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Carolyn Hax Live: "Think big, speak honestly" (May 12)

May 12, 2017

Advice columnist Carolyn Hax chats live every Friday at noon to answer any questions you might have about this strange train we call life.

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Hey everybody, happy Friday.

My 8-year old son decided to become a vegetarian because he doesn't like the idea of killing animals. He's kept it up for about 3 months. It's slightly inconvenient in terms of going out to eat and having to prepare different things. Recently I said something about it and my wife said "I wish you'd talked to me before you made this decision." She's also suggested a couple of times we just don't tell him meat is in something or commented that he's not getting all the nutrients he needs but can't specifically name anything he's not getting (I make an effort to make sure his diet is balanced). I'm just not sure how to respond from here. We're usually on the same page and of course both parents should make decisions involving the kids but I don't feel like it's even our decision to make. My son made it and at 8 I think he's capable of deciding he doesn't like animals being killed for his food.

Good for your kid, and good for you. Not for quitting meat, per se, but for the willingness to stand up for something and the willingness to stand up for him, respectively.

That's how I suggest you talk about it with your wife. Don't approach it as a meat/no meat thing, but as a matter of respect. He decided this, you didn't; your decision was to treat this as a matter self-expression for your son.

But instead of responding with this line of reasoning upfront, I also suggest you approach your wife not with declarations but with questions. Or, if you're comfortable with it, with reflective listening--i.e. a restatement of something she says, as you understand it to mean: "It's bothering you that Son chose to be a vegetarian." Your wife then gets to respond with a correction--for example, "No, it's not that he's a vegetarian, it's that I had no say in it"--or she can acknowledge that's how she's feeling. "Yes, it's really bothering me and I don't know why" or "Yes, it's really bothering me because I don't think an 8-year-old gets to run an entire household like this." Or whatever else. The point of the inquiry/reflection is to draw out the real source of your wife's objections.

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I do think there's another source, because she's all over the map--wishing she'd been told, suggesting food-sneaks (terrible, terrible idea by the way--do be forceful on that point), fretting about nutrition. When there are multiple points of conflict that aren't particularly coherent, that tends to suggest a bigger, underlying complaint that hasn't yet been identified, reckoned with or expressed.

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Once you've gotten at least closer to an understanding of your wife's concerns, you'll be in a better position to discuss your differences of opinion on whether and how to support your son. It's okay that you don't agree--even parents who are typically in sync will diverge on one issue or another--as long as you work together in good faith to find a solution you can both accept.

Please also make sure your son's pediatrician knows of the switch. It's not a novelty for a child to be on a vegetarian diet, but it can't hurt to confirm that you've got the nutritional requirements covered.

My girlfriend, “Amy” and I are both 32, have been dating for almost a year and have talked seriously about marriage as a goal sometime next year. I love Amy and she’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Since the beginning I’ve known her dog is a big part of her life, she loves him and that’s fine with me though I’ve never had or wanted pets myself. The thing is, I’ve started wondering about her priorities regarding her dog. A few months ago he was diagnosed with kidney disease. The vet made it very clear that this is incurable. The dog is 10 yo and had a good life and I expected Amy would make the decision to put him down. Instead she’s spending insane amounts of money every month on “supportive care” (specialty vets – yes there is such a thing, meds, supplies, etc.) and plans to keep him alive as long as his “quality of life” is good. And it’s not just money, it’s so much of her time and energy taken up with him: she has to give him fluids under the skin every day, cook him special food and so on. To me, all of this is just crazy for a dog who is going to die anyway. When I try to gently express my view, she gets really upset with me. I can’t help but think of all of the worthwhile things she could be doing with that money rather than throwing it away on her dog, who as I said, is going to die anyway. It’s gotten to the point where she has asked me to refrain from even talking to her about this and I wonder if this is a sign that she loves that dog more than me. What do you think, are Amy’s priorities screwed up or am I insensitive?

You're going to die anyway. Should anyone cook you special food?

Sorry. Couldn't help myself.

There's an argument to be made for and against the kind of dog care Amy believes in. On the one hand, it's a lot of money for a "lost" cause. In fact, it's a reasonable discussion for human health care, too--how much money is reasonable for, say, experimental treatments? Established treatments that won't necessarily extend life, or at least not life of any decent quality? If it's palliative care, do we spare no expense? These are ethical issues that don't have pat answers.

This brings us to the other-hand argument: The companionship provided by an animal is real, as is the responsibility to care for that animal compassionately. Obviously some people chain dogs outside (can't even type it without a swell of anger) and some see them as their "fur kids," so there's a wide range of buy-in to the quality of that companionship--but I expect anyone who has ever bonded with a dog  understands Amy, even while maybe not agreeing with her choice of such extensive and expensive care.

So that's one aspect of the issue here, that she represents one point on a valid spectrum of dog attachment.

Another applies beyond animals to everything people care about. She has her priorities, you have yours. A crucial area of compatibility is in respect for each other's priorities where they differ. If you can't, then you and Amy can't.

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Finally, there's this: "I wonder if this is a sign that she loves that dog more than me." and this: "are Amy’s priorities screwed up or am I insensitive?"

You've presented this issue as you vs. Amy when, really, there's nothing binary about this. Where do you get the idea that if Amy loved you, she'd back off on treating her dog? That's just an emotional non sequitur. Plus, you can be insensitive AND Amy's priorities can be screwed up, right? And she can also have fine priorities and you can be a sensitive person who just doesn't grasp or agree with the merits of dog extravagance. 

Point being, you've forced this into an either-or, I'm-wrong-or-she's-wrong box when it fits much better into a framework of two individual sets of values that don't line up in some ways. Instead of looking at it as a place to be right or wrong, try looking at the possibilities for acceptance. Is there room in your relationship for both of you to be right in your own ways? 

 

A combo of reading Charlotte's Web and watching Babe at age 12 made me decide not to eat pork for ethical reasons. What my parents thought would be a passing phase has now lasted 20+ years. A few years in they gave me pork steaks and lead me to believe they were chicken... thinking if I liked the taste it would make me eat pork again. Instead I felt terrible about contributing to the death of a pig, and felt super violated by my parents. Terrible idea.

Exactly. Plus people who have long abstained from a food can be sickened by eating it. It's just an awful idea all around. So incredibly presumptuous.

I keep thinking about this post from last week. I come at the question from a different perspective, since I did not have children of my own (not by choice, it just didn't work out for me) - but I have spent the last few years taking care of my elderly parents, both of whom have often needed assistance at night. Everyone copes with sleeplessness differently, and lots of suggestions have already been made, so I won't address that point. My larger point would be this: Life throws all sorts of challenges our way, and sleeplessness is frequently the result. Whether it's our children, our parents, our lovers, our friends, our work - we're all going to face challenges that upset our equilibrium, disturb our sleep, upend our lives - whether those challenges go on for years or months or days, and however they end (or if they ever do). I don't know if the poster should have children or not, we all have to set our own priorities, assess our own abilities, and be honest about what we are and are not willing to do - but I think she might need to take a longer view, and not assume that the challenges (or the sleep deprivation) associated with parenthood end with the toddler years, even as she might not want to assume that a childless life will not bring its own set of sleep-depriving challenges. We all have pictures in our head of how our lives are going to go - life has a way of altering those pictures, sometimes beyond recognition. Which is why it is incumbent upon us to broaden our frames as much as possible, and paint as full a picture for ourselves as possible - and then expect that it might all need to be repainted anyway. Good luck to her with her decision-

"Which is why it is incumbent upon us to broaden our frames as much as possible, and paint as full a picture for ourselves as possible - and then expect that it might all need to be repainted anyway."

I can paste this in as the answer to so many questions, and the relief from so many expectations. Thank you.

Eight is also old enough to start participating in some meal planning and cooking. Get your son an age-appropriate and nutritionally complete vegetarian cookbook and enlist his help in planning and preparing meals that can please the whole family. It could ease some of the inconvenience and nutrition worry, which might help solve the problems with the wife.

Genius.

This issue stands out for me in a big way. When I was in high school, my 15 year old friend decided to become a vegetarian. Her family openly mocked her and told her it was "just a phase." That was 25 years ago and she remains one to this day. Even if she hadn't, being openly uncomfortable with someone else's vegetarianism, particularly when it doesn't limit your meat intake, isn't a reflection on you or your parenting. When I cut out red meat for a couple of years, my sister would Not. Let. It. Go. It made her so uncomfortable to the point she was embarrassing herself. You definitely need to ask your wife why she cares so much about a decision that's not about her at all. Then she needs to accommodate it, and let it go.

I have a different take on today’s column — my daughter (she is 30) and I have polar political views. I say political because that is how it manifests itself; however, to me it comes down to core values of compassion and empathy, or lack thereof. I do not proselytize, nor do I say anything to her — it is in her occasional opines of this or that, in random comments, etc. As a person separate from me, I respect her having her own opinions, but as her mother I am so saddened and, well, disappointed. She doesn’t rant vile propaganda (overt racism, etc.), yet her lack of even attempting to understand others circumstances and disadvantages is so disheartening, I have difficulty engaging with her. Of course I don’t want to end our relationship, but when we engage, almost daily, it is so painful to recognize that she is not someone I would choose to have in my life if we were not related. I wonder where I went wrong-- how do I reconcile this and maintain a working relationship with my daughter, continuing to keep this disappointment to myself/at bay, without feeling like a hypocrite or fraud?

A few things, starting with sympathy. Regardless of the reason, this--"it is so painful to recognize that she is not someone I would choose to have in my life if we were not related"--is a reckoning more people will identify with than not.

Also, I don't think this is connected to today's column except in the fact of a difference in values. Which is a big thing, I guess, but the expression of it is so different. To me the proselytizing was the thing; had the parent taken a different path, one generally of accepting what was and not presuming to change it, then their relationship stood a chance. Maybe not to be great, but to be a source of peace instead of conflict.

And finally, I think the path to reconciliation for you might lie in an odd place: science. Or, maybe more fittingly said for this column, in detaching the outcome of your daughter's values and worldview from the actions you took and the choices you made as a parent.

One (possibly the only? Discuss) benefit of the yawning political divide in society of late is a lot of accessible, published work on the brain science of such views. Read HERE, HERE and HERE for analyses of varying nerdiness of the brain differences of people with different politics. I post them with the usual caveats with studies and etc: I'm not a scientist, just a layman who reads a lot; and we're just at the beginning of any real understanding of the brain; and "studies" can be anything from bankable or laughable, depending on many factors; and maybe there are far better or more comprehensive writings out there than these. But all that said, there might be some comfort in seeing your differences not as your letting her down or her letting you down, but instead as being wired differently in important ways. 

 

I put a lot of effort into supportive care for a beloved dog with congestive heart failure, and she got an extra year of good-quality life. My devotion to doing so had no relationship to how much I love the people in my life. If someone had had the self-centered nerve to suggest that it meant that I loved the dog more, that would have been a self-fulfilling prophecy -- I would immediately love that person a bit less.

Have I said lately how much I appreciate you guys? Readers who can write--you're an education unto yourselves. Thank you.

My older brother (and only sibling) is getting married Memorial Day weekend, and I'm getting more and more anxious the closer it gets. (15 days until) I can't seem to find a concrete reason for my nerves. I've known my soon to be sister-in-law since I was 14 (I'm 24 now.) I'm not a bridesmaid, but am doing a reading for the ceremony. Our respective families get along. I have my dress, shoes, flights and everything set for it. It's the first major wedding on our parents' sides in more than 20 years, so I think I would be excited. Do you have any suggestions?

Dress, shoes, flights, even liking the bride--you need to think deeper than that. 

Milestones, whether they're ours or somebody else's, can jog loose some feelings we didn't know were there or just haven't wanted to face. Day-to-day life can be ... I won't say numbing, but it can lull you into a state where you use your consciousness mostly for minor, "What's next?" decisions, like what to wear or have for lunch or watch on TV. Especially if you're not entirely mindful of or happy with the routine you're in, a milestone can be the loud knock on the door you weren't expecting. 

Can't say that's the case with you, but it's worth considering as the source of your mystery anxiety, if only to rule it out.

3 months ago my fiancé proposed to me. We had been together over 4 years at the time, and own a home together. It's now apparent that he only proposed to keep me happy (possibly even to get me to leave him alone about marriage for a while), and he only speaks negatively about weddings and marriage in general. He has done nothing but impede wedding planning, and wants to put off the ceremony for another year. But I don't feel like waiting around and twiddling my thumbs for a year if marriage is the end goal. I think I'm the only one of us who has a goal of ACTUALLY being married to my partner. How do I approach the question of whether I want to actually marry someone who doesn't seem to REALLY want to marry me? I'm not willing to stay not married forever. I was very close to leaving for this exact reason, and when he realized I was serious, quickly worked to get me an engagement ring.

How much do you guys talk, and how deeply? Where's the intimacy here? You sound less like partners and more like roommates with objectives. Different ones at that.

Try, please, to have the conversation: "You say _____, ______, and _____ about weddings and marriage and general. I plan the wedding, you postpone the wedding. I would rather you tell me the truth about what you're thinking and feeling than to have it come out in bits and pieces like this." Your words of course, but you get the idea.

If he won't tell you what he really thinks and feels at this point, then the marriage is not happening, even if it happens. The point of marriage is intimacy, and intimacy is about sharing yourself honestly and mutually. Not grumpy deflecting.

I am advising a conversation, but, in the interest of full disclosure, your whole description of this relationship screams "over." People don't propose insincerely "to keep me happy," they propose insincerely because for whatever reason they don't want to disrupt their day-to-day lives. It's so selfish. And it sounds for your part that your "goal" of marriage is no longer about him anymore, or about what the two of you create together emotionally, but instead about formalizing a vision you formed years ago.

Think big, speak honestly, and be brave enough to let the right outcome reveal itself, instead of pushing for one you think you want (or pushing away from one you're afraid of). 

My son is 14 and interested in politics. He is particularly interested in learning about socialism and communism. He also just started on social media and is only connected with family. He has posted recently his thoughts on why he supports the ideals in communism and has basically been attacked by relatives who had family members in the Soviet Union. How can I ask them to allow him to express himself freely while acknowledging it is a painful topic for them? He's super sensitive and now feels ashamed for stating his thoughts.

Such a great opportunity, squandered. 

You can get it back, though, I think: Your son is thinking about big, conceptual things, and there are family members who have lived (or heard the firsthand accounts of those who lived) the reality end of those concepts. How great would it be to get the people with the institutional memory of the Soviet Union to discuss with your son--*civilly*--how what may have seemed like good ideas in theory created some painful realities for the people living in these systems. 

That would require two people-wrangling missions for you. First, talk to your son, and assure him he has no cause for shame. He's learning, and it takes guts to think out loud the way he did. That's what it takes for us to develop in-depth knowledge: to have the courage to ask questions, to open our thoughts to the critical eyes of others, to incorporate any feedback into our understanding. He's a champ for what he did and you hope he'll keep exploring ideas with the same courage. Add a social-media warning here, since it's not a fact-gathering or idea-sharing forum for the sensitive; with your help, maybe he can find a more forgiving way to explore his interests.

Second, talk to the relatives. Remind them that they're talking not to an adult with an agenda, but a kid with ideas and questions and an appetite for understanding the world. Ask them if they'd be willing to share their thoughts, discuss his ideas, tell their stories--whatever--as his teachers vs his critics.  If they agree, then find a way to get them together (in your home if local, on v-chat if not) in a more hospitable way.

 

While you've never answered a question I've specifically asked, many others you have, I've been able to apply to my situation. I recently got out of a relationship where I was a victim of domestic violence and I'm doing everything possible to keep my son and myself safe, and rebuild our lives. I luckily have family who is able to help and am financially stable. One thing you've said many times for those who have friends in the situation I was in really stuck out, and I didn't know how much it meant until a friend did this for me. Looking back, over the last few years, friends have pulled away, stopped inviting me to things and I was losing my circle. When I was invited, I would usually respond I would try, but ultimately couldn't go. One person would occasionally reach out, check in, invite me to lunch (we both work from home). I took her up on it Friday, and as we were getting ready to head back to work, she commented that she thought it strange people stopped inviting me because I wasn't coming to anything. She said I would never come if I didn't know about events and that there might be some reason why I didn't come that had nothing to do with them. Now they know it was possibly the divorce. My friends don't know all the details beyond my ex as an alcoholic. I guess my point is, that one person reaching out on occasion and making an effort means so much and is a huge step for me to rebuild the circle of friends I had and need in my life. Even if you don't know why someone can't make something, keep inviting them if they seem at all interested because you never know the reason or how much those small interactions may mean. To me, it means the world!

No no, thank you--I believe your experience will stick with people when they're concerned about a friend, and they'll keep making the calls.

You saved yourself, that's such good news, and you may also have saved someone else. 

I am on overload with all the drama in the political landscape. I don't want to hear it, but then I don't want to be ill informed - or worse, complacent by not paying attention. How to balance?

You and me both.

Set limits--x minutes per day, then no more; or take a news vacation every weekend; or [your dosage here]; or identify the most distressing sources and cut them out, and rely on a trusted few. Among TV, radio, social media, left-leaning, right-leaning, centrist, long-form, data-driven, fact-checking, satire/comedy, etc., there are enough delivery systems to give us a lot of control of our news feeds. I urge only to stick to well-sourced news and avoid bias-confirmation--as a matter of public health.

My oldest brother is a decade older than me. I cried at his wedding, I cried when he announced his impending first child (first grandchild too). It was a combination of realizing everything in our family dynamic was about to change irrevocably. Even though he'd been with his now wife for a while, they were becoming a separate family that would take priority. It took some time to process. I have my own family and kid now, and wouldn't change that for anything, but I still look back fondly on the time when we were all adults, but still the primary family group, since until I was in my 20s that was the only family I had known.

Hi, Carolyn. I love your chats, but was disappointed last week when you shared a comment by a reader who recommended bed-sharing while breastfeeding as a way to get more sleep despite having a baby. This advice directly contradicts the AAP's safe sleep guidelines, which state that infants should be put to sleep alone, on their backs, in a crib or bassinet to reduce the risk of death from SIDS and suffocation. Room-sharing is a good alternative, and is even recommended by the AAP due to it having a slightly protective effect against SIDS, but bed-sharing is never safe.

I am/was aware of the recommendations and my babies all slept in their own bassinets/cribs, but also am aware that this is a huge point of contention that I don't want any part of. 

So, I offer this: http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/10/25/499290404/new-guidelines-acknowledge-the-reality-babies-do-sleep-in-moms-bed 

So many of us have been there. You will be ok, and so will your son. It takes time, hard work, counseling, and time. Remember self-compassion and to keep moving forward. Good luck! We are all cheering for you!

Also: Do NOT read the news within an hour of bedtime. Allow yourself to decompress from the day.

I, too, was anxious about my brother's wedding. I liked my future sister-in-law, the wedding logistics were easy, I was glad he found a partner, they were good together. It took me a while to figure that I just didn't like that he was getting married because it was changing the family dynamics. My family is close and there was going to be a NEW PERSON. We weren't kids any more. That was 30 years ago and now I'm thrilled that she is part of the family. My advice is, since you know intellectually that it's good, fake it till you make it.

Okay that's it for me. Bye, have a great weekend, thanks for being here, and hope you'll come back next week.

I hate to say it but no matter what happens, you can't ignore that detail. He's willing to string you along indefinitely until you threaten the status quo he enjoys so much. Then he's going to give you whatever you want (in gesture only) while going back to being himself. Even if you two get married, that doesn't bode well for a happy life -- him doing whatever you wants so he doesn't lose you and nothing more.

Hopefully I'm not too late to offer an additional perspective here, but could it be that part of the reason your wife objects to your son's diet switch is because all the extra work falls onto her? Are you the one preparing a separate meal for him three times a day or is she? Maybe she feels upset that you signed her up for more work without consulting her.

If she's a regular Hax reader, she knows that weddings often bring misery, pain, and chaos. I don't blame her for being nervous.

:D

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Carolyn Hax
Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997 as a weekly feature for The Washington Post, accompanied by the work of "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis. The column has since gone daily and into syndication, where it appears in over 200 newspapers. Carolyn joined The Post in 1992 as a copy editor in Style, and became a news editor before turning to writing full-time. She is the author of "Tell Me About It" (Miramax, 2001), and the host of a live online discussion on Fridays at noon on washingtonpost.com. She lives in New England with her husband and their three boys.

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