Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Mar 03, 2014

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 takes your questions on manners, morals and more.

I'm sorry for the people who have to be out on this snowy Monday (props to the Washington Post delivery guy and our mailman!) but I am enjoying this last blast of winter.

I am a single dad to a 12-year-old girl. After some thinking, I asked my late wife's sister to have the sex talk with my daughter, thinking she might feel more comfortable with a woman. "Peggy" and I discussed what would be covered and I asked her to give specific facts about sex and an overview of STD and contraception, as well as what physical/emotional changes she could expect during puberty. I left the room while the conversation took place but rushed back when I heard my daughter crying. Apparently Peggy deviated from our pre-arranged curriculum and went into some detail about things like anal sex, flavored condoms, pleasure points and so on. My daughter said later she felt increasingly uncomfortable and at one point asked to leave the room, but Aunt Peggy insisted she should know. Peggy's argument was that she would hear this stuff anyway and it was better coming from her than another classmate. I am disgusted and horrified. How do I undo the damage?

So Aunt Peggy, stepping into the shoes of her late sister to have "the talk" with her 12 year-old niece, decides instead to play out her own X-rated fantasies on the psyche of a motherless girl.  Sadly, your daughter got a lesson in the unreliability of some adults, which was hardly what she -- or any child -- needs. This is not your fault, and what do is tell your daughter you are disappointed in and angry with Peggy for acting so  inappropriately. You say you thought it would be easier for her to have this talk with an adult woman, but in fact you are here and comfortable discussing these issues, and also talking through anything she's feeling about what Peggy said.  Of course, Dad, that means you have to be comfortable with these issues. It's not so much a matter of technical expertise, but attitude. You want to express to your daughter that these are subjects you can talk about,  you'll answer honestly, and if you don't have an answer, you'll find out. It would help to do research of your own, and have a few books to hand your daughter for things she just doesn't want to discuss with you. You can start with The Girl's Guide to Becoming a Teen from the American Medical Association. What's most important now is not the biological information you pass on, but the sense that your daughter has a reliable source  in you.

My 16-year-old daughter got accepted to a very prestigious Ivy League summer program. She can probably get a scholarship to cover the tuition, but not housing. My brother has offered to put her up, but she would have to walk a mile and a half to the subway and then change trains before getting to campus. I haven't been there, don't know how safe the route is, and I'm not sure my brother would recognize if it was dangerous. He's got a good heart, but he's oblivious. He smokes pot daily and his judgment gets even less reliable when he's high. He's also not in a happy relationship. His girlfriend, whom I like, often threatens to throw him out. We can't afford to send my daughter unless she stays with them. I should add that we live in a town of 700 on the opposite coast. My daughter has had very little exposure to urban living. I think that navigating the city without any responsible adult guidance is what worries me most. I want the best for her, but I'm not sure if it's worse to send her or to have her miss out on such a great opportunity.

You need to contact the university and explain your situation. Say that you don't have the money to pay for her housing and wonder what resources are available. Yes, the program sounds great. But her potential living situation sounds like a disaster. However responsible your 16 year-old is, you know you don't want her coming home to your stoned brother who's in a volatile relationship.  Seeing this would give your daughter an education, but not the kind you want. If there simply isn't the money to make this work, you need to start looking around for other things for your daughter to do this summer. Getting a job or volunteering at a local community organization will not be as exciting as being on a Ivy League campus in another part of the  country, but those experiences closer to home can be just as valuable.

Some 35 years ago, a friend of the family molested me. My parents always refused to accept that anything untoward had happened and continued the friendship to this day. A few years after the event, our family went to funeral of this man's oldest daughter, who committed suicide by an overdose. His son was in treatment for addiction and confided to me that his father had beaten and raped him and his two sisters throughout their childhood. The surviving sister could not attend because she was incarcerated, which I cannot help but believe was the result of a history of abuse. Scroll forward to this weekend, when this serial abuser shuffled off this mortal coil due to advanced old age (and without any of the suffering I wished for him). My parents are eager for me to "put the past behind me" and attend the funeral of their old friend so I can listen to my father deliver a touching eulogy  to a "loving father" and "pillar of the community". As you can imagine, I am less than impressed. I obviously have no intention of attending but this and other issues makes me wonder if I really need to be involved with my own family. They were never the greatest parents and I don't think that I can ever forgive the fact that they stood by when they knew something was wrong and to this day continue to ignore something that cost a young woman her life and hurt at least three other young people (I believe far more). Am I over-reacting? Breaking ties with them would honestly cost me nothing emotionally but they are increasingly dependent on my support. I am afraid I get great satisfaction from the idea that they would suffer from my decision not to support them when they need it, just like I and others suffered from their decision not to support me when I needed it.

Your parents and their "friend" sound like something out of True Detective -- the gripping HBO show about a malevolent conspiracy to protect a ring of rapists and murderers. Your parents want you attend the funeral of a man who molested you so that afterward you can praise your father for his stirring eulogy. This is chilling, and given the tragic and painful trajectory of this man's children (his victims), indicates something more sinister than mere denial on your parents' part. I completely understand and support your desire to break off relations with your parents, even if you didn't need the grotesquerie of this funeral to push you to this point. I also want to urge you to talk to a therapist who has experience with abuse. You want to move forward in a way that is healthiest for you; there is a lot of ugly history for you to work through.

Does the family go to a house of worship? Some of the teens I know from church get "sponsored" by a family in the city the child is going to. Those host families belong to the same church as the other family, and the cost is minimal, if at all. And, the teen usually gets a family with children around the same age.

Thanks for the suggestion.  Someone else has suggested asking the school if there's a way to find out through the alumni association if any local graduates would be willing to have a student live with them while attending the program.

My husband and I live in one half of a duplex with our cat. The other half is rented by three young single guys, one of whom has a cat. The cat has "adopted" us - whenever we come home, the cat is there, running in the front door, even jumping in our cars before we can get out! The cat is not well-fed, and we've started feeding it and taking care of it, but not letting it stay in the house out of respect for our neighbors. The cat is left outside all day and night, and coyotes run around our neighborhood. We worry that a coyote will get it. I know the cat is owned by our neighbors, but has "chosen" us. Is there ever a point at which we can "accept" the cat's decision and keep it with us? I feel just awful sending it away, but at the same time don't want to steal someone's pet.

There is a moral obligation to having a pet and these guys have abrogated it. It sounds as if you really like the cat and want to provide it with a good home.  So go over to your neighbors, explain you are concerned about the cat's health and safety, that it has informally adopted you, and you want to make it formal. Say you'd be happy to provide ample visitation. Let's hope the purported owner agrees. If not, I think you should just start letting the cat spend the night. The jerk next door won't even notice.

My husband and I tried to have children by every means available for 10 years. We are currently in the process of adopting two beautiful and wonderful children that we absolutely adore. I do what I can to protect them from negative comments regarding their placement and adoption, but I have a mother in law that continues to call my SIL's children her "real grandchildren" despite my husband's speaking with her about how this is hurtful and damaging to our family. It is to the point that I do not want to visit or go to family functions to avoid putting all of us in that situation, but my husband says the kids will need to toughen up and learn to handle these issues in a positive manner. Do you have any suggestions on how we can handle my MIL in a constructive way?

I'd be tempted to buy Grandma a one-way ticket to Ukraine, put her on the plane, and wish her a long, well-deserved holiday. Your husband is right that  parents can't protect their children from every nasty experience or person. But when one of the nastiest is the kids' grandmother, then you have to step in. Perhaps your mother-in-law would agre to attend just a couple of sessions with your social worker to talk  about adoption issues. Maybe hearing from a professional how damaging it is to make a distinction between adopted and biological children will bring some enlightenment to this insensitive twit. If that doesn't work, then your husband has to tell your mother that he cannot allow his children to be addressed in such a destructive fashion and that limiting contact with his family is that last thing he wants, but he is going to be forced to. He can say to her that surely as a mother she can understand that the number one obligation of parents is to look out for the welfare of their children.

Is there a polite way to ask the neighbors if they can take down there Christmas decorations? I know the snow today might make it feel like Christmas, but Christmas decorations in March seem a bit much. They put them up in the first day of November and neighbors told me that last year they were lit up at night until mid-June.

For your neighbors it's always the night before Christmas. If they are those kind Christmas decorators with thousands of lights who become a local landmark, then they might be violationg some kind of ordinance for keeping the show running for more than half the year. But if their decorations are within reasonable bounds, then this endless Christmas celebration is silly and eccentric, but I don't see how it's any of your business.

The married director of a major client in my company has been hinting - not to subtly - of his interest in me. He recently left an expensive necklace on my desk at work with a note declaring his affections. I know in theory I have a right to complain to HR and my manager and limit my contact with him, but in reality that will have negative repercussions on my career. In fact, my manager has noticed his interest and has indirectly suggested that I at least flirt back with this guy. I think he's a disgusting pig. How can I get away? Help!

I think there are two disgusting pigs: the client and your manager.  The client is a creep, and it's outrageous that your manager would be encouraging you to act unprofessionally to advance the company.  Start documenting. Photograph the necklace and hang onto the note.  If your manager doesn't know how things have escalated, you have to bring these  to him and explain this is way beyond some harmless flirtation; you are being undermined by the guy's behavior. Let's hope your manager quickly gets it. If not, you're going to have to take this up the ladder. As for the client, you hand him back the necklace and tell him you can't accept such a gift and that you want to clarify that your relationship with him is purely business.

I'm gonna have my first child in a few weeks. But I've run into a bit if an issue. I have a wonderful supportive stepmother. She's been the only caring female in my life since I was 13. But, I am very modest. The idea of anyone being in the room with me when I give birth is really starting to upset me. I'm having anxieties over the doctor and nurses being there. Which I am trying to work through. I tried to talk to Stepmom about how I would be more comfortable if she waited outside of the room and now she is "crushed." And not speaking to me. She says that I am selfishly trying to cut her out of an important part of her life--the birth if a grandchild. Help! I love her and I don't want to let her down. But, I can't help how I feel about wanting this to be private! I'm not trying to cut her out of any important moments in her life. But, she obviously has a warped sense of who's child is being born. I do not want her to be in there. How do I get her to see that it's not a personal stab at her!

It's very strange that some people think of childbirth as something that sends them scurrying to Ticketmaster, demanding a front row seat.  Yours is not the first letter about relatives demanding to stand by the stirrups for a maximum look at the main event.  Your stepmother may be a loving person in your life, but right now she is behaving so abominably that it's hard to believe this is the first time she has pulled this kind of emotional blackmail. If she refuses to continue to speak to you, then that solves the birthing room  problem. She's the one having a tantrum, so it's not up to you to mollify her. If she does start talking to you and starts back in on this, ask your OB to have a quick phone conversation telling her that only the medical staff and your husband are going to be allowed in the room.  You're about to become a mother, so you're going to have to learn how to handle irrational outbursts.

Dear Prudence, I'm being asked to give advice in a situation that I have no idea how to handle. My mother and father have recently received guardianship of my aunt's (mom's sister) two children, ages 4 and 7. They were removed from my aunt and uncle's house by the state due to unsafe living conditions and evidence of drug use by the parents. My mother jumped at the chance to take them before they ended up in foster care. Currently they are doing well, except for a few issues that stem from living in a drug house with neglectful parents. It is taking all of my mother's time and energy to care for these two children in addition to my brother and sister who are 9 and 15. Recently we found out my aunt is pregnant again, about 5 months along. We know she's been drinking and abusing, and with the current situation it's likely the state will take the baby away as soon as it's born. My mom asked me if I think they should take this new baby as well should that happen. I hedged because the answer I want to give is different from what my mom expected to hear. She thinks I should be all for it, but Prudie, I don't think my mom can handle another baby! I think the baby should be adopted out, however my aunt is refusing to even consider it. I'm being expected to give my full support on this and I just can't. I don't think my aunt should be given an easy way out instead of having to clean up her act to take care of her children. What do I say to this? -Unwilling Advisor

I hope there is a case worker your mother trusts dealing with the families.  If not, and your family can afford it, it would be extremely helpful to hire a social worker with expertise in these kinds of situations. The authorities have to be notified that your aunt is drinking and taking drugs, which as you know could have profound consequences for this poor baby. Your mother has asked your advice, and you have to be honest. I agree that bringing two children with enormous emotional needs into an existing family is stressful enough. Caring for an infant who likely will have additional medical issues could be overwhelming, and having your mother deal with more than she can handle will not be good for anyone.  Again, I hope there are reliable professionals who can help guide your family through this very hard time. Sadly, in some cases there are no good answers, and all people can do is struggle through and try to protect the vulnerable.

Dear Prudence -- I wonder if it's inappropriate to ask my parents to help me with a house down payment. My boyfriend and I are in our early 40s and live in one of the most expensive parts of the country for real estate. We are both employed and make good money, but buying a home is out of reach for us here. Recently we began to wonder, though, and figured we could buy a home if we could get help with a down payment. Our parents are both comfortably retired, though neither is rich. Still, they have made comments and gestures indicating they have a little extra. My question is: is it out of line to ask our parents for financial help? Complicating matters is that I have a younger brother who has a very strained relationship with my parents and me. Even still my parents have always tried to treat us fairly and I worry that asking them for money will put them in an awkward position in this regard. My brother does not need financial help from them and would likely never ask -- though he would likely take it as a slight to learn that I have received a large gift and he has not. I appreciate your sensible advise on this.

The good news is that all the parties here are in decent financial shape -- no one is showing up on anyone's doorstep with their clothes in a paper bag, and no one is pressuring anyone to bail them out. You and your boyfriend are the experts on your own parents, so you know best if they would be willing to entertain this notion or would consider it an imposition. Before you initiate this conversation, clarify what you want. Are you asking for an early piece of your inheritance? Or would you structure this at a loan that you would pay back at a more favorable rate than you could get from the bank? If you're going to float this idea, you should be able to show them the kind of house you're thinking of, why it's a good investment, and how much money -- and on what terms -- you would like from them. Also consider that you and your boyfriend are not married, which might (or might not) complicate how each set of parents feels about investing in a joint purchase for the two of you. Leave your brother out of it -- that's for your parents to consider. If you decide to make the approach, do it in the spirit of starting a conversation, not putting on pressure.

When I visited Alaska, I learned that Christmas lights go up in November and stay up until the long nights are over (spring). I thought that was a delightful tradition. Though I live on the east coast, I now leave one string of colored lights on my back porch rail until Easter. Seeing them glow in the dark evenings makes me smile.

You may be smiling, but your neighbor is writing to me because it's driving her nuts! I totally understand that Alaska tradition, and agree that leftover Christmas lights, as long as they aren't klieg lights, are a homeowner's business.

My mother in-law is a very sweet woman, who unfortunately shows her love through gifts. The problem is that she has already gone bankrupt, after borrowing thousands from my husband, prior to our marriage. My husband told her not to pay him back, but to start saving the money she would have paid him. As we all know, you can't make people be responsible. She has since lost her job, and is working part time at McDonald's and a retail store, while living like she has a full-time, well-paid job. We have had our first childand she regularly shows up with $100+ of clothing for our daughter. We tried to tell her to stop, that we don't need it and suggested she save the money for visiting her when we move. She has no retirement savings (she cleaned that out a few years ago), and I am terrified that we are her back-up plan. We are planning for our own future, and that of our daughter, I don't know how to plan for my mother in-law, too. I also don't want her living on the street one day. I am at a loss as to what we are supposed to do!

And here is that letter from the mother who one day will show up on the doorstep with some designer baby clothes and a plan to stay indefinitely.  Your mother-in-law has a form of mental illness, but she is (barely) functional, probably doesn't have health insurance, and clearly has no desire to face her problems.  Your husband however, needs to have some serious talks with her about her behavior and where it's going to lead.  He needs to tell her that he will never again let himself get into a financial hole because of her behavior -- he has a family to raise and his own retirement to start planning for.  As a last gift to her, he can contact the her behalf and offer to go with her to try to get her on some kind of stable footing.  But he needs to make very clear that moving into your home cannot be her back up plan.

Thanks, everyone.  Talk to you next week, when surely crocuses will be blooming.

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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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