23

Questions of similar topics have been asked here for the situation of instructing a course and here and here for the situation of 'no late work' policies. Additional questions about balancing teaching responsibilities here.

Background

I am a new graduate student, and part of my funding comes from TA responsibilities. For the current particular course, I am responsible for teaching lab sessions, grading homework, responding to student emails/questions, and other common duties. So far, I have not had too much trouble balancing the responsibilities of being a teaching assistant with other commitments.

Situation

Homework assignments are always released two weeks ahead of time and are due 9am on Monday mornings. For whatever reason - length of the homework, difficulty of a specific problem, etc. - this homework has caused several last-minute (example: midnight last night, 2am, and 6am) requests for extensions.

Question/problem

The situation of late homework requests is confounding to my daily practice of empathy. I feel like I am at a split in the road or forced to choose which devil to listen to. For example, one of the requests is legitimate from a student who has been experiencing medical issues the entire semester. Another is from a student who has explicitly articulated they need a good grade to get a luxury car from their parents. I have a personal rule to actively practice empathy in my day-to-day life, but my rule completely falls apart in this situation.

In @Paul Hiemstra's answer on another post, the use suggested:

If people have a legitimate reason for wanting an extension of the deadline, I would simply give them the extension. If they cannot provide a good reason, i.e. they simply procrastinated too much, they have to take responsibility for their behavior, and they do not get the extension.

But what is 'legitimate'? Additionally, I am concerned that individually evaluating the reasoning of each student - explicitly stated or not - may lead to personal inconsistencies in who I give an extension to and eventually consume large amounts of time.

I've spoken with the course instructor, but he has left it up to me. How can a TA balance empathy and deferring to the syllabus in teaching responsibilities?

  • 2
    Does your university have a centralised policy on assignment extensions? I know that mine does, for instance. – nick012000 Nov 18 at 21:40
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    @nick012000 unfortunately not! – Reputable Misnomer Nov 19 at 2:13
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    For the student with medical issues, it may be worth looping in the instructor, directing the student to Support Services on campus (they may be able to formally request extensions -- I had a student break his arm mid-semester and got a note-taker and extensions on certain types of work.) Even if there's no formal process, with the institution, the professor may be able to judge what's an acceptable (and consistent) guideline for the ill student. But sometimes homework was used for in-class exercises, so in my case, they weren't able to fully participate without a draft. – April --Un-Slander Monica-- Nov 19 at 14:43
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    My two cents. Wanting a luxury car: not a legit reason. Having a medical issue: legit reason, but as mentioned by April, they should have be talking to Student Services on campus so they can get help for all their classes. – setholopolus Nov 20 at 3:19
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    Not directly related to your question but having homework due on Monday morning seems inconvenient to me. In practise it will mean students try to do it on the weekend before when they have no possibility to contact a teacher, no matter whether they are just stuck or have a genuine problem causing a delay. I would do the exact opposite and have homework due on Friday afternoon. – quarague Nov 20 at 12:35

10 Answers 10

48

It sounds to me like you are allowing yourself to be emotionally manipulated by your students, particularly the one (who sounds super obnoxious) who told you about the promise for a luxury car from their parents. It’s indeed important to have empathy, and I find your conscious insistence on practicing empathy every day incredibly noble and admirable — if only more people did that the world would be a better place — but at the same time, sometimes a person has a job to do and needs to put the larger interests of the mission he or she serves ahead of the emotional need to “be nice”. Indeed, being nice to people who are undeserving is often harmful to those people. You would not be doing any favors to the immature, manipulative student who wants to get a luxury car by giving them unfairly favorable treatment out of pity or “empathy”. (The student with medical problems is a completely different story, where the request sounds a lot more reasonable.)

In any case, empathy is about how you relate to people and not about the decision you make on their petition. Even on occasions when I’ve had to turn down a desperate student’s request for a grade change, and knowing that that’s the only decision I could possibly make in good conscience, I would like to think that I explained my decision to the crying student with empathy - I certainly tried my best, even if the students in that moment sometimes only seemed to care about having their request denied and might well have thought me to be a cruel, heartless person.

So what is a good way in practice to solve the dilemma? The answer you quoted in your post has it exactly right. You give an extension to the people who have a legitimate reason to need it, and refuse it to those who don’t. That’s all there is to it. “But what is 'legitimate'?” Exactly what you judge to be legitimate — after first pausing to take ten deep breaths, counting down to zero from one hundred, writing an email draft answering the request and saving it in your drafts folder, going on a walk or a coffee break, and finally coming back and looking at the question with fresh eyes. If at that point you still think the need is legitimate and can say with certainty, or least with reasonable confidence, that you are not falling victim to emotional manipulation from an unscrupulous student, by all means grant the request.

And whether or not you‘ve decided to grant the request at that point, be content to know that you have been true to your principles of practicing empathy, and that you are doing your small part to help make the world a better place.

  • 18
    "Empathy is about how you relate to people and not about the decision you make on their petition." Yeah, I can feel your pain at not getting a new luxury car from daddy, but that's not going to stop me from laughing at you and saying "no". – RonJohn Nov 19 at 3:22
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    Also, validate. I can't count how often students who claimed a very valid reasons for delays turned out to just have forgotten when I started to look into their case in more detail. – xLeitix Nov 19 at 6:39
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    @xLeitix good point! – Dan Romik Nov 19 at 6:43
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    I had a student explain they had to miss class due to a court date -- I was of course sympathetic. Due to a car accident. ok, I'm still on board. That they caused by drinking and driving on a suspended license. Hmmmm..... Since I was teaching Writing, I have used that example for future classes about thinking about the Audience -- how much information is necessary. Most of the time (illness, family issues), less is more. Pre-excused ones typically need more detail ("As we discussed, work is sending me to XYZ, so I will miss next Tuesday's class...what can I do...?") – April --Un-Slander Monica-- Nov 19 at 14:38
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    @April--SlanderMonica--: Did they come forward to you with the reason of the car accident? For what it's worth, I would hope that in civilized countries, a court date is a reason to not to have to come to work, regardless of the person is guilty or not. This should also hold for universities. – user115896 Nov 19 at 17:55
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You talk about empathy towards those asking for extensions, what about those who didn’t?

Many students work their butt off to make deadlines and never think of asking for an extension. By granting extensions to some students who don’t have a valid reason (in my book that’d be medical or death/severe illness of human loved one, but your policy can differ), you’re basically telling those silent hard working ones that their time is worth less than that of others. That’s not empathy in my opinion.

In fact, this is exactly what I tell students who ask for extensions: I can’t grant you one because it’s unfair to other students taking the class. They usually understand where I’m coming from and take it better than outright refusal.

EDIT: perhaps to drive the point home here - you may be inadvertently discriminating against students who feel less empowered in a university setting. Unfortunately, these students often enough tend to be from certain socioeconomic/minority/gender groups - think about the potential implications of this practice!

  • 1
    I've definitely considered this, especially around the dynamics of those who feel more comfortable (or empowered) asking versus those who do not. I think next semester we will need more clarity in the syllabus for this. – Reputable Misnomer Nov 19 at 14:34
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    I only have my own experience to draw on, but I see certain... trends in the types of students who tend to ask for extensions. I suggest that if you grant someone an extension, you should consider granting it to everyone. – Spark Nov 19 at 14:54
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    When I was an undergrad I saw this several times, where a minority of students asked for an extension (for various reasons), so the entire assignment was pushed back a day or so, or a clause added to the grading scheme that would drop the lowest graded assignment from factoring into the final grade. – GreySage Nov 19 at 19:52
  • What I saw a few times as a student was: You can hand in your assignment up to 48h late but get only 2/3 of the points for it. I always found this to be a fair solution. You won't fail the whole course if you have a legitimate reason to hand in late but still it's not unfair to other students who plan good enough to make it. But for all assignments we always had at least one week time and none of them took more than at most maybe 10h of actual work. – Josef Nov 20 at 17:23
9

My thinking on this issue has changed dramatically over the years, and I now give extensions much more frequently than I used to. (I'm not saying this is necessarily the right course of action, though.)

I would advise you to consider some guiding principles at play here:

1) Consider the reason that there's a deadline in the first place, and ponder the possible harm done if it is violated. To be clear, this is not a rhetorical point. As an undergrad, I had a course where all homework assignments were due in the last week of class; suffice it to say that the three weeks leading up to that were not fun for me. Deadlines are good, because they require students to maintain pace with the course and avoid a huge backlog at the end; additionally, work in a class is often iterative, and in those cases it's imperative to stay on top of it.

Here are some examples of what I'd regard to be very good reasons to keep a hard deadline in place without extension:

  • You need to post a key for the benefit of the rest of the students, which would render the assignment pointless for a student completing the work late.
  • The work represents some fundamental concept that will be built upon in class, and it's genuinely important that the student have the work completed on a particular schedule.
  • You're planning to grade the assignments right after they're turned in, and it may take you more time overall to extend the assignment -- either because you need to get yourself back into a grading mindset somehow, or you have to reopen something on your computer, or whatever else. Your own time is valuable, and it's well within your right to fight for it. But this logic ought to apply to everyone. If this is your reason, I'd advise you to drop the lowest X homeworks or have some similar policy that allows some flexibility for truly exigent circumstances, and to apply the policy uniformly to all students.

Personally, I find it often the case that there is no pressing reason to keep a specific hard deadline in practice, but rather that the general concept of deadlines should be maintained so students don't fall far behind. For that reason, I tend to freely give extensions. When a student asks for several, I have a conversation with them about it.

2) It is probably better that students complete homework late than that they don't complete it at all. Of course, this must be weighed against your responses to 1) above. Like I said, there are very good reasons to be strict about deadlines, and those reasons may well win the argument.

3) Remember that if all that's needed to get an extension is a good reason, it's very easy to lie about those reasons. If you adopt a policy in which "My grandmother died" is a good enough reason that warrants an extensions, and "I made a bad choice and binge watched Game of Thrones" isn't, then you're implicitly putting yourself on the hook for documentation of the good reasons. In the long run, if you differentiate between reasons but don't demand documentation, you are likely to develop a reputation that will result in some students who binge-watched Game of Thrones instead reporting to you that their grandmother died. And in fact, in this scenario, the only students who won't receive an untoward benefit are precisely the ones who compelled to be honest about their reason. That seems bad.

4) Make a choice that you'd be willing to defend to a supervisor. If you're going to treat students differently, imagine sitting in a room with both of them and an administrator and justifying your decision. If you can't easily do that, you're probably making a mistake. And if you're unsure what you could defend to a supervisor, then go find a supervisor and talk to them about the situation immediately.

5) When unsure, defer to empathy in all cases. I know that you're trying to do that here, and I think your heart is in the right place. Empathy is helpful for so many reasons; it's beneficial to the students' education, it's easy to defend politically, and you'll probably sleep better at night. If a student is irresponsible or taking some sort of shortcut, you're very likely to detect that in other places (such as tests). Going out of your way to enforce various "good behaviors" (such as deadlines) is, in my experience, an unsustainable career choice.

Final thought: I have never once regretted giving a student leeway, but I've regretted behaving strictly.

  • 1
    Thanks for the detailed response, given me a lot to think about – Reputable Misnomer Nov 18 at 18:16
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    Actually deadlines are useful so that students can move along to new ideas as the course progresses. They can be a bit loose, but many students need guidance in pacing their own work to the course. Otherwise many get jammed up at the end. Your number 2 is very important and useful, of course. – Buffy Nov 18 at 20:46
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    Right. I guess I was skimming, sorry that I missed it. I need to be careful when letting students repeat old work, in fact, that rework doesn't interfere with the new. But an initial hard deadline with the possibility of getting most of the points a bit later seemed to work for me. The initial 10% penalty for missing the deadline could mostly erased if the work came in soon. – Buffy Nov 18 at 21:12
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    This is a well-written post. The sub-bullets under #1 are critical and should be a part of the best answer. However, I'm in the other direction with your conclusion: I have regretted many (most?) instances of giving leeway, and I can't recall any such example of being strict about deadlines. – Daniel R. Collins Nov 19 at 2:57
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    "It is probably better that students complete homework late than that they don't complete it at all." These are the words of a wise teacher. (+1) – Henrik Schumacher Nov 20 at 10:55
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I encourage you to get creative, while simultaneously work hard to make the same rules for everybody in order to avoid succumbing to confirmational bias.

Simply put, if the president of the preprofessional club comes to you and asks you for an extension, the tie dye wearing hippy deserves exactly the same answer in a similar situation. It's too easy to create a narrative in one's head where one deserves the extension and the other doesn't. That narrative may well align with unperceived biases.

For this reason, my policy is to allow all students to drop their lowest homework grade, and I simply don't accept late homeworks, barring some serious documented medical reason.

For all other assignments, my policy is to list all the due dates in the syllabus, make reasonable grade penalties for late submissions known in advance in the syllabus, and (barring serious documented medical reasons or real disasters like death of a close family member) stick to the rules.

I wasn't always here. I got here after some training from Cook Ross on unconscious and confirmational bias that my institution contracted for leaders.

As an added bonus, one of the things we'd like to train our students in is planning and how to use their time. A very liberal late work policy isn't the most effective message.

  • 4
    Actually, it is the professor in the course who should be making the rules. But you can certainly inform them of the need for it and make suggestions as to what they might be to make your world simpler and saner. – Buffy Nov 18 at 17:25
  • As the course repeats next semester I will definitely incorporate my experience into the teaching plan and try to find a way that can overcome this issue. – Reputable Misnomer Nov 19 at 2:14
8

There are many very good reasons for keeping strict deadlines. For example, the sub-bullets in Aaron Montgomery's answer are extremely important. Everyone should consider those carefully.

That said: For me, the time budget of the instructor is paramount. You have many varied tasks as an academic, and it's common for faculty to have great difficulty keeping a good work/life balance, juggling research and service, responding to emails in a timely fashion, etc. Presumably you've made yourself available to help via email and office hours, etc. At some point that budgeted time is finished and you need to move on to other tasks, and not have grading/feedback tasks lingering because of late students.

I have tacked on my wall a list of time-management principles published a decade ago in the NEA Higher Education Advocate, from the article "Overload Epidemic!?!". Here they are:

  • Principle 1: Be able to be efficient in all things.
  • Principle 2: Express your values in how you use your time.
  • Principle 3: Don’t hoard responsibility, share it.
  • Principle 4: For every aspect of your life, find a time and place befitting it.
  • Principle 5: Be short with many so that you may be long with a few.

I think if you reflect on them, all of these principles point in the direction of not accepting late assignments. It's most efficient (#1 and #4) to do all the grading for an assignment in a batch longitudinally, so you should have them all in one place at a time, and not do mental-switching later to get in and out of the task. Sharing responsibility (#3) suggests that students should take that burden, not just you. Being short with many (#5) further suggests that you not cycle indefinitely with late students. Etc., etc.

Returning to Aaron's list, I feel that I have dedicated a lot of time and energy to my students and their coursework. I personally grade and give quite a bit of feedback on every assignment and exam. I have no TA's or graders. I commit to having assignments and exams returned with feedback the day after they've been submitted (usually requires being up to about 2 AM late Sunday nights). I don't want to delay giving/discussing answers to the whole class because one student was late. When the scheduled time for that is over, it's over, and we're moving on to the next thing. I think it would be irresponsible to spend extra mental energy on a lagging student, when I could instead prepare a presentation that would benefit the entire class.

The OP's second link has a pretty great answer inspecting the granularity of assignments. In my case, there are a lot of assignments, one every week, and the deadlines are strict (via the online learning management system), with one dropped from the grade per semester. I think this allows a tight feedback/learning opportunity about the process of the work. If there were a small number of big projects, then I would consider modifying this policy.

But keep in mind that if you burn yourself out with these nonstop moral dilemmas about assessing the legitimacy of student excuses, then you'll be in no state to help other people as you intend. Make sure to defend your time and health (both mental and physical) first and foremost. Other considerations are secondary.

6

tl;dr: Change your 'deadlines' system, to make both your students' and your life easier.


For what it's worth, I fully agree with Aaron's answer here.

However, I think both his answer and the currently accepted one, fail to address the underlying issue, which is the fact that it "feels" like a valid choice for the student, since there is no realistic alternative. Most 'deadline' systems tend to be very badly designed, typically consisting of a single, contrived, non-negotiable binary event, completely ignoring the interdependence other courses have on each other's deadlines, etc.

This means that, a student who struggled for an extra couple of days on an assignment for one course, has no option but to try and juggle the rest. I think talking about "fairness" and empathy, or even manipulation, is missing the point here. The point is, the current system makes coming to you to ask for one an option in the first place, and, more to the point, with no other recourse for alternative choices (better or otherwise). Therefore, you have people coming to you for extensions.

It should not be up to you to decide to take responsibility for extending, it should be up to the student, in a way that allows them to weigh the consequences, as a responsible adult!

But, equally, this is only meaningful if there is a system in place which is flexible enough to allow them to do that, without it having to be an automatic life-or-death decision.

When I was studying for my Masters, my department had the best submissions policy I have seen so far, and I felt very supported by it:

  • Every submission had an automatic three day extension. No questions asked, but you had to submit a reason (for the record).
  • For any day beyond the three-day extension, an automatic penalty was applied (by percentage) on their mark (e.g. 10% the first day, 20% the second etc).

Yes, many students treated the official deadline as a 'fake' one, but this means they took responsibility for doing so. Many people also went beyond and accepted the penalty. But for the most part, people felt supported, because it meant if the deadlines for two courses clashed, they had enough flexibility to decide by themselves how to prioritise things and why.

Obviously, in the event of very serious mitigating circumstances, it was possible to negotiate the penalties, especially if given advanced notice (i.e. given before the formal deadline). However, psychologically, the student now has to justify why they need a fourth day or more, and not an extension in general.

With this system in place, very few students had a reason to book an appointment and ask for such an extension in the first place, and it worked very well both for both the students and the academics involved.

5

Have a policy and stick to it.

Here are two extremes:

  • "Barring medical issues, due dates are strictly enforced"
  • "Due dates are recommendations only; homework will be accepted for full credit at any time before the final exam"

Both of these are fine, though the latter can lead to a lot of work for you. What is not fine is having a policy but allowing exceptions to some students and not to others who have equally good reasons.

Make your policy clear-cut to avoid angst. Something like "extensions will be granted at the TA's discretion" requires you to judge the student, their excuse, and your own plans (e.g., do you have time to grade late work this week?). This also leads to second-guessing from students, and can be unfair to those who adjusted other plans to meet your deadlines.

FWIW, my own preferred policy was "I'll take late work for no penalty if you get it to me before I finish grading (otherwise, no late work without a doctor's note)." This balances empathy (no point imposing a penalty when there is no harm done) with justice (there is always the risk that I would pick it up promptly, go home, and grade it -- which indeed I occasionally did).

3

In principle, I am relatively strict, as I found that students respect not only the lecturer, but themselves more when they are taken seriously and the requirements imposed on them are taken seriously, too.

However, if there is a legitimate concern that this particular coursework caused extra difficulties, was particularly challenging, that students may have put in the extra mile to get this done, it may be appropriate to actually honour the commitment of the students to succeeding in the challenge by giving them - as a one off - extra time.

Note that I do not talk about empathy. Your goal as a TA is their best possible education, and they will not get that if extensions are given out freely, no more than it would help a society if money were printed freely, but if you can assume that they have done their best to achieve the goal, you may consider it using your "joker" of an extension to reward them for committed work.

Why do I talk about the educational goal and not empathy? Think of a surgeon - his empathy notwithstanding, he will actively injure you and cause pain to you for the purpose of helping you. Him acting on immediate empathic impulse will be harmful to you in the long (or short) term.

As for the case who has medical issues, that should be resolved by the school by specifying which extra accommodation they should receive. You as a TA should not be the person making these decisions overall.

And as for the guy who will get a luxury car if he gets a good grade - I am almost at a loss what to say: this is a horrible example of external motivation. Probably, you could tell him that he puts you under terrible pressure and he should not do that. To be frank, he simply transfers the pressure to you that his parents have put him under.

It is very sad that you are expected to buffer this appalling incentivization, but there is a clear lack of empathy on the side of his parents - imagine if you let this guide you: students that do not have parents that can invoke such incentives to push them towards good grades (assuming this would make the difference) would then be disadvantaged. This is where you have to apply empathy with your whole set of students, not just the ones that ask for special treatment. Empathy and fairness are not identical, but they are siblings.

  • 2
    Perhaps we agree that it is useful to appear to be strict to our students while actually being just a bit less strict in practice. As a student we talked about "pud" courses. Easy to pass. The teachers got little respect. But it was different to have a tough instructor who was also understanding when necessary. They got more than respect. They got emulated later when we started our own careers. – Buffy Nov 18 at 21:54
0

Treat their studies, including homework, as their job. If they also work in addition to studying, well... many people work two or more jobs.

If they are sick for one day, it should not greatly impact their work, unless they are leaving everything until the last minute. If they are sick for longer they should see a doctor and get a medical certificate/note/reference, which (to me) is an automatic extension for the length of time the doctor certifies them as "unfit for work".

I usually tell students as part of the introduction to the class/course that if they need more time and ask for an extension, that asking days before the deadline with an explanation of why they need/want said extension is far more likely to be granted than asking by email at 2am (barring emergencies, which is then also likely that their homework is the last thing on their mind).

Then, when/if a student should ask for an extension two days before the deadline because they are finding it very difficult, it is possible to poll the class and gives the option to offer a blanket extension.

If a student should have another reason (e.g. personal emergency) it is possibly as likely to occur at 2 am on the day the homework is due as it is to occur three days before the deadline. But I don't personally know anyone who would email me from a hospital (for example) to ask for an extension. An extension for such an emergency is always an exception.

I would sometimes respond with, "Send me your draft and then we can discuss an extension." If they have had a number of weeks to complete it then I would expect they have made some progress towards completion. That is, I try to also teach some time management.

Building in some form of time-management training also helps those with reward/incentive schemes in place for good performance. Granting extensions to help with students obtaining external rewards isn't helping them in the long term (in my opinion).

-2

For me, empathy would look like the following:

one of the requests is legitimate from a student who has been experiencing medical issues the entire semester.

I'm so sorry about your medical issues, which you had no way to anticipate because you didn't know you would catch mono the third week of the semester. I realize that this has set you behind in your work, and you haven't been able to catch up. I will be happy to mark up your papers with a red pen, even if you turn them in late, so that you have the feedback you need in order to progress in your understanding of calculus and catch up. Of course, as a TA I have no control over the fact that you need to take the final at the end of the semester. But if you are able to learn what you need to by the end of the semester, and you demonstrate that on the final, I will definitely bring this up with the lead instructor for the course, and urge them not to base your course grade too literally on the average score you have, but rather on your demonstrated mastery of the material at that point.

Another [request] is from a student who has explicitly articulated they need a good grade to get a luxury car from their parents.

I'm so sorry that your parents are horrible people with a distorted system of values. If there's anything I can do to help you recover from the effects of their bad parenting, please let me know.

  • 4
    Hmm. No offense Ben, but calling someone’s parents horrible does not strike me as the best example of how to show empathy. – Dan Romik Nov 19 at 2:59
  • @DanRomik: I disagree. This person's parents are horrible people. Saying so is a way of expressing sympathy and trying to help this person recover from a bad upbringing. Empathy in this situation does not consist of handing them a kleenex and saying, "Oh, I'm so sorry you might not get your Maserati." – Ben Crowell Nov 19 at 3:03
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    To call someones parents "horrible" and their actions "bad parenting" (based on one sentence they said!) is highly unprofessional, to say the least. I don't get your comment - one can clearly show emphathy without saying "Oh, I'm so sorry you might not get your Maserati." or called the parents "horrible" (see also @DanRomik 's answer). – user115896 Nov 19 at 17:49

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