Dear Prudence

Qualms for the Poor

Prudie counsels a letter writer who thinks giving to needy children rewards parents for bad behavior.

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg.

Photo by Sam Breach

Mallory Ortberg, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up below to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at

Q. Charity Tightwad: I am trying to instill in my young children the importance of being generous and empathic to others in need, but during the holidays I feel like such a hypocrite. I don’t want to give to poor children during the holidays! I think my line of work has made me cynical. I get tired of people continuing to have children when they can’t afford them, and I get bitter and resentful when they then sign up for Christmas gifts on the various angel trees at church and at the mall. In my heart, I know the choices their parents made are not the fault of the children, but in my head I can’t reconcile that I feel I am rewarding bad behavior in the adults, and I am teaching these kids that they can rely on the kindness of strangers. I feel mean-spirited but justified at the same time. I tend to steer my children to charities that help disabled and sick children instead, but I feel like a judgmental Grinch.

A: I disagree strongly with the majority of the sentiments expressed in your question, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with giving to charities that align with your values, which is what you seem to be doing. You’re donating to charities that help sick children, which is a good thing to do, and encouraging your own children to do the same. You don’t have to give to every well-meaning organization you come across, and I think you can gently explain to your children the importance of finding a few charities whose work you respect and supporting them.

As for the rest of it, I would encourage you to gently dismiss your concerns about whether or not other people are insufficiently wealthy to have children. It is unlikely that many people are having children just to score a few anonymous, afterthought gifts from mall-based charities once a year, and at any rate, they are not your problem to worry about. 

Q. Too Soon for Wrist Talk?: So, I’ve been dating someone for a few weeks, and I think it’s safe to say we like each other so far. When we were cuddling post-sex, I noticed what I can only assume are wrist-slashing scars. How, when, or in what situation do I bring these up? I’ve decided to acknowledge that I’d seen them by saying, “Hey I wanted to just say—and this might be weird—but just say that I’ve seen those scars on your wrists and you don’t have to tell me about them, or you can, it’s up to you, but I wanted to acknowledge that I see them.” But I also want to know if I’m dating someone who’s very recently been suicidal. Is that OK? Do I just wait this out? I like her, so should I just ignore? #lesbiansobviously.

A: This is a tricky situation—that early dance of intimacy where in some ways you’ve gotten to know one another very well, and in other ways you are still as strangers to one another. She hasn’t brought it up with you, so it’s possible she may not want to talk about it yet, but your suggestion sounds both sensible and respectful to me. Ignoring her scars would, I think, only increase your sense of uncertainty and confusion. The possibility of a recent suicide attempt complicates the getting-to-know-you process. You like her, but you’re not sure yet whether this relationship will work out, and now you’re additionally worried that the normal vicissitudes of early dating might damage her hard-won mental health. Whatever happens between the two of you, be kind, be honest, and be open with her. You’re not demanding anything, just kindly acknowledging the reality of what you’ve seen, and letting her know you’re available to talk when and if she wants to. 

Q. Inappropriate Office Gifts: My boss gives large cash gifts at Christmas and our birthdays (usually a few hundred dollars). I work in education, so Christmas bonuses are not the norm or expected. I have always felt uncomfortable with these gifts. It feels condescending—for context he is the only man in an office of women, and he makes three to four times what the rest of us do. He is often hard to work for—he’s disrespectful, unavailable, and frustratingly unaware of his privilege. We also don’t work for him, he just happens to be our supervisor. The money feels like a bribe to deal with his poor behavior at worst, and at best a consolation prize for our tough job that does not pay particularly well. I don’t know if I’m overreacting and the money is actually a nice way for him to show appreciation, or if it’s genuinely in poor taste. I also worry about saying anything, because I know that many in our office (often including me) could really use the money. I’m not sure how to respond, or if I should, but I’m getting more and more anxious as we get closer to Christmas and I know his Christmas card is incoming.

A: You’re not overreacting, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t also take the money. The way I see it, there are two separate issues here: You have an unpleasant boss, and you receive a Christmas bonus every year. If he were a pleasant boss, the bonus would presumably be welcome. If he remained unpleasant but didn’t give out year-end bonuses, you’d be just as frustrated with him but also a few hundred bucks shorter than you are now. If he does or says something inappropriate, your having accepted a Christmas bonus doesn’t mean you can’t bring it up with HR or another supervisor. Take the money, even if it is a consolation prize, but don’t in any way feel yourself obligated to brush off his bad behavior for having taken it.

Q. When Does Tragedy Excuse Poor Behavior?: I have a family member who has suffered three miscarriages in the last two years. She is very vocal about her losses and posts online about her three “angel” children. I am now pregnant with my second child. After finding out about my pregnancy, she focused her anger on me in online posts, a blog, etc.; I have made her life so much harder, I’m undeserving, etc. I have cut off all contact with her. Now I’m getting pushback from the family, who say I’m not being understanding or sympathetic enough. When is enough enough? Do her losses entitle her to attack me?

A: No, they don’t. A person who writes blog posts about how you don’t deserve your pregnancy is not someone who ought to be in your life. Anyone who would encourage you to sympathize with her while she blames you for her miscarriage is not looking out for your best interests. You were right to cut her off. What she’s been through is very sad, but your pregnancy is not something you did to her, and it’s outrageous for anyone to suggest that you should excuse her behavior.

Q. Sugar Shock: I recently had some blood work done and have found out that I am pre-diabetic. This came as a huge shock to me and my family. I am in my mid-20’s, eat a relatively healthy diet, and even run marathons. I am now terrified to eat most foods that will negatively affect my glucose, but my family thinks me looking carefully at foods now is funny. They think that since I am “healthy” anyway, I should not worry about what I consume and just continue life as ever. I am frankly scared with this diagnosis and was hoping for support. Any advice?

A: It’s true that a lot of people use appearances as a shorthand for health—they think someone who looks healthy can’t have anything wrong with them, which is patently untrue. Getting diagnosed with pre-diabetes isn’t a guarantee you’ll get diabetes, but exactly no doctors recommend “just continuing life as ever” as a course of prevention. It can also damage your heart and circulatory system, so I think it’s great for you to figure out how to manage your blood sugar early, even if you don’t have any obvious symptoms now. Tell your skeptical family members pre-diabetes is a serious condition that means you’re likelier to suffer a stroke or get heart disease, that you’re really concerned about your long-term well-being, and that you would appreciate their support as you follow your doctor’s instructions.

It’s also a good reminder for the rest of us that someone’s appearance isn’t always an indicator of their health and that, as always, it is rude and invasive to try to undermine someone else’s medical treatment.

Q. Can a 13-Year-Old Sleepover Party be Secretly Filmed by the Parents?: 
My son, aged 13, went to a classmate’s sleepover party where they were rowdy and told off-color jokes. He was a bit contrite afterward, as his best friend apparently told him he was the loudest and his jokes were the worst (we didn’t receive any complaints from anyone’s parents, though).
 His classmate now has told my son that the mother used a nanny cam to film the party and has threatened him to show the recording to the school’s administration so they can see how he “really” is. My son is very good at school and very proud of his reputation with teachers so he’s quite distressed.
 I told him his classmate is likely lying, as no parent in his right mind would nanny-cam a 13-year-old boy’s sleepover, and that even if they did, they most certainly wouldn’t tell him. This didn’t seem to give him much comfort. 
I also told him that privacy laws would protect him and his friends from being filmed without their and their parent’s permission, much less show the film to someone else. But I am kind of wondering if that last part is true.
 Anyway, should I approach the other child’s parents to bring the matter to the light, or is this something I should let my son manage himself?

A: This sounds like an awful update of the classic “You’re weird and nobody likes you and soon everyone’s going to find out what you’re really like” rumor. You’re right in that this is probably a childish threat from your son’s friend rather than like something any real parent would do. None of the other parents complained about the boys’ behavior that night, so it sounds more like a personal dispute between your son and his friend than anything else. (It also doesn’t surprise me that being updated on privacy laws was cold comfort to a distressed 13-year-old.)

I’m reluctant to tell you to get involved, because as nasty as middle-schoolers can be to one another, calling Mom and Dad in to resolve a personal dispute can sometimes make things worse. But since this boy is claiming his parents filmed your son without his knowledge, I think you should give them a call and ask them to confirm what you already suspect—namely, that there is no footage, and that they would never film their children’s friends. It will give you and your son peace of mind to know there’s not actually footage of him telling stupid, embarrassing jokes at a sleepover.

Q. Re: Pre-Diabetes: Your doctor’s office should’ve explained this to you—your actual glucose numbers are of less concern to you right now than your developing insulin resistance. If you weren’t becoming resistant to insulin, you could eat sugar by the spoonful without a problem. (Clearly, I am not a dentist.) For most people, insulin resistance comes with fat tissue, and for most pre-diabetics, the primary advice is to lose fat. That’s what you worry about right now, not how many milligrams of sugar you’re taking in; well, other than to consider that sugar can turn into fat if you don’t burn the calories off.

A: Talk to your doctor! I am entirely unqualified to give medical advice, so talk to your doctor about the best strategy for treating insulin resistance. 

Q. Re: Sugar Shock: “Terrified” of eating most food? That’s silly. Ask the doc who diagnosed you for a pre-diabetic diet plan and enjoy healthful food without being “terrified.”

A: I think it’s a reasonable response after a surprising diagnosis! That doesn’t mean “terror” should be her primary response for the rest of her life, but I can understand being scared and confused and a bit at sea right after hearing you’re pre-diabetic when you’re not expecting it. 

Q. Re: Wrist Talk: I was in almost the identical situation with my boyfriend when we first got together. I did exactly what the original poster planned to do (albeit with less grace), and it turned out to be a bad scratch he got once from a nail. It might be what you think, and then you’ll know and can move forward accordingly. Or it might not.

A: If I read the original letter correctly, she had multiple marks on her wrists, but it’s always a possibility. Your boyfriend’s experience is a great reminder not to make assumptions, though, I suppose!

Mallory Ortberg: OK, everyone, that’s it for today. If any of you are receiving cash gifts from your bosses that you’re not comfortable with, please forward them directly to me.

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If you missed Part 1 of this week’s chat, click here to read it.