Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of this week’s chat is below. (Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at email@example.com.)
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon, everyone. I look forward to your questions.
Q. Elementary Education: My mother-in-law taught third grade for about 40 years before she retired from teaching. We have 6-year-old boy-and-girl twins and a 4-year-old daughter. Our twins are at their age level for every subject, and more importantly love school and are well-adjusted. Our 4-year-old is quite advanced. She reads at a level beyond her siblings, can solve complex mathematics, and has logical reasoning skills better suited for an 8- or 9-year-old child. My husband and I challenge and enrich all of our children’s lives with access to reading materials and family learning activities. My mother-in-law noticed my younger daughter’s natural intellect and constantly brings it up in conversation. To make things even more awkward, she will give her tests far beyond her grade level in front of her siblings. As a result, our daughter feels pressure to perform around grandma, and our twins think that they aren’t smart (which isn’t true, and a damaging idea at their formative years). My husband and I tried a direct conversation with her about this, but she brushed us off and told us that one of our children is smarter than the other two—and coddling our twins isn’t going to change that. She also said that parents of our generation are too focused on self-esteem over achievement. My husband and I disagree with her, but we do not think this is a big enough issue to warrant cutting contact with her. But it is big enough that we do not want to just let it go. What should we do to strike some middle ground?
A: I wonder if for 40 years your mother-in-law shredded the little hearts and minds of the charges she considered to be underperforming dunderheads. Given her attitude, third-graders in her school district are probably much happier people now that she’s out of the classroom. The middle ground you strike is that you tell her that her job as grandmother is to be a loving, fun, inspirational figure to all her grandchildren. Unfortunately, her excitement about your younger daughter is distorting their relationship and putting pressure on your little girl to be some kind of performing bear. It’s also insulting the intelligence of the twins—and all the rest of you. Say she is visiting as a grandmother, not a proctor at the SATs. Tell her that maybe you haven’t made your objections explicit enough before, but she needs to lay off the chattering about smarts and the invidious comparisons. If she can’t, fewer visits will be sad for everyone.
Dear Prudence: World’s Worst Hostess
Q. Friend Politicized My Baby’s Death: My toddler died this spring. He battled a very painful illness, so his father and I find some comfort in the knowledge that his suffering is over. Otherwise, we’re in agony. I have been friends with “Heather” since high school. We enjoyed each other’s sense of humor, even though she was ardently pro-life and I am very pro-choice. Last week Heather sent me a message telling me she donated a sizable sum of money in my son’s name NOT to a foundation that funds research to cure my son’s illness but rather to a pro-life organization. Among other things, this organization deploys volunteers to protest outside of clinics where abortions are performed. I am outraged that Heather would choose to donate money to that organization in my late son’s name, that she would send me an email telling me she did so, and that my son’s name is associated with a group whose behavior I find disgusting. I never asked for this donation and, had I known Heather wanted to honor my son, I would never have asked her to donate money to a pro-choice organization. I feel as though I have lost my mind in anger over this, and I’m not sure if I’m having a proportionate reaction, because all I feel is fury toward Heather. Is this a political jab disguised as a heartfelt gesture? What can I say to Heather, without going crazy, to convey my unhappiness at her actions?
A: I’m so sorry for your loss, and of course you are in agony. I hope you’re surrounded by loving people who are helping you get through this. On your behalf, I am now seething at Heather’s insensitivity and presumptuousness. Often people who have lost a loved one suggest that in lieu of flowers, contributions be made to a charity connected to the person who has died. It sounds as if you did that regarding the organization that deals with your son’s illness. Of course people are free to donate to other charities in honor of the deceased, but they should always be appropriate ones that would be meaningful and at the least inoffensive to the family. Heather is a dolt, and I hope she has some other redeeming qualities, or that she was a sturdy support for you during your son’s illness. Perhaps in time you can overlook her behavior. Since she notified you by email, respond the same way. Write a note saying that she is free to donate to whatever causes she believes in, but it was deeply distressing to you to hear she gave money in your late son’s name to an organization that not only had nothing to do with him, but which she knows you detest. Say that since you have known each other so long, you hope she understands that your friendship requires that you speak your mind and let her know how angry you are.
Q. Cousin Love: My first cousin and I haven’t seen each other much over the course of our lives and recently reconnected. We developed a deep friendship that eventually turned into a mutual love. We are both mature adults in our mid-30s and want to be together. However, we both struggle with the reaction our families will have. As an educated woman, I am aware that cousin love is more of just a social taboo than anything else, and is not as unusual as people think. Cousin marriage is even legal in our state. But I know there are a lot of misconceptions and we will face a lot of ignorance and harsh words. I just want to be with the person I love without having to sneak around. What can we do to make people understand we have a mutual respectful love, and that the image of of inbred backcountry cousins is false?
A: If Charles Darwin could do it—he was happily married to his cousin Emma—you can, too. You could also cite Biblical sources. After all Jacob married two of his cousins, Rachel and Leah. In more recent times, actress Greta Scacci has had a child with her first cousin, although they had to endure the appalled reaction of their mutual family. I hope people will surprise you with their good will—after all think of the older people who are now attending gay and lesbian weddings who would have once considered such events unthinkable. What will be most important is the attitude of both of you. If family members are distressed, you can say you understand at first it does seem odd, but you hope when they see how happy you two are, that they will come around and celebrate your love. If you both refuse to act defensive, it will mean there’s little target to attack.
Q. Inappropriate or Hilarious?: My sister and her boyfriend enjoy posting “silly” pictures of their kids doing inappropriate things on Facebook. They’ve told my 4-year-old niece to give the camera the middle finger. They’ve photographed my niece and her 6-year-old brother holding (unloaded) guns and (empty) cans of beer. Their friends think it’s hilarious. Am I a wet blanket for disliking these pictures? My sister thinks they’re harmless and is always sure to post that the guns and beer cans are empty.
A: Let’s agree it’s a poor idea to put on the Internet actual photographic evidence that you are unfit parents. Yeah, it’s just a joke that these two nitwits are teaching their children obscene gestures, suggesting they engage in violence, and are drinking. Beyond your sister and her boyfriend’s colossally bad judgment, there is an underlying assumption that their children are their props, not vulnerable individuals in need of guidance and nurturing. Have a sit-down with your sister and explain that if people who don’t get the joke see these pictures, the could be painful consequences for them. These two sound in desperate need of parenting classes. Please do some research and suggest places where they could go to learn the basics about raising kids.
Q. Boss’s Husband Has No Filter: Two weeks ago, I started a postdoctoral position in a biology lab, where the husband and wife are both lead investigators. I was hired by the wife, and her grants pay my salary—I get no funding from the husband and I do not work for his “lab,” even though most resources are shared. He strolls around the shared office space a few times a day and has made a habit of commenting on all the junk food I eat. One day I had leftover pizza for lunch, and I regularly have a commercial soda cup or coffee cup on my desk. When I was interviewing for the position and the couple took me to dinner, he commented that I had a very “healthy appetite.” I find his behavior to be very inappropriate and it makes me uncomfortable. I’m extremely insecure about my physique right now because I’ve put on a fair bit of weight due to health issues before I began this job, and I’m not even eating junk food—the soda is diet and the coffee is black, not that you can tell from the container. The problem is this is a new job so I am not comfortable anyway, I do not want to irritate my boss, and postdoctoral positions are not nearly as protected as other jobs, so I’m scared of retaliation if I go to HR. How do I deal with this situation?
A: He may have no filter, so you need to develop a thicker skin. I agree his behavior is way out of line, but it’s not sexual, and two weeks into the job you will sound like quite the whiner if you go complaining to HR. Labs are intimate places and you want to make sure this postdoc position advances your career. What you eat is none of his business, but clearly he has boundary issues, so I suggest you deal with this head-on, and also use a little jujitsu. The next time he makes a remark, ask to speak to him privately. Say that he’s touched upon a sensitive topic for you because you have a health issue you’d rather not discuss that has caused weight gain. As he can imagine, because has an interest in health, this has been distressing to you. Say you aware aware of what you eat and drink—you agree about liquid calories and consume black coffee and diet soda—so he doesn’t have to underline this. Add that his remarks have been a good reminder to you that when you’re in a lab for hours on end how easy it is to default to bad eating habits, and you appreciate he’s made you more aware of this. You can end by saying with a smile he can expect to see a lot more apple eating at your bench. I reiterate he is owed none of this, but you know how vulnerable your position is, so getting him on your side is the wisest course.
Q. Gender-Bending Interview: My close friend went on an interview last week. During the interview, she made a couple of comments about being a member of a well-known all-male organization. My friend is also very tall (about 6 feet), has a large build, and visible facial hair. After the interview was finished, the interviewer called one of my friend’s references and asked if she was transexual. The reference immediately called my friend and told her this. My friend is understandably upset, but also furious with the interviewer and wants to sue her for all she’s worth. I understand my friend’s hurt feelings, but I think she’s overreacting by threatening a lawsuit. I think my friend should not have mentioned the organization she was a part of (it was not relevant) and I see how the interviewer could make an honest mistake. Her field involves a lot of close body contact with customers (not as weird as it sounds, I promise) and the interviewer may have had genuine professional concerns. It’s also a small field in our area, so I don’t want my friend to burn too many professional bridges so early in her career. Am I not being sensitive enough to my friend’s feelings? What should I say to her when she wants to talk about it?
A: I wish you’d explained what the field is that requires a lot of close body contact with customers: Politics? The priesthood? Athletic coaching? For the sake of argument I’m going to guess we’re talking about therapeutic massage, and your friend’s sex could be relevant because some customers want to have a practictioner who is the same sex. I’m sure readers can explain what the legal ramifications here are of the interviewer’s question to the reference. But generally life goes more pleasantly if one can avoid unnecessary entanglements with the legal system. Instead of contacting a lawyer, I think your friend should go back to the interviewer, say that s/he heard from a reference about the inquiry about her gender, and s/he wanted to take this opportunity to clarify the issue. Your friend’s comfortable forthrightness might just help snag the job.
Q. Re: Elementary Education: Perhaps these parents should read Carol Dweck’s book Mindset, which talks about (among other things) how praising a child for being smart may actually make that child underperform in the long run. That book could give them some studies they could point out to grandma about how she’s hurting all three kids as well as give the parents techniques for helping the twins stop measuring their self-worth based on how much smarter big sister seems to be.
A: Thanks for this. You’re absolutely right that constantly talking about innate smarts can be very disabling to kids who then become terrified of being in situations where they aren’t whizzes. Praising specific effort is much healthier. What a rotten teacher grandma must have been!
Q. Chubby Bridesmaid, Different Dress?: I’m a very fit person and most of the bridesmaids in my upcoming wedding party are very fit, too. The exception is my fiancé’s little sister, who is 15 or so pounds overweight. The dress I want my bridesmaids to wear looks best on skinnier people. I don’t think my fiancé’s sister will look good in it. Is there a discrete way to tell her she can pick her own dress from the same company in a more flattering cut? I don’t want to hurt her feelings or embarrass her, but I also don’t want to stuff her into a dress that she’ll feel terrible wearing.
A: Instead of looking through bridal catalogues with your future sister-in-law, turn to the consumer goods aisle of the supermarket. You can tell her Hefty bags come in many styles—pull string, twist tab—that you are sure will flatter her more than the revealing dress you’ve picked out. If in fact you say anything to your sister-in-law I hope she retaliates by growing out her armpit hair. Guess what, she won’t be “stuffed into” a dress because you will make sure it comes in a size that fits her. If the dress is very revealing (why Vegas is the prevailing wedding look is a different question) make sure you have shrugs or some other elegant cover that’s available for all the bridesmaids to wear at their own discretion. Try to remember marrying into this family is not about one day, but the rest of your life.
Q. Re: To the new postdoc: As someone who has seen their fair share of biology postdocs come and go, I’d have an additional suggestion for the letter writer. I’m getting the sense that the LW has a defensive attitude. The LW seems worried about defending self from comments or retaliation, but doesn’t seem to realize that she/he has the potential to develop a positive relationship with her PI’s husband. The husband might be a great informal mentor and good colleague. Speaking from experience, the postdocs that tend go on to career advancement are the ones that look to develop the positive. Maybe there is something the postdoc can do to reach out to this man as a colleague, rather than brooding about his silly and unwanted health advice.
A: Excellent advice. Once a brief food discussion is out of the way, she should engage him as a professional and not brood about his inappropriate comments on eating.
Q. Son Is Nasty to His Adopted Brother: My wife and I adopted 4-year-old Cameron at the beginning of the year. We also have two biological daughters and a biological son. Cam’s immersion into our family has gone very well, I’m happy to say. We adore him, and he loves us. The person who has had the hardest time dealing with Cameron’s adoption is our other son Joshua, formerly the baby of the family. I think sometimes Josh feels threatened by Cam or that he worries we adopted Cam because he wasn’t a good enough son. Most of the time it’s obvious how much Joshua loves Cameron, but every once and a while Josh will lash out at his brother. He will remind Josh that he is adopted whereas he is a biological child. Josh’s barbs really upset my wife because she is adopted. While I was at work last week Joshua became upset with Cameron and told him his real parents abandoned him and that they weren’t actually brothers. My wife overheard the comment and became very angry at Josh. She told him he was being a nasty brat and that she didn’t want to talk to him right then because he had really disappointed her. She sent Josh to his room until I came home. I know Josh behaved badly, but he’s a kid, and he doesn’t mean what he says. When my wife becomes so upset with Josh, he has told me he thinks she doesn’t love him anymore. I think my wife should tone down her anger when Josh makes such mean comments, but she thinks she needs to drive home to our kids that Cam is their brother and that saying otherwise is unacceptably cruel. What can we do to deal with Josh’s occasional insults more constructively?
A: Josh’s behavior is not pleasant, but it’s perfectly normal, as I’m sure you’d discover if you joined some support groups for families adopting kids, especially older ones. Of course what Josh said to his new brother was awful, but if your wife’s response makes Josh doubt his mother’s love, then all of you need help—especially since the issue of adoption is probably particularly sensitive for your wife. Because you’ve adopted, you already have a social worker. Get back in touch with her and say that all of you adore Cameron, but the adoption has been hardest for Josh, who’s just been displaced as baby. Ask for resources for counseling for how you as parents deal with this distress. “Driving home” to her biological children that they had better love their new brother immediately and completely or else is only going to made the adjustment more painful.
Q. Uncomfortable Confrontation: Recently, my wife accidentally found some inapppropriate male-male emails between her father and random contacts on an adult site. She was incredibly shocked, as she believed her parents have had a great, happy marriage for the past 30+ years. She feels like she should confront him to understand what is actually going on before jumping to conclusions about his extramarital activities, but doesn’t know where to start. We live about an hour away. How/when/where do you bring this kind of thing up?
A: My general rule is that everyone is happiest if grown children stay out of their parents’ sex lives, and that may be the case here. However, if your wife’s father is on the down-low and not being careful, he could possibly exposing his wife to STDs (which is true of anyone who cheats). The next time you are going for a visit, your wife should get your father aside—they should take a walk, go for coffee—and as calmly as possible she should say she accidentally saw some emails of your father’s from the site. She can say she knows this is none of her business and she doesn’t want to pry. She is only bringing this up because she’s seeking reassurance that whatever is going on she hopes her father is protecting his health and her mother’s.
Q. Re: Chubby Bridesmaid: If the bride is so concerned about what her future SIL will look like in the dress and has no problem with allowing her to wear something different, why doesn’t she just let all the girls choose the dress that flatters them the most? Pick a designer and a color and let them decide. At least that way her SIL won’t feel singled out and hopefully everyone looks and feels their best.
A: Great idea. That, of course, means having a bride who is able to let go of controlling every detail of “her day.” And how radical it would be if brides said to their bridesmaids, “Just wear something you like.”
Q. Dating the Man in the Wheelchair: I am acquainted with a man who works in the same office building as I do. We’ve shared hellos and such as we share some mutual professional acquaintances. I was told by one of these acquaintances that he likes me and wanted to know if I was single (I am). This man seems very nice (and he’s handsome too!); however, he uses a wheelchair and I’m not sure about how this might work. He is active in Paralympics and other sports and from everything I know he is happy and successful in his career. I’m not sure I know how to proceed in this situation other than just go out with him and see where it goes. It seems many of the typical dating rituals will be thrown off a bit. How does the first-date kiss go? Do I lean down? What if we progress to intimacy (in the future)? I’d feel terrible if I was inadvertently patronizing or insulting. Thanks for any thoughts you or your readers may have.
A: I understand your concerns, but you can put them aside for now. You two haven’t exchanged more than meaningful glances. So before you work yourself up about getting intimate, go out for dinner. See if you enjoy each other’s company. If you do, I can assure you the rest will take care of itself. This man sounds like he’s very confident, so if things catch fire, he should be able to put you at ease about mechanics. And if you two go slow, you will develop the confidence to ask him questions without worry.
Q. Wedding Gifts: Some of my wedding gifts were stolen by a family member on my spouse’s side. We confronted the relative, the theft was acknowledged, but the gifts were never returned. My spouse was furious. In an effort to preserve some level of peace, I advised not pressing charges against the relative for theft and to not sue the relative. It’s been over a year and I stand by that decision—it would have only made matters worse to bring the law in. Since then we’ve been able to deduce who some of the gift-givers must have been, but we have no way of knowing the full list of givers or what they gave. We never sent these people thank you notes since we didn’t know what to thank them for. My question is this, do we bring it up with the people we suspect and explain what happened? Do we wait for them to ask? And is it in poor taste to explain that a relative stole the gifts? We feel terrible for not acknowledging the gifts that loved ones gave, but we’re in a pickle.
A: I hope the relative isn’t left alone on Christmas Eve when all the presents are under the tree. Since you think you know who the gift-givers might be, you should contact the people who you haven’t thanked and explain that this is an awkward situation but there was a major mix-up at the wedding involving the dispositon of the gifts and you’re still trying to untangle it. Say if they gave you a gift and you haven’t thanked them you want to rectify that now. The delicacy is that some people don’t give gifts, which is fine, and you don’t want to sound as if you’re fishing. You don’t have to explain a relative stole the gifts. But if you’re close enough to the people you haven’t thanked, it does make for quite the wedding story!
Q. Baby Planning: My sister-in-law and brother are expecting their first child. They are both attorneys and my sister-in-law is taking a new job working part-time after the baby comes. Evidently my brother will continue his long, stressful hours. I stay home with my three children under the age of 6. I offered to baby-sit for my new niece or nephew, but my brother told me they were placing the child in a day care facility at four months, when my SIL starts her new job. I was hurt by this decision, as I would have welcomed the opportunity to help my brother and SIL out and watching a baby is not new to me. When I pressed them about why they will not reconsider, my brother said that I do not have a licensed day care and that there is no recourse if something should happen. The facility that they selected is reputable, licensed, and insured. But I am really hurt by this decision. Has our society gotten so litigious and so greedy that we cannot even trust our own family anymore? My husband thinks I should just drop it and does not understand why this makes me so upset. I doubt my brother or SIL will change their mind, but I would like to welcome their child without feeling bitter about this. How do I get over my hurt and bafflement?
A: If you were expecting they would pay you, then you’ve got to stop mourning the income you were counting before the chick was hatched. Otherwise, your husband is right, this is none of your business. You made a lovely offer, it was politely rejected, then you made it an issue to the discomfort of everyone. I think this is so hurtful to you because you perhaps are feeling implicitly put down and judged for being “just” a stay-at-home mother. If this working couple relied on your expertise in order to make their careers possible, it would have been psychologically satisfying. But you are caring for three small children, a job many high-earning executives would find impossible. Embrace your choice and stay out of theirs.
Q. Mean Stepgrandmother: My stepgrandmother has always distinguished between me and her “real” grandchildren. To be honest, it doesn’t really bother me because I can see where she’s coming from. However, she recently did something that in my view is completely unforgivable. We both attended a performance at my middle-school-aged brother’s performing-arts camp. I am very close with my brother, and though we are half siblings, we only ever use the “half” qualifier to explain when people comment on our age difference (15 years) or, before I was married, our different last names. The fact is, we are siblings and we love each other as siblings. How many parents we share is irrelevant. After the performance, my brother was proudly introducing me to his friends, but his grandmother kept correcting him, saying, “Well, really she’s just your half sister.” I am FUMING! She has no business going around doing that. It’s her business if she doesn’t want to get me gifts or include me in family photos (though interestingly, she expected to be included in family photos at MY wedding and MY child’s naming), but she has no right to minimize my relationship with my brother like that! Is there anything I can do or say in the aftermath of this incident? Should I just refuse to be around when she’s around? What should my brother do? He is also very angry with her right now.
A: I get where she’s coming from, too. She’s coming from the same place as the lousy granny who wants to call some of her grandchildren smart and some, well, not so smart. You and your brother should ask the parent who is the offspring of this witch to have a talk with her. She needs to be told that making these distinctions, especially in such a hurtful and irrelevant way, has to stop. Maybe there’s a re-education farm we can send bad grannies to. If they don’t shape up, they can spend their lives boring each other bragging about their more stellar grandchildren. And thanks to you for showing how beautifully blended families can work.
Q. Crazy Hair Fetish Commuter on the Bus: I take the bus to work every day. Every now and then I come across a completely normal-looking woman who touches other people’s hair. By touching, I mean caressing it lovingly over and over, staring at it longingly, and smelling it, too. She sits behind women with long hair so nobody seems to notice. Once she was doing this to a woman who was at the front of the bus. (I was at the back.) I really wanted to tell her but was far too embarrassed to shout across the crowd of people standing between us. We both got off at the next stop, and I hesitantly asked if she knew the lady who was touching her hair. She seemed shocked and said she had no idea what was happening, as she was distracted with her MP3 player and thinking about something else. Nobody says anything. I don’t think anyone knows the etiquette of dealing with a crazy woman who likes touching strangers’ hair. Next time I see it, what should I do? A part of me is worried that the crazy hair lady will try to do something deranged to me.
A: It’s very odd that that no one seems to notice the woman who is stroking and smelling their hair. This might be good evidence for a study on the power of earbuds to block out all other bodily signals. So far this woman has made an implicit judgment that your locks don’t deserve notice, so consider yourself lucky. I think it’s up to each Rapunzel to say, “Hey, get your paws off me!”
Q. Re: Grandma teacher: I was one of these whiz kids who skipped a grade two decades ago. I can confirm that grandma’s attitude is very damaging. It may help to point out to her that this type of pressure can make the child’s first failures *very* painful.
Q. Re: Baby Planning: I highly doubt the litigation is the only reason the LW’s brother would rather stick to a private day care, since he can afford it. Sometimes it is easier to deal with a corporation or a business than it is with family because there is less emotion on the line with every decision. Something tells me that if you took this situation so personally, you would take other decisions they make personally, too. Avoiding that conflict is perfectly understandable.
A: Given the letter-writer’s over-the-top reaction to being told “Thanks but no thanks,” I agree that litigation was a red herring and way to avoid saying, “We’d rather leave our kid in a Skinner box then get emotionally entangled with you.”
Emily Yoffe: Thanks everyone, have a great week.