Dear Prudence

I Just Called To Say … Never Mind

Broken promises threaten to create a disconnect between mother and son.

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Dear Prudence:
I’m engaged to a wonderful man with two boys. The mother lives in another state and rarely sees the children. The oldest will turn 10 soon, and his mother promised him a cell phone for his birthday. He has asked us for one in the past, but his father and I have told him that he’s too young and that we will get him one when he turns 15. Since his mother promised him the cell phone, it has been all he can talk about. He’s picked out which phone he wants and has started collecting phone numbers to add to his phonebook. Recently, she informed my fiance that she will not be getting him the cell phone because she cannot afford it. She has not told her son yet and refuses to do so. My fiance and I don’t want to have to break the bad news to him ourselves. We feel she is the one who made the promise, so she needs to inform him. I’ve covered up for her in the past by following through with promises she has made, but we are not going to cover this one. What is the best thing that I can do so that he doesn’t get hurt by his mother?

—Stepmom to Be

Dear Stepmom,
Both boys are going to get hurt by their mother over and over. She’ll neglect her sons, then she’ll get their hopes up, then she’ll crush them. I frequently get letters from people who grew up with mothers like this. They write that their mothers are old and lonely and are begging for their love and attention; but long ago they learned to harden their hearts to their mothers and now don’t have any love to give. The boys’ father and you must do what you can to provide a powerful counterbalance by being loving, consistent, and reliable parents. You don’t have to cover for this woman, but since she doesn’t even have the fortitude to acknowledge she’s made another botch of things, you’re going to have to explain. In this case, the father should tell his son that his mother really did want to get him the cell phone, but then she realized she doesn’t have enough money. He can say the right thing for the mother to do would be to tell him herself, and it’s too bad she’s so sad and ashamed that she can’t bring herself to do it. It will be tempting to demonize her to the kids, but you have to stay as neutral as possible while also letting them know that you understand how painful it is for them to be disappointed by her. Please plan a great birthday party for this boy. And while I agree a 10-year-old is a little young for a cell phone, if you can afford it, you will find in a year or two it’s actually a useful way to keep track of a kid with lots of friends and activities. So consider promising him a phone when he’s 11 or 12. Since it will be a promise coming from the two of you, he’ll learn that there are adults who actually keep theirs.


Dear Prudence Video: Harassed at the Gym

Dear Prudence,
I am dating a good, kind man who treats me well, but one small issue has come up. We typically split the check when we go out to dinner (at his suggestion, but this is fine with me), although occasionally he will pay (once every four weeks, say). However we have fallen into a habit where he visits me at home two or three nights per week, and I cook nice dinners and serve beer, wine, chocolates, etc.  I enjoy being generous with my loved ones, and it normally wouldn’t cross my mind to expect anything in return. However, this weekend brought the inequity of the situation to my attention, as I made a lovely dinner and we drank a couple of bottles of wine. This probably cost me about $70 to $80. When we went out to lunch the next day, the bill was $42, and he said, “I’ll put in $20.” I certainly don’t mind paying my share, but I’ve realized it is probably cheaper for me to go out, as I pay for both of us at home! He is employed, and I am a stay-at-home single parent, so this can’t really go on. How can I raise this issue without being critical or demanding?


Dear Stiffed,
I had a good, kind, successful boyfriend just like yours. We always split the check (even when he ordered a bottle of wine, I had a single glass, and he polished off the rest). He did treat me to a well-reviewed restaurant for my birthday, but when he saw the prices on the menu, he declined to order dinner and spent the whole evening with his fork poised over my food, begging for a bite. Pathological cheapness can be intractable, and you have to decide if it’s going to be a deal-breaker for you. But before you get angrier and angrier at this “small issue,” you need to bring it up with him. Explain that you’re on a tight budget and that, while you love to cook nice meals for him in your home, between that and meals out where you pick up at least half the check, you’re going broke. You can say you recognize he is cheap—ah, I mean frugal—but you need more equity in your spending. Don’t allow him to establish a running tab on your expenditures so he can show that things are even—another gambit of the tightwad. Explain that a calculator kills the sense of generosity with each other that’s needed in a healthy relationship.


Dear Prudie,
I have been an atheist for the last several years, ever since losing my (Christian) faith following a close friend’s untimely death. Recently, my boss’s mother told me about a serious and risky surgery that her other child would soon have. After I said to her, “I’ll keep him in my thoughts,” she responded, “Oh, would you please pray for him?” I said yes, and she began talking about her belief in the power of prayer, a belief I once would have shared. At the time, I wanted to comfort her in any way that I could, so I agreed with what she said. Also, it hardly would have been appropriate to launch into a “Why I’m an Atheist” speech. Later, though, I felt very uncomfortable with the fact that I’d lied and acted as if I shared her beliefs. Is this kind of thing a no-win situation?

—Not a Believer

Dear Not,
Maybe when you said you would keep your boss’s brother in your thoughts, you were telling a white lie because you didn’t intend to really think about him again. I agree, people should not be shanghaied into professing beliefs they don’t have, and there are times that if you feel pressured to do so, you simply have to say, “I’m sorry I don’t share your point of view.” Additionally, when someone says they’ll keep an ailing person in their thoughts, instead of their prayers, it should be a tip-off that they don’t do prayers. But in this case, by going along you’ve simply tried to console a woman in distress. You’re right: If you had responded to her request with, “I’m sorry, but I don’t pray,” she would have felt worse, and by causing unnecessary awkwardness, so would you.


Dear Prudence,
I am a junior in college and am getting closer to entering the work force. This summer, I have been offered a good job that starts immediately after school finishes. The problem is that my good friend is planning a big birthday trip to the mountains the same day my job starts. I have already told her I was going on the trip, but I really do not want to make the wrong impression at my new job by asking to start a few days later. If it were any other friend, I would politely tell her I could not make it, but this friend in particular goes to pieces when anyone cannot rearrange their lives to fit hers (even if it is because of a new job). I will be attending her mini-birthday celebration, which is on her actual birthday. (The trip is a month afterward.) Also, the guest list for the trip includes about 20 people, so I do not feel like I will be missed, but that is not how she will see it. What is worse is that she is kind of the “leader of the pack,” so if she is not happy with me, I am going to be cut off socially. Help! Is there a polite way to get out of this trip and still keep my social calendar for the summer?

—A Friend Stuck in the Middle

Dear Friend,
Perhaps there would be no problem starting work a few days later because of a previously planned event. And, of course, no one wants to cancel a social engagement. However, in this case, you should explain to your friend that the job came up after you knew about her trip, and you need to be at work on the day they designate. You recognize you are getting closer to starting your adult life, and one step you need to take is to stop being controlled by manipulative people. If your friend has a fit and threatens to cut you off from the group because you have a work obligation, then it’s time to realize the wide world you’re about to enter will be full of friendly people who don’t take their orders from the resident drama queen.