Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon. I look forward to your questions.
Q. Fear of Dogs: I am a single dad. My late wife left me with our only child. My 4-year-old daughter is terrified of dogs, particularly large ones. Favorite relatives have just gotten a puppy that will be very large. She has begun to protest visiting. It doesn’t help that my family members refuse to crate the animal. They are saying that the puppy needs to learn to greet people. They do supervise very closely, but that doesn’t help my daughter become less afraid. When I said that we wouldn’t be visiting anymore, they said they understood and would see us at our house or a restaurant. Complicating the matter is that these relatives are my daughter’s designated guardians and my go-to babysitters. It worries me that they didn’t think ahead about her fear before getting the pet and that they refuse to put my daughter above it. They will probably be reasonable about the guardianship and babysitting as no longer working for me, but where does that leave my family? Am I being unreasonable, or are they being unkind? My little girl’s fear isn’t a matter of just not being used to animals. She is utterly terrified just seeing the puppy at the door on a leash.
A: Your daughter’s early life has been marked by profound loss. Lots of kids are scared of dogs, but it may be that your daughter’s terror is somehow connected in her young mind with the disappearance of her mother. Your family members are being insensitive and obtuse by not making sure your daughter is at ease in their home. All dogs need crates and the relatives with a new puppy have to teach it how to sleep quietly in one. If they won’t, they are irresponsible in every way. It’s remarkable they would prefer to lose a close connection with your daughter rather than make the puppy take a nap. I’m afraid you need a new set of go-to sitters. But for now, don’t worry about changing guardianship. That’s something you can think about more deliberately. Over time, you do want to figure out how to help your daughter get over her fear of dogs. If you know people with calm, gentle ones, you and your daughter can visit, and perhaps while she looks on from a comfortable distance, she can see you sitting with and petting the dog. That might allow her to move in closer on her own schedule.
Dear Prudence: Carpooler With Romantic Designs
Q. Porn at the Office: Let me start, Dear Prudence, by saying I’m not a prude. That said, I am so offended by some “art” a co-worker put up in our “office.” We work in an open-concept space shared by about a dozen employees. He’s with “hip” team, which is why I suppose they put up with it and haven’t complained. Fortunately, I’m at the other end of the office and don’t have to regularly view it, but when I do, my goodness—it’s bad and doesn’t belong anywhere near a workplace. And before you or someone else says it may just be a matter of taste, you will have to trust me—it isn’t. We are a small company and don’t have an HR department. If I speak up, I will surely be marked. Do I just close my eyes when I pass by?
A: If there is a pornographic piece of art hanging in your office, I can’t believe you are the only person to find it objectionable. Hip your office may be, but if clients ever come by, your art curator may be seriously turning off people who conclude the sensibility of your workplace is not for them. This is the kind of thing you might broach in a casual way with people you think are like-minded. “You know that picture down the hall of the copulating couple. I don’t think it belongs in an office. What do you think?” Then a couple of you might go to the head of the hipsters and explain they need art that’s less edgy, because the picture they have up belongs in a private setting. If that doesn’t take care of it, only you know the dynamics of the office well enough to decide if it’s better for your career to just avert your gaze.
Q. Stolen Wedding Cash—How Do I Say Thanks?: At our wedding, many of our relatives and friends opted to give us cash gifts. The problem is that my brother stole most of the money at the wedding. The police are involved and we have painfully discovered he has debts and a gambling problem. Although we are no longer speaking, I still love my brother and I don’t wish to advertise his personal demons to everybody else. But I find myself completely stuck when it comes to writing thank you notes. I am pretty certain some of our guests gave very generously, warranting more than a generic “Thank you for your presence and your present”—but I have no way of finding out who and how much. I really want to do the right thing and express my gratitude, but how?
A: You’re right that the thank you note is not the place to explain the money went in your brother’s pocket and instead of going to your towels it’s gone to the craps table. But you can still write a heartfelt note without knowing exactly how much your brother stole. You say something like, “We are so appreciative of your generosity. We are looking forward to setting up our new household and your gift is going to help get us there. It meant so much to see you on our happy day and …” It could be that eventually word gets out about your brother and what he did. If people start asking you if their gift was stolen, you can just say, “This is such a sad and painful thing, I appreciate your understanding that I don’t want to go into it.”
Q. How to Leave Boyfriend?: My boyfriend and I agreed never to have kids. Children have always been a deal-breaker for me and I was relieved to find someone who was on the same page as I am. Then recently his sister, a single mother, passed away in a tragic accident, leaving him the guardian of two young children. He is devastated and I have been here to support him. After much thought, however, I cannot see myself becoming a co-guardian for the rest of my life. It may seem callous, but this is how I feel. I thought of staying until my boyfriend has somewhat adjusted, but I feel like I’m being dishonest to both of us by making him think I’ll stay permanently. I also worry about bonding with the kids when I know I’m about to exit their lives eventually. What is the decent thing to do?
A: This is one of those situations that causes everyone involved to examine what they thought were bedrock principles of their life. Your boyfriend, who never wanted to be a father, is stepping up to rescue these orphaned children, and good for him. You have examined your heart, and discovered there is no place in there for these children. That won’t win you any humanitarian awards, but that is the truth and absolutely your prerogative. It is better for you to know this about yourself and act upon it, rather than be a resentful, angry presence in the lives of these vulnerable children. Your boyfriend and these children need counseling to get them through this trauma. That would be a good place for you and he (not with the kids) to talk through your feelings and to figure out how to exit in the least disruptive way. It could be possible that you could transition into a friendship, so that you could help your boyfriend and continue to have some role in the lives of these children. But maybe you don’t want even that, and you need to make a clean break.
Q. Re: Fear of dogs: The dad should contact his local kennel club about a visit with a certified therapy or companion dog. Those dogs are trained to be particularly calm and gentle and could help his daughter get over her fear.
A: Good advice. And the handlers of these dogs should have an understanding of how to deal gently with a terrified little girl.
Q. Raped by My Best Friend: I am 17 years old and I have had the same best guy friend since I was 13. He has been going through a lot recently—both of his parents have been diagnosed with fatal illnesses, so he wanted to have a couple of people over to keep his mind off of everything. By the time I got to his house he was really drunk and the others who were there were intoxicated as well. I immediately took over the role of caretaker. I got everyone else to go to sleep on the couch so they wouldn’t drive drunk. And then I had to take care of my best friend. I finally got him to lay down in bed and watch a movie. I fell asleep during the movie and woke up at about 5 a.m. and he was on top of me holding me down and touching me. Ever since he has been texting me like nothing happened. I haven’t been responding so he is getting angry at me as if I did something wrong. I don’t know how to proceed from here. He has been my best friend for years and was basically family to me. I am ashamed to tell anyone that it happened and I am terrified to face him at school. Please help me, I don’t have any clue what to do or how to react to this.
A: [Update: I originally read the text of the letter without noticing the subject line, which I often skip over in my chat window. I focused solely on the description of what happened, which was obviously terrible and a sexual assault, but from a lack of specific details in the description and without the benefit of the subject line, it wasn’t clear exactly what took place, and I apologize for missing the important subject line in this case. She must get support and counseling. She may want to bring charges. This is a dreadful situation that needs qualified adults who can help guide her through.]
This is one of those situations in which as an adult I wish I could wave a magic wand so you kids would only have to deal with problems like writing your college essays, not such overwhelming problems as terminal illness and sexual assault. First of all, I hope you can talk to your parents about this. You know if they will be able to listen sympathetically and give you good advice, or if they will just react punitively. Depending on the support you find in your family, you could consider calling the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. They have a hotline and you can talk confidentially to someone there and get help on figuring out how to proceed. Being able to tell someone what happened will itself be a great relief to you. You are in a difficult and complicated situation. As I’ve noted often, heavy drinking is so destructive, especially to young people. It is possible that your friend is acting as if nothing happened because he can’t remember what happened. Consuming a large volume of alcohol can knock out one’s working memory. So people act as if they are in control of their actions, but their brain is not recording any of it, and in the morning they have no idea what they did.
What your friend did is horrible and inexcusable. But it sounds as if you think this is wholely out of character. It could be a combination of despair and booze had him doing things he never would normally do. But you also can’t act as if it didn’t happen. He needs to know what he did, acknowledge it, and apologize. The school counseling office is a possible resource, but I’m concerned about a counselor feeling this must be reported, and you might not want that to happen to your friend. Again, I’m not excusing what he did, but he is in the middle of an unfolding tragedy. He himself needs serious counseling. It could be that your parents can intervene for both of you. They must have warm feelings toward this boy, so they could talk to someone to help make sure your friend is getting help. If you feel you need it, they could get you a counselor so that you have an objective person to help you sort through what happened and figure out whether you can continue your friendship. Your friend did something awful to you, but he is a young person whose life is falling apart. [Update, continued: To be clear, reading the letter with the subject line in mind renders the friend’s own issues completely secondary to what the letter writer must first work through and make decisions about.]
Q. Overly Generous but With Strings Attached: My boyfriend is well off and very generous. He is always the first to pick up a check or treat friends to events. The trouble is, most of these generous offerings are actually “tests.” If a bill comes for dinner and a fight ensues over who wants to pay and he wins, he later complains that the other party should have not let that happen. I have told him that he should stop expecting others to pay because he set the precedent already. Obviously, he disagrees. I guess he thinks other people should read his mind. Of course every one of our friends thinks he is awesome, but they don’t know what is REALLY behind his generosity. Any thoughts?
A: Usually someone this passive-aggressive does not limit it to a single circumstance. The next time this little game happens and he complains to you later tell him, “Harry, if you don’t want to pick up the check, don’t do it. When you reach for it and insist it’s yours, other people aren’t supposed to knock you in the head with the wine bottle in order to pay it. You’re being unfair to make this a test. Let’s just split the check from now on.” Be prepared, however, for your boyfriend to find you are failing his little internal test of whether you’re a supportive girlfriend.
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