Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Sep 04, 2012

Important note to readers: We are moving the Dear Prudence chat from 1pm on Mondays to 12pm noon on Mondays, as of August 13th. Going forward, the Dear Prudence chat will begin at noon on Mondays.

Need help getting along with partners, relatives, coworkers... and people in general? Ask Prudence! Emily Yoffe -- a.k.a. Slate's advice columnist Dear Prudence took your questions on manners, morals and more.

Don't cry for me because I'm back from Argentina. (A beautiful, strange, and fascinating place.) I hope everyone had a great Labor Day. Summer really feels over.

A few years ago, I bought my girlfriend (now my wife) a print of a photograph she liked: a black and white potrait of a young woman wearing only a dinosaur mask and cowboy boots. We framed it and hung it on the wall of our bathroom. Now, 99% of the time I have no problem with it hanging there; it's only an issue when my parents visit. My mother is fiercely, vocally anti-pornography, and while I don't feel the picture is pornographic, it is explicit, and I don't believe she'll see it the same way we do. Up until now, we've agreed to take it down when my parents visit (although it's been a bigger and bigger argument each time), but this time my wife insists that we leave it up, her argument being that this is her space and if someone doesn't like the picture, that's their problem. My concern is that my mother will not only hate the picture, it will put her in a sour mood and spoil much of the visit, and that knowing this is the sort of thing we like may alter my relationship with her. My wife feels this will help my mother see me more as the man I am. I only get to see my parents a few days a year, and I just want to keep the peace. Is my wife being unreasonable, or am I worried for no reason?

The photo sounds great and I'm sure even the Supreme Court ("I know it when I see it") would declare this a piece of art not porn. Maybe, if the image bothers your mother, she can drape a hand towel over it while she relieves herself. Former Attorney General John Ashcroft had the partially nude Spirit of Justice statue draped so he didn't have to hold press conferences in front of a naked, aluminum breast. I assume despite your mother's distaste for pornography, she's been to art museums and understands they aren't simply warehouses of filth. Most telling,  perhaps, is  not your mother's views on pornography but your implicit description that unless everything goes her way and everyone tiptoes around her, she ensures a miserable time is had by all. But such people always ensure a miserable time is had by all because there is no way to anticipate everything that might set her off. If the impage of a naked body in a bathroom will ruin her visit, it's a good thing her trip will be brief.

Dear Prudie, I inherited an antique vase from a great-aunt of mine who passed away within the past year. Recently, my husband and I went out for a date night leaving the kids with a babysitter. We came back to find my vase on the floor shattered into pieces. The vase is situated as such that it is out of reach from the kids unless they use a ladder. Neither my kids nor the babysitter are admitting what happened. I obviously was furious and heartbroken since this can't be replaced. The babysitter's mother is mad at us because we didn't pay their daughter for watching our children and have told them that they need to pay us for the monetary value of the vase. We didn't think we needed to pay her since she clearly wasn't watching our kids as closely as she should have and wouldn't admit how my vase got broken. Now the mom has taken her anger with this whole situation to a very popular social network!! We have common friends on this site and they are now taking sides. I am at my wits end as to what to do! Now I feel like I am not going to be able to find a decent babysitter with all of the mudslinging this mother is doing! HELP ME PRUDIE!! Signed, Trying to pick up of the pieces of my shattered life

Do you have a cat?  If not, there is a conspiracy of silence about what happened to the vase. If your children are old enough to actually give you a narrative, sit them down and tell them no matter what occured or what promises of secrecy were made, you simply need to be told the truth. Say that breaking the vase was clearly an accident, you're not going to punish anyone over that,  but lying is not acceptable.  Let's hope that shakes loose the truth. It could be the kids don't know because once they were asleep, the babysitter decided to get a closer look at the vase and -- oops! I think you should have separated the issue of the vase from her babysitting and paid her but said you would not be using her services again in the abscense of an explanation about your antique. You could then have brought the issue up with her parents since a teenager is not going to be able to replace an antique. But reimbursing for broken antiques is what homeowners insurance is for.  Do not engage in the on-line mudslinging. Now that the vase has been dropped, drop the issue yourself. If one mother wants to engage in one-sided  Facebook vendetta, she will end up looking crazy.

I worked as a camp counselor this summer, as did several family friends my age. Several nights during a two week session, camp counselors would stand up in front of the entire camp and deliver a speech about a difficult time in their lives they managed to overcome. During one of the last sessions of the summer, my good friend Grace spoke about how her older brother Greg molested her throughout her childhood. I had never heard anything about this before and, because I knew Greg so well too, I was shocked. I would never have suspected Greg was capable of such a heinous crime. According to Grace, she has forgiven Greg and had never spoken aloud of his behavior before camp. Their parents do not know. Grace swore all the other camp counselors who know her family to secrecy. I have seen Grace's family, including Greg, twice since leaving camp, and each encounter leaves me stressed out. Another friend thinks we should tell Grace's parents, because Greg has access to his two nieces and other young family members. Another person thinks we should question Grace more about the alleged molestation, because this is a significant accusation and it would be a mistake to accept it at face value. Outside of camp, Grace does not want to discuss the issue. Should I respect Grace's wishes of secrecy? I cannot figure out another feasible option.

That must have been quite a campfire for the little kids.  I certainly hope an adult was present for this event because not only should the parents of the campers be notified that things were discussed by a counselor that they should be aware of, the adults in charge of the camp should have been immediately on the phone to Grace's parents, if not the authorities.  Even though you are old enough to be a camp counselor, you are not an adult, so it is not your job to investigate the truth of these allegations or deal with them beyond making sure that grown ups are. First of all, tell your parents and say you need their help. I hope they will contact the head of the camp, and also other authorities, so have them tell you what their plan of action is. Grace may have felt pressured to forgive her brother (I'm assuming her accusations are true), but if he's done what she say, he need serious and immediate intervention, and she needs help.

Dear Prudie, My 80-year-old mother has severe Parkinson's disease. Ever since my dad died 11 years ago, she has lived with my sister "Nancy," with intervals of traveling to stay with one of her four daughters (we're all scattered around the U.S.). She is currently staying with my family for a few months. The Parkinson's is devastating physically (there are days when she can barely walk), but it also seems to have affected her mind; in recent months, she has become increasingly irrational and over-emotional, which apparently often happens with Parkinson's. All of my sisters have had trouble dealing with her, and it's hardest on Nancy, who has to take care of her full-time. The best place for her would be a nursing home, but when one of my sisters brought up the idea a few months ago my mother became very upset. We come from a culture in which nursing homes are very uncommon because it is considered the adult children's responsibility to care for their aging parents. But it's not fair for Nancy, whose mother-in-law also lives with her. It's also getting harder for my mother to travel. Do you have any suggestions? -Overwhelmed

Nancy's done enough, and unless one of the other sisters wants to take your mother in, it is time for your mother to be in a nursing home. I understand that this can sound cruel and heartless, but there are many wonderful facilities that can offer your mother the physical care and even the companionship she doesn't get by being in a house all day.  I have many friends who have gone through the agony of making this decision, then once the parent is in a good nursing home, they wish they had done it years ago. Before this happens, one of you should go with your mother to her doctor and see if an adjustment to her medication can alleviate some of her symptoms. It's understandable your mother would resist this change and be unhappy about it.  But if several of you go with her to visit homes, explain she will get better care there,  and assure that she will be visited often, she might be more accepting. It's wonderful that your mother has such loving  children, but caring for an aging parent should not mean sacrificing your own physical and mental health.

My 10-year-old son recently came home in tears because a man on our street slapped him across the back. When I got the full story out of him, it transpired that he and a couple of other friends had been ringing people's door bells and running away. I checked his back and there wasn't even a red mark - he was crying out of embarrassment and shock and was clearly not physically harmed. I took him to the neighbor's home and made my son apologize for being a nuisance. The neighbor was also deeply apologetic and said he went too far. He said he was at home receiving medical treatment and this wasn't the first time he was disturbed by young pranksters. I gave him my number and said if he ever found my son doing this again, he could call me and I would ensure there was a proper punishment. The neighbor also said sorry to my boy. The rest of the family, however, are furious. They say I handled it the wrong way and I should press charges against the neighbor. We have been arguing over this nonstop. Was I wrong?

So a pack of Dennis the Menaces mildly harass a man who is in the middle of medical procedure and he overreacts by smacking one on the back. Everyone involved realizes they were wrong and apologizes.  This certainly sounds like a scenario in which the death penalty, or life imprisonment is called for.  Because of what transpired your son has learned a valuable lesson about how things may go awry when you set out to annoy others. Do not undermine that by trying to push charges that surely any police officer would consider nonsense. Tell the rest of your family the incident is over and so it the discussion.

My fiance's best friend Jim left his wife and two young children several months ago to be with his mistress. Now Jim would like to bring his mistress to our wedding (and other related events) as his date. As petty as this might sound, I do not want Jim to bring his girlfriend to my wedding. I will have to interact with her and strive for civility at some point, but I would prefer not to have to make that effort on such a special day. My fiance and I also addressed the invitation to Jim and his wife, so I feel bringing another woman in his wife's stead is rude. My fiance doesn't want to offend Jim but understands my feelings. What is the right and polite thing to do?

The invitation was to  "Jim and Juliet" not "Jim and Whoever." I'm not sure why the invitation to the wife isn't the one that takes precedence here. People in long-term relationships should be treated as couples in matters of wedding invitations. But Jim was in a long-term relationship when the invites went out.  Just as you would be within your rights not to want to go to dinner with Jim and his girlfriend at this point, he is not entitled to cross out his wife from the guest list. Your fiance needs to check in with both the wife and Jim about who intends to come. If the wife is bowing out, I think it's fine for your fiance to tell his friend that while you both intend to get to know his new love eventually, your wedding is not the occasion for it.

The campers in question range in age from 11 to 14. Counselors are usually college age people. Some of the kids have been through really rough molestations - several young campers have miscarried or given birth to kids of their own - so some of the counselors' talks can be about intense subjects. Just wanted to clarify that, and thank you for the advice.

The fact that this is a camp for children who have been through trauma means that confessions from counselors should have been carefully vetted beforehand.  Your friend just delivered the message that it's the victims' job to forgive the perpetrator. This is a serious mess and action needs to be taken both on behalf of the campers who heard the talk and for your friend and her brother.  As I said, tell your parents and make sure they are seeing that the proper authorities are contacted.

I am the product of my dad's affair with my mom. As part of their reconciliation agreement, my dad's wife has always dictated how much he sees me. For most of my life I've seen him once a week and spent every third weekend at their home, where my older half-siblings also live. But twice my dad has stopped seeing me because visitations were too rough on his wife. Each time our visits resumed, I had to be very thankful to his wife, because she had the grace to allow her husband's illegitimate child back into their lives. I love my dad very much, but I've always felt like a source of pain when I'm with him and his family. I'm seventeen now and at the point where I feel brave enough to talk to my dad and his wife about their treatment of me. I appreciate her pain, but I'm also tired of feeling like a cross to bear. Should I talk to them?

I understand you love your father, but what a little weanie he is.  First he cheats on his wife and neglects to use birth control, then he caves to mistreatment of you because of the pain your existence causes his wife.  I understand the wife's distress -- yes it's terrible to find out your husband was unfaithful and you will never be allowed to forget it. But upon discovering that her husband had an out-of-wedlock child her choice was either to leave the marriage or to make sure the new child was treated lovingly (as hard as that would have been).  Of course you are entitled to express your feelings! It's terrible if the lesson of your childhood is that you should try to make yourself disappear.  But I think you should first address this with your father. Since you two have so little experience being honest with each other, tell him you would like to improve your relationship and that means you'd like to see a counselor with him.  That will allow you to air your experiences and require him to  hear them. A good therapist should help guide you two about how to change the dynamic in your father's home. It's very mature that you appreciate the pain of your father's wife, but it's not your job to make it go away.

I have two children, and my younger was conceived from rape. My husband and I decided to continue the pregnancy not knowing who was the biological father. It was obvious when my son was born that he was not my husband's. The rapist was of a different ethnicity and my son takes after him. As a result, we get quizzed about my son's background all the time. Acquaintances who don't know the full story speculate I had an affair. Strangers ask if he is adopted. I usually just say "no" and carry on my own business, discouraging further questions. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Our friends and family know - it wasn't something we could avoid and pretend not to notice. But I absolutely do not want to discuss how my son was conceived with strangers or curious co-workers. It's even worse when people ask in front of my son, now nearly two, because it's something we'd like to tell him gradually in an age appropriate way. What can I say?

Readers dealing with the issue of nosey strangers have offered excellent answers along the lines of, "I'm sorry, I don't know you" or "I don't talk about my family to strangers" or just giving a disbelieving look as you walk away.  With acquaintances you can say something  like, "Genes are so unpredictable!" and refuse to engage further.  Your son is lucky to have two such remarkable parents, and while he will come to  know that while his origins are unusual he will be reassured that he is totally loved.

Dear Prudence, regarding the kids who were playing pranks on the neighbors, I'd like to say that I think his mom handled it perfectly. It wasn't right for the neighbor to hit her child, but it was obviously not a serious strike and the neighbor was provoked. Taking her son to apologize for his bad behavior and giving the neighbor a chance to apologize for HIS bad behavior was just right. And extra points for giving the neighbor a proper way to react when the local menaces are around again.

Thanks. Yes, it's amazing to me that someone would want to prosecute the neighbor and undo all the good lessons that the son has just learned.

My brother and his wife are polyamorous. They have people that they both date and people that they date individually. I have met some of the people they date, but usually not until they are serious with my brother, his wife, or both. My brother and his wife also watch my twin daughters often, allowing my husband and I to go out. A few days ago my sister-in-law offered to watch the kids so we could go to a friend's birthday dinner, and when we came back we found her cuddling on the couch with her new girlfriend, a woman we have not met before. We did not know my sister-in-law would bring someone over, and I think we would have been all right with that if she had told us beforehand and we felt comfortable with that person being around our kids. But that wasn't the case, and we asked her not to do it again. She accused us of being intolerant, and now she is mad at us. I don't believe we overreacted, but we want to mend our relationship with them. How much crow should I eat to make nice, and on what issues should I hold my ground?

You need to find some teenage babysitters who will break your valuables but not cuddle with their latest crush while watching your kids.  Your brother and sister-in-law are entitled to their love life, but not while they are watching your kids.  You can say to her you're sorry if you came off as intolerant. Your issue was not her personal choices, but bringing a stranger into your home while babysitting. But say you  don't want this to become an issue between you and you'd like to  call a time-out and drop it.  Then turn down her future sitting offers, her free service isn't worth it.

I'm the stay-at-home mom of a 4-year-old girl, and we are being ostracized from play groups because I have told my daughter that if someone hits her first, she is allowed to hit back. I believe strongly that this is right, but I also want her to have friends. Should I change my policy and, if so, should I tell her why or pretend I believe it? BTW, the philosophy here is "we should use our words," which is NOT what I would do if someone hit ME, but I guess that's just me.

If only offices ran on the principles you are espousing. People would be biting each other at the copier, throwing coffee in one another's faces, and lying on the floor kicking while screaming, "No, I won't do it!" Your job is to civilize your child, and as much as you disbelieve in that mission, for the sake of your little girl, pretend you do.  You explain to her that people shouldn't hit, and if someone hits her she should tell a parent. You may believe "Use your fists" is less wishy-washy than "Use your words" but it would be nice for your daughter if she had a social life that reached beyond her mother.

Oh for goodness sakes. The Dad actually sees his out-of-wedlock kid. He provides child support and brings her into his home. Now she wants to be treated as some sort of legitimate half-sister, when all she's really doing is sucking up inheritance money, funds for an extra week at the beach, etc. Fact is, love child hit the jackpot--her Mom knew with whom she should sleep. Love Child needs to learn you get what you get and you don't get upset.

Either you're joking or you're the wife.

My youngest son is a pedophile. Despite knowing this, I still love him. I am horrified by his sexual preference and by the harm he inflicted upon his victims before his arrest and subsequent incarceration. I feel intense guilt and shame over bearing and raising a human monster. My son's last victim was my own granddaughter, my daughter's child. My daughter, my other son, my husband, and the rest of my family have disowned my youngest son. Even knowing the evil things he did, I cannot bring myself to hate him entirely. I cannot stop loving him. I visit my son in prison once every three months. I would visit him more often, but my husband said he would divorce me. I also keep a handful of pictures and mementos of my youngest son. My refusal to disown him anger and confuse the rest of my family, especially my daughter. I fear I will lose my family if I do not cut my son out of my life. I know my son is a bad person, but I cannot stand the thought of him being entirely alone in the world. Am I a terrible person? Should I disown my son?

What agony it must be to be the parent of someone who commits a heinous crime.  You recognize the horror of what your son did and you are making no excuses. You understand the family members who consider him dead. But you are entitled to your complicated feelings and they should understand that your visiting him in no way implies you condone his behavior. I think your husband's threat is cruel -- he is entitled to his reaction to his son, and you are entitled to yours. Please find a counselor who specializes in sexual abuse issues so that these issues can be aired and all of you can find a way to support each other as you deal with the aftermath of these crimes.

This situation isn't about art - it is about being considerate of other people's feelings and being a good host/hostess. Don't you want your guests to feel comfortable in your home? Especially family? Would you purposely serve food you know your guests don't like? Or knowingly bring up subjects that are painful for them? Would you feel the same if it was your best friend coming to visit? Maybe this really a power play/control issue...

Sure people should be gracious hosts, but that normally doesn't extend to changing one's decor.  The key to me is that mother sounds like a royal pain. If it's not the photograph, it will be something else.  Maybe this is all just a silly power struggle, or maybe the new wife is sick of trying to accomodate a mother-in-law who will always be mad about something.  With people like that it's generally better to draw some boundaries and refuse to be drawn into their melodrama.

My fiancé's ex-wife cheated on him throughout their marriage. As a result, he holds adulterers in very low esteem. When we started dating, I hid from him the fact that I have had two long-term relationships with married men. Both relationships lasted for more than a year, and I knew at the time that my boyfriends were married. While I am not proud of dating married men, I am not apologetic about my past romances. Not many people knew about my infidelities, so I haven't done much to actively hide them from my fiancé. But now that we're engaged, I am terrified he will find out after we're married and think I trapped him into marriage. My fear is that if I tell my fiancé about the married men I dated he will see me as a completely new person. I was in my late teens and early twenties when I dated married men, and I have grown into such a different person since then, the person he knows now. I don't know how to tell him to show him I'm so much more than my mistakes.

My alarm bells are going off when you say at the time of the first affair you were still a teenager.  Was this a teacher or someone else exploiting you? If so, that puts a different gloss on your behavior and this  is something you need to explore psychologically.  I think people are entitled to their pasts and do not have to reveal all. But they should reveal things they know would be highly germane to their beloved, and you're now acknowledging you've been hiding something he would find relevant.  Since these were long term relationships and presumably other people know, you do not want to be afraid one of your friends might slip and say something. So tell him.  If he doesn't understand you were very young and would never make that choice again, then it's better to know that about him now.

Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week.

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Emily Yoffe
Emily Yoffe -- a.k.a. Slate's advice columnist Dear Prudence, offers advice on manners, morals and more. She is also Slate's Human Guinea Pig, a contributor to the XX Factor blog, and the author of What the Dog Did: Tales From a Formerly Reluctant Dog Owner.

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