Get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week by signing up in the box below. Please send your questions for publication to firstname.lastname@example.org. (Questions may be edited.)
Got a burning question for Prudie? He’ll be online here on Slate to chat with readers each Monday at noon. Submit your questions and comments here before or during the live discussion.
My mom, her husband, and some of my siblings have started carrying concealed weapons recently. I have a young child and want to make sure none of our family has guns anywhere near him. My mother told me that their guns would be locked up during Christmas. When I saw her a few days later her husband admitted he was carrying a gun while he held my 2-year-old. Now I’m worried about what Christmas will be like with them. How do I address this concern with my mom without alienating her and my other gun-carrying siblings? Before we travel the long distance home for the holidays I need to make sure there will not be guns around my son (or any of the kids). My sense is that she does not want to stand up to her husband on this. I really hate having to utilize the phrase “they are otherwise wonderful human beings,” but they are otherwise wonderful human beings whom I love dearly, so I really want to find a peaceful way to deal with this from a distance before Christmas.
—Guns ’n’ Poinsettias
They may very well be otherwise wonderful human beings, but their flippant attitude toward firearm safety trumps everything else right now. If your mother and her husband can’t agree to uphold her promise to you that their guns would be locked up when there are toddlers in the house—if your mother can’t even have a conversation with him about it—they have no business owning guns. They know how you feel. If they can’t ensure that all firearms will be out of the reach of your 2-year-old, let them know you won’t be celebrating Christmas with them this year.
* * *
My sister won’t speak to me because I taught her daughter a naughty word. I was playing Scrabble with my 8-year-old niece, who is very smart. She always kills me when we play and it’s kind of embarrassing for me. But this one game was close. I had the opportunity to play all my letters to spell “fellatio” ensuring I’d win the game. I thought a bit about whether I should play this word or just lose graciously. Pride got the better of me and I played the word. My niece didn’t believe it was a word and looked it up in the dictionary. This lead to numerous questions about sex that I wasn’t prepared for. So I told her to ask her mother. When my sister found out what I’d done she hit the ceiling. She was furious at me that I’d taught her this word. Now she won’t speak with me. I’ve considered apologizing but I don’t think I did anything wrong. She would have learned the word eventually anyway. When I was a kid, I learned far worse words younger than that.
Bud! Fellatio is only 11 points in Scrabble! Even with the 50-point bonus for using all of your tiles, this was the wrong hill to die on. It is a bad idea to teach your 8-year-old niece about blow jobs, no matter how much you thought you knew about oral sex when you were a kid. (For everyone who doesn’t believe Scrabble can lead to a situation like this: Play with my family sometime.) I admire your commitment to winning and share your salt-the-earth strategy when it comes to gamesmanship, but you should know better. Apologize to your sister, and don’t play Scrabble with your niece again.
* * *
My daughter’s best friend spends a considerable amount of time at our house. This winter the friend has been showing up in only a sweater; when I asked her where her coat was she replied that she didn’t have one. I know her family’s financial situation isn’t great. After several weeks of below-zero temperatures and no coat, I asked her to pick one out when she was at the mall with us. I didn’t plan on mentioning it to her parents. However, my husband was at home when the girl’s dad came to collect her. From my husband’s description I’m afraid he completely bungled things—he bragged about the purchase, probably expecting my generosity to be praised. The father attempted to pay him for the purchase, they argued, and my husband called me to inform me that boy was I in trouble. I’m afraid I’ve damaged our relationship with this girl’s parents. Is there anything I can do to make up for the insult?
—Out in the Cold
“Babe, I got in a fight with Sarah’s dad. You’re in big trouble.” What a husband! His clumsy pride did more to damage your relationship with these people than your kind gesture. Your husband is the one who made a point of bringing up their financial situation and bragging about your good deed, and should be the one to apologize for his tactlessness.
It’s a good deed to buy a little girl a jacket when she needs one. It’s an even better one to take the feelings of her struggling family into consideration in the process. A child without a coat in sub-zero temperatures is an emergency, and you were right to buy her a jacket to keep warm. But this defcon level of embarrassment could have been avoided if you’d had a quick conversation with her parents beforehand; surely you couldn’t have expected her to go home in a brand-new winter coat without anyone noticing.
* * *
I’ve noticed people have a habit of saying things along the lines of, “I miss you,” “We should catch up,” or even further with, “You’re such a good friend,” but don’t always mean it or follow through. I wouldn’t think of telling someone their friendship meant a lot to me or make empty offers to get together if I didn’t truly believe it. I wonder what someone thinks they’re doing for me by saying it, and it’s made me a little more guarded in general and reluctant to open myself up to friends who seem to be sincere. Why would someone say these things when they don’t mean it, and how do I distinguish between genuine people and everyone else?
—Only Living Boy in New York
These people may very well be sincere when they say that you’re a good friend! And missing someone is a kindness without any promise attached. “We should catch up,” however, can mean three things: 1. “Let’s get lunch Thursday” 2. “I have generally positive feelings toward you but don’t have a desire to actively spend time together,” or 3. “I want to end this conversation on a friendly note but consider ‘Well, goodbye’ too abrupt.” If someone regularly says “Let’s catch up” but never follows through with an actual invitation, or always declines yours, you know they mean No. 3. Pleasantries are pleasant for a reason; hearing the unvarnished truth from every casual friend would be exhausting.
* * *
When I first met my girlfriend, she told me she used to date her current boss but ended it a year ago. She’s 27, I’m 40, and her boss is 45. One day last week she told me she was going to exercise with her boss that morning. It was her day off. She also told me that her boss is jealous of me. I’m confused about her relationship with this guy. She said she hated him and was trying to “take back” whatever she could from him, which included a free day at the gym. I suggested that maybe she was too emotionally invested in him and I should give her some space. She backpedaled and said she feels like she has to occasionally hang out with him outside of work because he is unprofessional and she’s worried she’ll lose her job. I’m uncomfortable with the situation. I can’t see how it can be fixed without breaking up.
—Ex’s Long Shadow
It’s an uncomfortable situation for you, but from what you say, more so for your girlfriend. Her much older boss dated one of his employees, which raises enough ethical issues on its own, and now invites her to work out with him at the risk of losing her job. He’s unprofessional and manipulative at best, predatory at worst. Whether or not you keep seeing this woman, you should still strongly suggest to her that she look for a new job and consider her legal options. It’s her boss who’s too emotionally invested in her. If he’s made it clear that her job security depends on their extracurricular friendship, his behavior is also illegal—escalating this from a typical friends-with-an-ex relationship to a hostage situation she needs to escape.
* * *
I have a smart and beautiful 10-year-old niece who has a mustache growing on either side of her top lip. I know how cruel kids can be and have never asked if she has been teased but I think she might be old enough to get the offending hair waxed off. If I offer to pay for it am I sending her the message that she should be ashamed of it?
—Would-Be Hairy Godmother
* * *
On seeing my dream job on offer at a local university, I noticed that an old acquaintance now held a very senior position in the same branch. I wrote an email reminding him of our connection (which amounted to a series of fun informal lunches with an extended group in an environment where we were all very much equals about 15 years ago) and asked if he would mind meeting me for coffee so I could learn more about the position.
I was disconcerted to get back a curt email response from his secretary telling me he was too busy to meet and that I should direct any enquiries to the specified contact. I felt crushed by this response and am certain that it has negatively impacted my candidacy. I know this might seem overly sensitive, but it took a lot for me to put myself out there and now I’m not sure what to do. On the one hand I think this response was rude and unacceptable. On the other I want to dig a hole and pretend the whole thing never happened. Perhaps the middle road is to turn the other cheek and offer a polite, gracious response and move on? This is a small city and not the place to burn bridges, but I do feel the need to justify my initial request.
The response was neither rude nor unacceptable. You asked someone you haven’t talked to in 15 years to give you free job advice for a position in his department he’s not hiring for, and he declined. There’s nothing wrong with being sensitive, but in this instance you’re going to have to let go of your sense of having been wronged. If you ask someone for a favor, you have to accept the possibility that they will say no; otherwise it’s not a favor but a demand.
* * *
Each Christmas, for more than 20 years, my mother and I have been making gingerbread cookies. The recipe comes from my grandmother, who used to make them each Christmas before she passed away. We make hundreds of cookies and distribute them among family and friends as Christmas presents. In the last couple of years another family member has also started making the cookies and giving them out to the family. It feels like she is intruding on a special and long-standing tradition I have, but am I being too sensitive?
This is an easy one! Yes, you are being too sensitive, but it’s a sensitivity easy to sympathize with. As special as your grandmother’s memory—and recipe—must be, she was also the grandmother to others in your family. Don’t think of these cookies as an exclusive tradition that defines your place. (“These are my cookies. There are many like them, but these are mine.”) Think of them as cookies. Only make and give them away if it brings you joy to do so.
* * *
A few months ago my girlfriend and I agreed to meet her parents for the holidays. But since then I’ve developed doubts about the relationship. (She’s bossy, domineering, and I am happier on days when she doesn’t call. Nice one minute, a controlling terror the next.) Plans for the holidays have been firmed up, and I have zero enthusiasm to go. Do I go through with it and play the part of serious boyfriend when meeting the whole family? Break up with her (which will be epic) right before the holidays? Or come up with some convoluted excuse not to go on the trip and break up after the holidays? Wish I had planned this one better.
Oh, my friend, throw your holiday plans into reverse and back out of this with all possible speed. You couldn’t have anticipated your girlfriend would reveal herself to be controlling and vicious, so release yourself from that self-accusation. Break up with her now; gritting your teeth and enduring an unpleasant holiday with her family will only make things worse (“You knew you were going to break up with me before Christmas and you didn’t say anything?”). For the sake of everyone involved, end it, block her number, and spend your holidays enjoying the peace and quiet.
More Dear Prudence Columns
“The Scarlet List: The dad of my daughter’s friend is on the sex offender registry.”
“Deathbed Betrayal: Just before she died, my wife confessed to me why we never had children.”
“Dream Deferred: My partner immigrated illegally as a child and has a fake Social Security number. How in trouble is he?”
“Hot-Flashed and Bothered: I’m a woman in my 50s, and I need sex—preferably with a younger man.”
More Dear Prudence Chat Transcripts
“Take It Sitting Down: In a live chat, Prudie advises a woman who won’t let her husband stand up to pee.”
“Knock Knock It Off: In a live chat, Prudie offers advice on a husband who won’t stop making crude jokes.”
“Heck No, I Won’t Go: In a live chat, Prudie counsels a woman who refuses to visit her husband’s home country in the Middle East.”
“Hell Mouth: In a live chat, Prudie counsels a woman whose husband has such bad dental hygiene, she is considering divorce.”