Dear Prudence

Can’t Take a Joke

My family mercilessly teases to show affection, but my boyfriend doesn’t get it.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

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Dear Prudie,
In my family, especially around the holidays, you have to be able to dish it out and take it. Good-natured ribbing about the things you’ve done, large and small, flies around the room, and the measure of how much we like you is how much we tease you. No matter how much I tell that to my current boyfriend, he doesn’t get it. He takes my family’s barbs as personal. They give him grief about his age (which really isn’t that old) or about how all his friends have kids (and he doesn’t) or about how his favorite team never wins the Super Bowl (while theirs does). He’s a super straight arrow, and it’s even hard to come up with things to tease him about. If he dished it out in return, they’d respect him for it. Instead, he politely sits there, smiles uncomfortably, and waits for it to end. My family winds up not knowing if he likes us or not. Does his discomfort mean that we should stop teasing him altogether? If so, I have no idea what he’ll do at any of our family gatherings.

—Start Dishing

Dear Start,
Your family sounds a lot like mine. I once took a new boyfriend, a redhead, to a family gathering. My uncle looked at him and by way of saying hello asked, “Do you have red pubic hair?” My date stuck his thumb out at me and replied, “Ask her.” Boom! I think I can resolve one question troubling all of you. You ask if your boyfriend likes your family. The answer is, no. Most people, you’ve probably found, don’t seek out social occasions at which they will be relentlessly mocked. Even though you and I come from families in which shredding each other is a sport, you also have to acknowledge that the world is better off if families like ours are in the minority. You ended up with someone who is well-mannered, and I’m betting that was no accident. So it is rude of you to ask your boyfriend to adopt a different personality and go around the holiday table telling your sister that the episode of Girls in which Hannah got an STD made him think of her, or rejoice to your father over the great news that Medicare covers penis pumps. Your boyfriend’s response to your family’s antics—sitting there politely until it is blessedly time to leave—is brilliant, one that gives your insult comics no toehold. And maybe as a way of showing you really love him, you’ll tell your boyfriend you understand if this year he wants to skip Christmas with your folks.


Dear Prudence,
I am an educational administrator. I have had a great deal of success in turning failing schools into high-performing ones. A few years ago, I took a job in a school district in a small town in a relatively remote part of the country. It was a chance to turn around several schools at once. The teachers and administrators were open to new ideas and are making great strides, but progress has been slow. My children (who are above average in their academic and social skills, but not abnormally so) are in the school system. I can see what their participation in the schools is doing to them, and it’s killing me. My daughter is creative and sensitive. She has gone from loving learning to hating it, and cries every morning when she has to go to school. My wife wants to home-school our children. I agree that this would probably be best, but it would create a political nightmare for me because it would demonstrate the schools aren’t good enough for our kids. Do I keep my kids in school, sacrificing their curiosity, creativity, and love of learning for the sake of preserving my ability to improve the educational experience for thousands of kids? Or do I do what’s right for my own children, no matter the professional consequences? Siding with my own children is obvious, but it would likely mean I’d have to quit this job.


Dear Stuck,
I’ll say progress is slow if keeping your children in these schools will mean the crushing of their “curiosity, creativity, and love of learning.” That’s a pretty global indictment of what’s happening in your school system. I wish you’d mentioned some good things, but if that only consists of sparkling linoleum floors and decent tater tots in the cafeteria, then that cannot make up for your children’s sense of dread each morning. You can have a decadeslong career as an administrator, but your children are only going to get one chance at childhood. I don’t see how you sacrifice that for the worthy but apparently Sisyphean goal before you. Since you live in a small, remote community, home-schooling sounds less than ideal itself. It would severely isolate your kids, particularly since this decision would be your family’s statement about the unacceptable condition of the very schools you oversee. You say you’ve successfully turned around a bunch of failing schools. That track record should make you a highly sought-after commodity. There is no shame in having tried hard and concluding that where you are is not right for you professionally or for your family personally. I think you should start looking for a new job, with a commitment to finding something for the fall of next year. With that deadline in mind, you can talk to your kids about whether they are willing to finish out the upcoming semester in school, or would prefer to try the School of Mom.


Dear Prudence,
My high school requires a senior project to graduate, and I chose to do one on genealogy. In my research I discovered that the woman who I always thought was my grandmother was in fact my stepgrandmother. She married my granddad when my mom was 6 years old and raised my mom as her own. The project required I trace all four of my biological grandparents. When I spoke to my grandfather about this, he requested that I drop that project and do something else. I did, but I love research and kept digging. I was able to find that my biological grandmother is on the list of names of the dead from a mass suicide cult. It turns out I have aunts, uncles, and a great-grandmother. My grandfather begged me to let it go and never tell my mom. He had told her years ago that her mother left because of a drinking and drug problem. I asked my mother if she ever thinks about her real mom and she smiled and said, “My real mom raised me, she loves me, you, and your brother. The woman who left a 5-year-old is not a real mom, and I don’t think about her at all.” Should I tell her there is living family while she still has time to meet them? The mystery of these other relatives is killing me.

—The Curious Cat

Dear Curious,
Whatever you do in life, I’m sure your research skills will take you far. You in essence asked your mother the question and she gave you an eloquent answer about love and biology. She told you she knows who her real mother is and doesn’t want to know more about her biological mother. You need to respect that. Likely what her father told her about her biological mother was not a lie. It may well be that a woman with substance abuse and other problems, one who abandoned her small child, could have ended up under the thrall of a Jim Jones and died drinking the Kool-Aid. A real mystery is about the severing of the relationship with your biological grandmother’s family. Maybe they just decided to disappear from your mother’s life; maybe they were told to go away. You could explore this with your grandfather, but you’ve learned this is an awful subject for him, in which case it’s unkind to press. As for your mother, she knows there are people out there she is related to, but she has chosen not to pursue a relationship with them. You will soon be a young adult off at college. With your research skills, you could continue your investigation and from a distance find out quite a bit about the relatives you’ve never met. Before you decide on making contact, however, keep in mind the emotional consequences for others of forcing them to relive wrenching events that for you are simply a source of fascination.


Dear Prudence,
My 8-year-old son has taken to pulling out his baby book from time to time, wanting to look at photos and things I had written, and for me to sit with him and chat about it. The problem? My pregnancy and his early years were a painful, tumultuous time that I don’t particularly want to relive. My ex-husband was cruel and abusive to us, and the “memories” I have recorded in his baby book are half-truths that paint a rosy picture of something that in reality was horrible. I love my son dearly and have always felt blessed to be his mother, but I don’t enjoy recalling those years. What should I do?

—Happy in the Present

Dear Happy,
Please honor your son’s need to understand his past—there’s not that much of it, and while I know it’s difficult for you, it’s worth the effort to talk to him about something he feels a deep need to examine. You don’t say where your ex stands vis-a-vis your son. But I’m assuming he’s a missing, and unmissed by you, presence in your lives. But your boy is trying to sort out what happened at his beginning and who his father is. Amid the awfulness, even you acknowledge there were rosy times: those that involved watching your beloved son blossom. So concentrate on that truth. As your son gets older, he will probably start having questions about his father. Or if you realize he thinks this a verboten subject, you should address this directly. You can say, “Sometimes you must wonder why your dad and I got divorced.” Then, in an age-appropriate way, you can talk about his father, his good qualities, and, sadly, his bad. But for now, focus on indulging your son’s need to hear about all the wonderful things that happened when he was little.


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