molly learn to make decisions that align with both her morals and her needs. How can she show up for a friend in a time of need while still taking care of herself? It’s a scenario she will face many times in her adult life. If you and she can keep that goal in mind, I hope you’ll find a path forward that everyone is comfortable with. Good luck to you all and to Tim.


More Advice From Slate

My partner and I are parents to a sensitive, clever, and very extroverted 6-year-old. She has the occasional sleepover with her godparents, Steve and Linda. They are two childless friends of ours who adore and love our daughter very much. Our daughter always seems to have a fantastic time. I’m grateful that they’re sharing their time with her, as my partner and I don’t come from large families and our daughter doesn’t have any local grandparents.

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