One student chose to get a tattoo before class – and then told her professor she would be absent because the ink made her arm inflamed and sore.
Another young scholar embellished a line from "Ferris Bueller's Day Off": "I was coughing up a lung last night, and once I got to sleep, I just slept through class."
A repeat offender emailed, "No excuse this time except plain old oversleeping…I'll make absolute certain it doesn't happen again by getting one of those alarm clocks that starts rolling around the room when it goes off."
You, too, may have played hooky back in the day. But tuition, room, and board weren't $50,000 a year – and each skipped class didn't represent a triple-digit financial loss for your parents.
You may be unaware of your child's frequent absences. Find out about them — and don't dismiss them as no big deal. "The real problem is a general immaturity and inability to handle the demands of adulthood," says child psychiatrist Elizabeth Berger, author of Raising Kids with Character. "Taking illegitimate sick days is only a superficial, small, and specific symptom. Of course, the young adult shouldn't be lying and manipulating to get out of ordinary responsibilities. But the problem…is the underlying failure to meet responsibilities, which creates the need to lie."
Convinced you should take action? Some discussion topics:
College is expensive. "I believe that kids should work hard in school," says Berger. "If they don't, parents should stop footing the bill."
Professors may be suspicious. "Coughing up a lung"? Hmmm. "Mom can have a sit-down with kids in which mom suggests that college teachers are usually quite familiar with these antics," says Berger.
Absences are easy to document. At school and at work, teachers and bosses note them. "It's numeric data that can be tabulated, tracked, compared, correlated, and graphed," says Nashua, N.H., psychologist Carl Hindy, co-author of If This Is Love, Why Do I Feel So Insecure? "It's better to just stay off the radar. You don't want to stand out in a negative way – 'He uses all of his sick days.' It may do you well to stand out in a positive way – 'Has she ever taken a sick day?'"
Peers can get a negative impression, too. Students and young workers often forget that their colleagues may be the ones who recommend – or don't recommend – them for jobs later. Hindy hears it all the time: "'Why is he sick so much during March Madness and after 'Monday Night Football'? I'm here! They're just not team players.'"
Crying wolf is a bad idea. "There will be times when you actually are sick and need to take the time," says Hindy. "You want to be sure you have those days in reserve, and also that there are no questions or doubts about your use of sick time prior to this time of genuine need. If you have a 103 fever and can't get out of the bathroom, you don't want also to be worrying about how you were flagged on your use of sick days in your last evaluation."
Con artistry should be off limits. No one likes to feel as though someone is a "slick operator" trying to pull one over, says Berger. "'My dog ate my homework' excuses aren't fooling anybody."
Any excuse notes should be simple. A teacher doesn't need to know the gory details.One student told her teacher about her diarrhea. Another emailed,"I started throwing up around 7 this morning, and it continued on in frequent waves throughout the morning and into the afternoon." Don't overdo the selfless card, either. One student wrote, "I wish I could make it to class, but I've no desire to infect anyone with my hacks and sneezes." Another emailed, "I would hate to come in and contaminate the rest of the class."
Computers do crash, and exam dates do change unexpectedly. "[But] if this is more than a rare happening, it might say more about problems with your time management," says Hindy. "Of course you need to plan ahead and be prepared for the unanticipated. There seem to be people out there for whom 'the unexpected' seems to happen several time each week. We all know people like that. Would you hire one, or give a promotion to him or her?"
Too many suspicious absences are an ominous sign. "Mismanagement of responsibilities and dishonest cover-ups tend to go together," says Berger. "And—to put the icing on the cake—these tendencies are longstanding. They don't just pop up in college or on the job. People who perform poorly in their adult roles as students or workers and then who give fraudulent excuses have usually been doing this since they were in the fifth grade, when 'the dog ate my homework.'"
Psychological services or tutoring may help. Colleges today offer remarkable counseling services. If you suspect your child is missing too many classes, encourage him to reach out — and then be patient. "Forming a team takes skill," says Berger. "Fixing this problem is not likely to be achieved overnight."
Reasons for absences vary considerably. Some students may have unidentified learning disabilities or ADHD, says Berger. "ome of them are immature, heavy drinkers, emotionally unstable, burdened by chaotic childhood circumstances, and otherwise troubled. Some poor workers and poor students have tragic stories of personal catastrophes. As a result, their poor performance actually has an explanation...It's just that the legitimate excuse is buried under so much habitual poor functioning that the young person doesn't actually know what it is."
And of course, like everyone else, sometimes students simply want to sleep in. They may simply need a reminder that the snooze is an expensive choice – with consequences.
For more stories about school and college, read: