Dear Prudence

My Niece Is Falling to Pieces

Should I take her away from her derelict mother and raise her right?

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Dear Prudence,
My older sister and I are very close and very much the opposite of each other. I am practical, organized, and always try to be a good role model. She is a free spirit, dressing in her teenager’s clothes and just seeing how the cards fall. Her daughter is struggling, failing at school, and thinking of dropping out. She has been getting into fights at school and in trouble with the police. She also got pregnant but had a miscarriage. This girl is so smart and has such great potential but is making poor choices and crying out for attention. I would like to invite her to live with me, at least during the school year. My husband has agreed she is welcome to live with us and our daughter. I work during the day and am home every night and weekend. My sister works many evenings and weekends at a bar and is not home with her children often. She frequently goes out partying, and her drinking habits have many people in the family concerned. I am not trying to say that my sister is a bad mother or person. She is very loving and tries to give her children everything (material) that they want, which has also made them quite spoiled. Would it be wrong or offensive to invite my niece to live with me?

—Unsure Aunt

Dear Unsure,
You may not want to say your sister is a bad mother, so I will say it for you. What other conclusion can you draw about someone who is irresponsible, neglectful, indulgent, and drunk? Despite your closeness, you know your sister has made a hash of her own life and is doing everything she can to make sure the next generation does the same. It sounds as if it would be a blessing to bring your niece into your home and give her stability and firm, loving guidance so that she can graduate from school, instead of dropping out and giving birth to yet a third generation of misery. But if you do this, don’t have any illusions about how hard it will be. Because of her lousy upbringing, your niece lacks control of her emotions and behavior; at the very least, you should seek assistance from people in the school system who can help give this girl the tools for successful functioning in life. You mention that while your sister is out partying, she leaves her children at home alone, which means there is more than one offspring at risk. Since your entire family is worried, all of you need to get together and get advice on working out a plan for interceding with your sister. Does she need rehab and parenting classes? Should social services be called in? Everyone needs to be less apprehensive about offending her sensibilities and more concerned about rescuing her children.


Dear Prudence Video: He Won’t Dress Up!

Dear Prudie,
I am a twentysomething female engaged to a wonderful man. We have been together for five years, and I couldn’t be happier. During the summer, he was gone for months on business, and I committed a very bad act. After a night of what I thought was harmless flirting with a guy at a bar, he invited me to crash at his place. I made the biggest mistake of my life and cheated on my husband-to-be. I’m not blaming the incident on too much alcohol (although that was a contributor) and fully accept the blame for what I have done. I am full of guilt and hate for myself. I’m afraid to tell my fiance because I know our relationship will end, but at the same time, I don’t want to start our lives together with a huge lie. My parents’ marriage ended due to my father’s infidelity, and I swore I wouldn’t be like that … but here I am. To make matters worse, my best friend is now dating this person. She knows what happened and was disgusted by it, but a month later they were exclusive. I know she is disappointed in me, but she doesn’t seem to be bothered by the fact that her boyfriend had a part in this, too. He has been sending me sexual text messages lately, and I know if she knew, she would blame me, although I’ve ignored the messages and have not welcomed this behavior. So, what do I do? Tell my amazing fiance what I did and hope he can find a way to forgive me, or keep my lips sealed?

—Once a Cheater, Not Always a Cheater

Dear Once,
Your best friend knows and disapproves of what you did, and is now dating the guy you cheated with; and the guy you cheated with is trying to betray your best friend so he can have another go round with you. This situation is about as stable as taking Semtex on a bumper-car ride. Chances are, your fiance eventually will hear about this—and imagine the stress you’ll be under hoping each day is not the day someone blabs. Yes, if you tell him, you run the risk of losing him, but at least you also have a chance to show you’ve come forward of your own accord, you are sickened by this single slip, and you pray he won’t give up on you. It would be helpful if you could say you are so distressed by your own behavior—especially since you grew up under the shadow of infidelity—that you have already gone into therapy to figure out why it happened and make sure it never does again.


Dear Prudence,
I know parents shouldn’t play favorites, but I can’t seem to help myself. My two children have completely different temperaments: The boy, nearly 15, is sweet and considerate. He regularly tells me I’m “the best mom in the world” and is always generous with hugs. We almost never fight, but if reprimanded, he usually either apologizes or gets weepy. He is funny, interesting, and sweet, and I truly enjoy his company. His 13-year-old sister is a different story. Almost as soon as she learned to talk, she started telling me she hated me. She’s nasty to her brother and demanding and rude to her father and me. She is constitutionally oppositional, arguing about everything from homework to whether she has to get out of bed in the morning. I know she’s just a child, and I really do love her, but often I don’t like her much. I know part of my job as a parent is helping her learn to handle her explosive personality, and I’m thankful that outside our house she is a mostly reasonable, pleasant girl. But I worry that—if we survive five more years of this daily nastiness—I will never want to see her again. That’s not the kind of mother I want to be; I have two wonderful children, and I’d really like to feel equally connected to them. What can I do?

—Mommy Dearest

Dear Mommy,
You’ve got two issues: One is your guilt over preferring the company of your delightful son; the other is what to do about dealing with your very difficult daughter. I spoke to Dr. Alan Kazdin of Yale, author of The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child, who says his approach will change the way your daughter treats you because it will show you how to change the way you respond to her. His Web site has an introduction to his method of replacing your child’s unwanted behavior by systematically rewarding the opposite behavior. This Washington Post article has more from Kazdin, and other psychologists, on how to handle defiant kids. No method will turn your daughter from Groucho into Harpo, but some professional guidance should turn her into a Groucho who willingly gets out of bed in the morning. As for the imbalance in the way you react to your kids, Kazdin had some more advice: Lighten up on yourself. Who wouldn’t favor the company of a happy, delightful person who says you’re the best, to a hostile presence whose favorite phrase is “I hate you”? But if you can bring out your daughter’s more agreeable qualities, you will feel less angst about your preference for your son.


Dear Prudie,
Recently, I have been put in an awkward situation with my group of friends. All are involved in different charitable organizations to which they ask me to donate. However, I do not agree with the goals of every organization (particularly those that are clearly religious in nature, as I’m agnostic bordering on apathetic) and would like to be generous with only those whose missions I support. But I’m pressured to give to all because each friend knows that I’ve given to certain charities and expects me to donate to theirs as well. I get guilt-tripped into giving and resent it, especially when I need the money myself. The situation became worse when my friend asked me to buy goods from her son to support the Boys Scouts of America, and I refused because I don’t want to financially support an organization that is openly intolerant toward homosexuals. She said I was being selfish. How do I let my friends know that while I support their right to support, I don’t want anything to do with their causes?


Dear Philanthropicky,
Since your friends think you are Bill and Melinda Gates rolled into one, you have to take a firm stand with all of them. The causes that move you to get out your checkbook are your own business, so when your friends hit you up for the annual drive, explain that you are on a budget and you have already earmarked the organizations to which you are going to donate. From your Boy Scouts discussion, it sounds like you make the mistake of debating the merits of your friends’ charitable ventures. Don’t. Just say you know there are many worthy causes, and so you don’t end up being a charity case yourself, you need to apply discipline to your giving.