Dear Prudence

Tween Delinquent

My lazy, ungrateful 10-year-old is getting F’s in school.

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg.

Photo by Sam Breach

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Dear Prudence,
When I was young, my parents worked very hard to put their children through college. Now my husband works 70 hours a week as a physician, and I am a part-time nurse. We live in an affluent part of town so our kids can go to the best public schools. My 10-year-old daughter is very intelligent but lazy and unmotivated. She received several F’s on the last report card for not doing her assignments but is not embarrassed at all. When I ask her to do homework or read, she gets angry and stomps off. Her friends have phones and tablets, and my daughter has asked for these items, but I cannot reward laziness. Thus, she is angry. What should I do? Her attitude stinks. I am concerned about her indifference and the effect it will have on her future.

—Concerned Mom

I’m concerned about your daughter too, but not for the same reasons you are. I worry you’re ignoring her emotional needs in the present moment for the good intentions of providing her the brightest possible future. I don’t know from your letter if she has a learning disability, if she’s having trouble seeing and needs glasses, if she’s having trouble with a particular teacher, or what else might be going on with her, but she’s clearly struggling. You say she’s bright, but remember that she is 10 years old and doesn’t have the best emotional tools when it comes to asking for help. Consider the possibility that she is not failing her classes to irritate you, but because she is overwhelmed. Your goal should be to find out what it is that she needs and support her, not berate her into compliance. Ask her questions before punishing her. Offer her the opportunity to share what’s going on, rather than make her feel you’re someone she has to hide things from.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
Since my divorce, I have been dating a new guy for more than a year and a half now. He’s great, and we’re very compatible. I’ve never felt so valued as a person. The issue is that he’s back living at home (he’s 30) with some pretty severe anxiety/panic issues, and it’s likely he won’t be able to work for a while. Although I want him to recover, his unemployment doesn’t bother me. But I know my family is worried about my future with him (my ex-husband was a perfect-on-paper guy). He doesn’t “show” well due to his anxiety, and most of them have not met him. Is there anything I can do to convince my family that his personality and our compatibility is more important to me than his employment situation, without sounding like I’m overcompensating?

—Grower, Not a Shower

How lovely that you’re in a relationship where you feel cherished and appreciated. It’s thoughtful of you to want to introduce your boyfriend to your family in a way that doesn’t put undue pressure on him to act impressive. For those he has yet to meet, it may help to introduce him to one or two family members at a time, rather than trotting him out at a big get-together in front of everyone. I don’t know if your boyfriend has been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder or something more specific, but if he’s unable to work as a result, he’s dealing with emotional distress/mental illness, and I think you should frame it as such. Explain to your family that vulnerability is not the same thing as weakness and that your boyfriend’s anxiety is not a choice he’s making in order to avoid work. Tell them he is dealing with issues that currently interfere with his ability to work, but that he’s (hopefully) receiving treatment to manage his condition and—most importantly—is an active and supportive partner to you.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
My husband and I have been married for six years and have a lovely 3-year-old daughter. I want to have another baby soon, as I am getting to the age where pregnancy becomes more of a risk. I always wanted two kids close in age, the way I grew up. My husband is resistant but never really has a good answer why he doesn’t want another child now. He just keeps saying, “Maybe soon.” When talking with friends, it has been suggested that I just “make it happen” and “accidentally” get pregnant. I always wanted this to be a decision we made together (like our first baby), but I will admit the temptation to modify our birth control regimen is there. Would it be so wrong to try to get pregnant without his consent? I’m not sure I could keep this secret from him, but by the time I’m pregnant, it would be too late!

—Maybe Baby

Please don’t do that to your future child. Don’t bring a human being into this world under false pretenses against his or her father’s wishes. Consider the confusion, anguish, and resentment that would be your next son or daughter’s birthright if your husband doesn’t want another child and you trick him into acting as an unwitting sperm donor. Tell your husband you’d rather he say flat-out that he’s done after one child than continue to fob you off with vague promises. Maybe he’s been hoping you’ll eventually lose interest; maybe he genuinely does want another child but would rather wait a year or two. Either way, you need to know what it is that he wants—and if he hasn’t figured out how to articulate his feelings, it’s time for him to find the the right words. But in the end, his refusal to make a decision at all doesn’t give you the right to make decisions for him.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
I have recently married my boyfriend, who has two lovely grown daughters. I have a very cordial relationship with them, but I have been recently chided for talking about them as my husband’s daughters instead of my stepdaughters. I was called cold and jokes were made about Cinderella! I did not raise these women in any maternal capacity. I certainly do not take it as a slight when they refer to me as their father’s wife. Any thoughts?


It sounds as though it was an outsider, not family, who thinks you have to pretend to have raised these girls, or that you must unthinkingly sign on to the customary and, as you point out, loaded term of stepmother, in order to care for them. You are their father’s wife, and they are your husband’s daughters. Don’t waste any time worrying about it. If someone else accuses you of coldness for being honest about your relationship, just tell them, “Actually, I’m incredibly fond of the girls. They already have a mother, but I enjoy being a part of their lives now.”

* * *

Dear Prudence,
Three months ago I got a new boss. She thinks highly of my work, but she has a habit that drives me up the wall: She will use a relatively common word and then immediately supply the definition. The annoying part is that they are words that any high school senior would know. For example: “I don’t mind a little frivolity in meetings,” followed by “That means I don’t care if everyone gets a little silly.” At first I ignored it, then gave cold replies (“I see … ”), then tried sarcasm. Nothing seems to work. I have spoken with co-workers, and the reply is generally something like “Oh yeah, that’s just X being X.” If I bring this up with HR I’m worried I will sound petty (that means my complaint won’t seem very important. See how annoying this is?). Help!

You’re going to have to let this go, I’m afraid. As far as irritating tics go, this one is pretty moderate. Your scathing zingers have all gone unnoticed, and your pleas for sympathy have fallen on indifferent ears, so I’m afraid you’ve exhausted all your reasonable outlets. Telling HR that your boss sometimes overexplains herself in meetings is a recipe for wasted time. If this is your biggest professional problem, you’re doing pretty well.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
My brother-in-law, Joe, has a drinking problem that no one wants to deal with. He often becomes argumentative and belligerent, drives drunk regularly, and has no regard for how anyone else feels. My husband has tried to talk to him, but Joe insists that he can stop—he just doesn’t want to. I’m tired of dealing with his drunken behavior at every family function. He recently got incredibly drunk at my daughter’s birthday party, and my mother-in-law’s response was to tell our other guests to leave. Everyone but my husband and me covers for him. My son has a birthday party coming up, and I’d like to just not invite Joe. We’ve asked him before not to drink at the kids’ parties, but he does not listen. Would it be wrong to exclude him from our gatherings? I feel if no one is willing to draw the line with him he’ll never truly see that he has a problem.

—Trashed Party Crasher

Anyone with a habit of getting drunk and ruining children’s birthday parties should not attend any more children’s birthday parties. Your brother-in-law’s other family members have volunteered for the full-time, unpaid job of enabling his drinking problem. It is a job with few perks and terrible hours. Do not invite him. Feel free to make it a blanket policy for all events involving your children as long as you like.

But it’s important to note that though you can’t force your brother-in-law into changing his drinking habits, if you know he is about to drive drunk, take his keys. If that doesn’t work, call the police. It’s only a matter of time before he hurts someone.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
I started at a new job about three months ago. I have a few standing tasks, but I’ve found that I have very little work to do day-to-day. I’ve repeatedly asked supervisors for additional work. I’ve also taken initiative and done some small projects on my own, but I’m hindered by my lack of knowledge of our department’s goals. I don’t want to just do work for the sake of doing it! I’ve attempted to schedule meetings with my direct supervisor, but they have always been postponed due to her “urgent priorities.” She just keeps saying she’ll think of things for me to do, then gives me an assignment that takes about 30 minutes to complete. I am early on in my career, and I take great pride in my ability to be a strong employee. How can I get out of this rut? And is three months in too early to bail?

—Office Blues

I remember the first office job where I realized the majority of my hours on the clock would be spent looking for ways to kill time. In time, you may look back on this job with fondness, but that doesn’t mean you should spend another five years here waiting for your boss to give you a substantial assignment. You’ve done your best in trying to be of use to your colleagues. Some offices have busier and slower times of year; it’s possible this office is one of them, and come spring you’ll be swamped. It’s also possible your office is simply badly run and inefficient. I’d consider giving it another couple of months before jumping ship, since it can be hard to gracefully explain such a short tenure on your résumé, but it doesn’t seem likely that your supervisors are going to figure out what to do with you anytime soon. At least you have plenty of time during the day to job hunt.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
My brother-in-law cheated on my sister-in-law recently while drunk. My husband and I were there the night it happened and tried to intervene, only to be told that we were “misinterpreting things.” Both my brother-in-law and the woman he cheated with have separately confirmed that they slept together. The woman has implied this isn’t the first time my brother-in-law has cheated on his wife. While my brother-in-law has confessed the onetime event to my sister-in-law, she has no idea that we knew then or know now, so I know he’s not being completely honest. My husband and I have very different ideas about how to handle this. What’s your opinion?

—Unfaithful In-Law

Let’s go over the essential facts: Your brother-in-law cheated on his wife, and she knows about it. What they decide to do with that information is up to them. If I were you, I’d give their business a wide berth. Two berths, just to be safe. You have no moral obligation to let her know that you were there that night or suspect it wasn’t a one-off event. The less involved you and your husband are in your brother-in-law’s marriage, the more peaceful your own will be.

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