Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is online 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.)
Q. Kids Exploring … Umm … Dogs and Peanut Butter?: My innocent, sweet, kind, funny, outgoing, well-adjusted almost-13-year-old boy attended a sleepover with two other boys around the same age. These boys have a friendly, innocent, sweet dog. As a group, they covered their nipples in peanut butter and had the dog lick it off. He shared this with me in an “It was so funny!” kind of way. I am a solo mom and was completely freaked. I said “Don’t do that again, babe.” He asked, “Why not?” I scrambled around. “I just don’t think it’s a nice thing to do to the dog.” He said, “But Fido LOVES peanut butter!” I said something about it being kind of a sexual thing and I don’t think he should do it anymore and he seemed confused and embarrassed. I am not sure how I should have handled it. Thoughts?
A: Taking the tack that this yummy nipple treat was Fido abuse was bound to get a stunned reaction from your son. I’m sure he could assert that Fido was not in any way coerced into licking the peanut butter. There has been a well-noted societal shift in the last generation toward parents being way more involved in their children’s lives, and children feeling able to tell way more to their parents. But this episode makes me think there was something to be said for the era in which parents were off at cocktail parties oblivious to what their children were up to. What happened with Fido sounds indeed like crazy, innocent, hilarious fun. A good time was had by all, especially Fido. Your son wasn’t reporting to you because he felt somehow violated, but because he wanted to share what a good time he had. I think you overreacted and put an unnecessarily dark gloss on this. But this is a good opening for you to have a discussion about coercion and sexual exploration. Say you’ve been thinking over what he told you, and you feel your reaction wasn’t right and you can see that he just had a silly and hilarious episode and you’re glad he told you. Tell him you reacted the way you did because he’s getting older and sexual exploration is part of getting older—and it’s been on your mind. Acknowledge that this is an awkward subject for parents and kids to discuss. Tell him you want him always to feel safe, and have his boundaries respected and to have him respect those of others. Then reiterate that you’re glad he had so much fun at his sleepover.
Q. Mommy Dearest: I am a young mother to a wonderful pair of 6-year-old twin girls. They are both energetic, playful, and smart. Over the years, I have noticed I tend to favor “Lily” over “Ronnie.” It causes a pit of discomfort in my stomach even typing this, but I know that favoritism stems from Lily’s appearance. Lily is an extraordinarily cute little girl and has been approached by many talent scouts. Ronnie is beautiful in her own way, but she is more plain than Lilly. My ex-husband has noticed my favoritism and says it’s shallow and disgusting. He suggested I seek guidance from a psychiatrist. Am I really such a terrible mother I need professional help? I know it would be ideal if I felt the same way of each of my twins, but can I really help that I prefer one to the other?
A: You are a human being, so as with all humans, you are flawed. Good for you for recognizing a big one. But when you know a flaw will have a serious impact on the emotional health of your child, you simply have to do something about it, something more than saying, “I love good-looking people, and Lily is so much cuter than Ronnie!” I have heard from too many Ronnies to think that your daughters—along with your ex-husband—haven’t noticed this. Children don’t expect and need exact equality, but what they want is fairness. That means some kids get long cuddle session in which a parent reads aloud, and some kids get the parent shouting from the sidelines at their sporting events. But what’s not OK is justifying favoring one child who you find more aesthetically pleasing than another. Your ex, instead of constructively pointing this out, is using this as a cudgel to beat you about the head, which may be one reason he’s your ex. But you acknowledge he’s on to something. I agree that you need to talk this out to a neutral party so that you don’t distort your relationship with both your girls. I’ve heard from Lilys, too, and those who’ve written look back with anger on how their parent poisoned their own childhood and their relationship with their sibling.
Q. Ethics in Personal Training: I am a personal trainer and recently started working with a well-known public figure. She pays me significantly more than my normal rate. The problem is that I am sure she has some form of an eating disorder. She’s had four different trainers in the past year—she fired three because they insisted she get professional help, and one quit as he refused to continue her exercise regime. Having her as my client is amazing for my career, both financially and for future prospects. I know if I stop working with her she’s just going to find another trainer who will. My question is, is this unethical? I don’t push her to the limits and try to steer her into moderate exercise.
A: If you belong to a professional organization, you should be able to discuss this with people there. This has to be something that trainers run into frequently. Sure, it seems great for your career that you have a famous client, but if said client ends up in the hospital after collapsing with an eating disorder, that’s not so good for your career. You know you’re a short-timer because she likely suffers from body dysmorphic disorder and won’t be happy with you when you refuse to push her to the point of breakdown. If you don’t address what you clearly suspect, think of the headlines—and the effect on your career—when you give into your client’s demands, and then you end up being the person to call 911.
Q. Is My Kid a Monster?: We have three kids. Two of them have their personality flaws like everyone else (she is stubborn and can be moody, he has trouble controlling his emotions and is prone to outbursts), but they generally seem to be good kids. One is not. He destroys things, hits people when he gets angry, and throws tantrums when he doesn’t get his way (yet at the same time, when he’s not acting out, he’s very sweet and loving). The straw that broke the camel’s back was this past weekend when he made a “little person” cry while we were picking up a pizza by pointing and laughing at him. (He was severely punished for that.) We’re at wit’s end. We’ve tried numerous types of escalating punishment. Nothing seems to work. Should we just accept the fact that our kid’s a monster and start marking off the years until he’s out of the house?
A: No, you don’t say, “Well, he’s a monster—10 more years of this nightmare and then we can release him into society.” You have a troubled child who needs professional intervention. Coincidentally, I have gotten a bunch of similar letters recently from parents struggling with such children. They have described how terribly painful it is to have such a child and how hard to even get a diagnosis—for example personality disorders are not generally arrived at until someone is past childhood. A child who engages in violent and socially unacceptable behavior will have enormous effects on your entire family. The other parents I’ve heard from are in agony over this. They love their child but are torn apart by feeling afraid of their own offspring and fearful about what the future holds. You don’t even express any emotional attachment to your son. You will not solve this situation by escalating punishment. As you’ve seen, your son is the one who will push past all boundaries. Your entire family needs help. This is will require work on your part to find a good therapist, and you have to be prepared for some dead ends. But your obligation to yourselves, and the rest of us, is to help make your son a functioning member of society.
Q. Holiday Headache: Each year, my husband and I alternate Christmases with our respective parents. Because of a new job I started in December, we were unable to go to his parents’ for the holidays on what would have been their turn. This year, my parents are excited for their turn and our visit. As a compromise, I suggested I stay with my parents, while husband goes to his. Husband is calling me selfish and says we both need to visit his side to make it fair. We’re a young couple with no kids, if it helps. Am I being inconsiderate? We’re fighting about Christmas in March—not what I was expecting!
A: Nine months of fighting over Christmas will perhaps not fill you with holiday spirit, but it might fill you with a desire to stop spending any time together as a couple. Score-keeping and inflexibility are death to a marriage. Last December you couldn’t visit anyone, so I don’t understand why your husband couldn’t see his folks without you. But he didn’t and now he wants to be even. I understand that having everyone together for the holidays is important to a lot of people, but surely what’s more important is parents and grown children seeing each other when they can. Is anything stopping you two from visiting his folks this summer? Or maybe you two can swap out Thanksgiving and Christmas visits this year. Or possibly you conclude that you’ll spend some time apart over the holidays. What’s crucial is your ability as a couple to respectfully figure this relatively unimportant issue out before you become a slightly older couple with children.
Q. High School Ex Situation: I’m a guy in high school. I am good friends with a girl from another school, who I met a long time ago. We are involved in the same activities, etc., and our parents are friends. The trouble is, she was dating a classmate of mine for a while. This classmate is not a close friend, but we get along very well. A few months ago, he dumped her. I was completely uninvolved and didn’t find out until some weeks later, from my female friend. Since then, she and I have hung out a few times (just as friends), and now she wants to start dating. I like her a lot and would love to say yes, but I don’t know if I should given her past relationship with my classmate. I don’t want to offend him by dating a girl he dumped. Should I stay “good friends” with both, or date my female friend and explain things to her ex?
A: As the late Lesley Gore once sang, “You Don’t Own Me.” That long-ago anthem of female empowerment applies in this case. Your guy friend dumped your girlfriend. Thus, all of you are now free agents, and he has no say over her current or future involvements. Romance would be severely curtailed if no one in a social circle was allowed to date the exes of others in the circle. Whether or not this guy hears you’ve gone out with his ex is not your concern. Good for her that she made the first move. You’re interested, so feel free to reciprocate.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week!