Dear Prudence

Where’d She Learn That?

Prudie advises a letter writer whose young daughter called her friend a racial slur.

Danny M. Lavery, 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 prudence@slate.com.)

Readers! Ask me your questions on the voice mail of the upcoming Dear Prudence podcast. Just leave a message at 401-371-DEAR (3327), and you may hear your question answered on a future episode of the show. 

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Danny M. Lavery: Hello, chums! Let’s get to work.

Q. First-grade race riot: Recently, my daughter “Sarah” and her best friend, “Lauren,” were playing outside. Lauren’s mom, “Kerry,” and I have become good friends, so she was over as well. Kerry is white, and Lauren’s father is black. While the girls were playing together and I was inside, Sarah apparently cracked her jump rope at Lauren and called her “my ——.” Kerry flew into a fury. She took Sarah’s jump rope, loomed over her, and read her the riot act. She didn’t scream or even touch Sarah, but she called Sarah “rotten child.” Sarah has been traumatized by what could have been a teaching moment. I know Kerry now sees my family as a pack of racists. She says Lauren doesn’t want to play with Sarah anymore, but I think this is a decision Kerry and her husband made. I’m furious about the way Kerry reacted, even though I get why she was angry. I don’t know how to make my daughter feel better. My husband denies it, but I’m certain Sarah heard those things from him or one of his friends. What should I do?

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A: You should tell your daughter to apologize to her friend. Then you should apologize to Kerry. Then you should ask yourself why your response to hearing that your daughter struck at her friend with a rope and called her a racial slur was to focus on who else to blame for it. It’s not one of your husband’s friends’ fault for hypothetically teaching her the N-word, and it’s not Kerry’s fault for getting angry when she heard her child getting called one of the most painfully loaded words in the English language. Your daughter did something wrong, and you need to explain to her why what she did was hurtful and wrong. In short: You should parent her.

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Q. Special treatment?: I work in a small department for a midsized company. One of my co-workers, the youngest, had a baby about a year ago, and ever since she got back from maternity leave, she’s arrived late and left early. It bugs me. The rest of us will conscientiously work the full amount of time we should, but I don’t see her making up time. Maybe she’s worked out a deal with HR. It’s none of my business, but can I ask our manager if this person’s getting special treatment? Or should I ask her? I don’t want to be branded the office snitch.  

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A: My inclination is that unless this co-worker’s work is suffering or causing you to fall behind on your own projects, it’s not worth going to your boss and saying you’ve been monitoring her office habits. It’s possible that she’s worked out a partial work-from-home schedule and you’d just look petty. (What good would it do you to ask if your co-worker has a deal with HR? I can’t think of a reason you need to know that other than sheer looky-loo-ism, a near-fatal office condition.) If she is slacking off, presumably her performance will suffer as a result, and your boss can address that as it comes.

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Q. How to broach the subject?: It’s been more than two years since I’ve had a satisfying sex life. It started with a cyst my wife had that required surgery. The pain, the surgery, and then the recovery from that killed it for four months. After that, she still had pain, so once a month we had unsatisfying sex until she developed another cyst, requiring the same surgery a year after the first. Now she has vaginismus—pretty much the sight of an erection causes her to clamp shut like a frog’s ass.

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Due to being forced to give oral sex when she was a teenager (we are both 60 now, married for roughly 20 years), she has never been comfortable giving oral, and doesn’t like receiving it either.

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Truthfully, I’d file for divorce now, but I love her—sex would be the only reason. Plus, she’s on disability, and the spousal support would mean I’d never be able to retire, and we’d end up losing the house within a few years of it being paid off. I just can’t afford divorce.

How do I start the “I love you, but I need to have sex with someone!” conversation? Or do I just try to find something on the side without the discussion?

 A: I’m sympathetic to both of you here, although I’m more than a little concerned that your response to your wife’s excruciating pain and internal surgeries was Just go for it once a month even though it’s unpleasant until the cysts come back. I’ll try to extend the benefit of the doubt to you and assume you’ve just worded yourself badly, and were not in fact a demanding sex-harpy during your wife’s recovery. Were you demanding during your wife’s recovery? Try to be honest with yourself, if you can. Did you consider her pain something that inconvenienced you only? I’m frankly not surprised she’s developed vaginismus.

What worries me the most, I think, is that you don’t mention anything about your wife’s emotional attitudes toward sex with you, only her physical limitations. Does she seem frustrated you two can’t have sex, too? Is she put off by your insensitivity? Is she perfectly happy to stop sleeping together if it spares her pain? It’s rather difficult to give a ruling when I don’t know how your wife feels about the current state of affairs.

You can have the “I love you, but I’m desperate after not having had sex for two years” conversation with your wife, absolutely. And you can certainly bring up the possibility of your having sex with others, although I don’t think that’s the first option you should bring to the table. Your primary mission should be fact-finding. Ask questions. Consider listening after you have asked them. If your wife misses your old sexual connections, perhaps you can find nonactive ways to incorporate her into your solo sex life that won’t cause her pain. If she thinks you’ve been insensitive and selfish during her struggle with chronic pain, you might have to put your desires and frustrations to the side and make amends to her. If she’s perfectly happy with how you’ve handled things, but considers herself sexually retired, then it might be time to bring up the prospect of discreet third parties. Good luck!

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Q. Re: How to broach the subject: Thanks for discussing my letter. You wrote: “Were you demanding during your wife’s recovery?”

Pretty much all the sex was at her instigation. I know she misses it, too. She’s said as much. She feels guilty and probably as frustrated as I do. Her gynecologist suggested much more foreplay, which I’m a big fan of; she’s not. I don’t blame her for the family that pretty much messed with her mind around sex. I know I am painting myself as the saint here, and I know I’m not and have shown my frustration. I have some serious thinking to do on this.

A: Thanks for writing back and adding some details to this picture! If the two of you are both frustrated and miss your old sex life, I think there are multiple options beyond looking for sex elsewhere. If absolutely nothing else, you two might find mutual masturbation to be intimacy-restoring and a reminder that all forms of sex are not off the table just because standard-issue penetration and oral sex aren’t possible at the moment.

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Q. Selfish or just friends?: I have a friend at work—he is a guy, and I am a girl. He is really nice and smart and interesting to talk to. I have been in a relationship for five years and have never given him any reason to think I have wanted to be anything but friends. Recently, he texted me while drunk and said I would be happier with him and that he really liked me. I firmly told him that all I was interested in was a friendship and that I was happy in my relationship. The next day, he apologized and said he would keep his feelings and comments in check. But I am wondering if it is selfish to still want to be friends with him. It was nice to find an intelligent, thoughtful person to chat with and possibly build a platonic friendship with outside of work, but I want to take his feelings into consideration.

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A: It’s not necessarily selfish, but it isn’t entirely wise to continue things exactly as they were. It’s possible that one rejection will be enough, and that he’ll truly do his best to move on and not try to hit on you again, but the fact that he told you he wants to be with you drunkenly and via text makes me wonder how good he’ll be at honoring his promise to keep his feelings to himself. You don’t have to give him the cold shoulder, but consider introducing distance to this relationship. He might still be delightful to chat with at work, but at least for the time being, you should confine your friendship to the office.

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Q. Father-daughter dance dilemma: My father and I had a falling out several years ago and haven’t spoken since. I’ve met a wonderful man who makes me happy, and we are planning on marrying next year. I don’t foresee my father making any moves to mend the bridge between the two of us anytime soon, but the more planning that goes into this wedding and the more I hear, “Who will walk you down the aisle?” and “Are you really not having a father-daughter dance?” the more it eats away at me. Should I invite a man who so willingly wrote me out of his life to the best day of mine, as some sort of olive branch, or should I continue to plan our day without him?

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A: Who are all of these people so deeply invested on making sure you have a specific father-daughter dance at your wedding? What a strange point for them to force. If part of you wants to reconnect with your father, I think you should consider doing so slowly and cautiously, but don’t do it because a bunch of your co-workers and casual acquaintances are desperate to watch you dance with him some afternoon.

Q. Food fight: My husband and I have been married for nearly two months, and it’s our first time living together. I’ve discovered he has a habit of taking our food scraps (bruised apples, egg shells, moldy bread—that kind of thing) and placing them in the hollow of a small tree just outside our house to rot. He doesn’t bury them or really compost them, but he insists this is better than putting them in the garbage. I’ve found some of these food bits nibbled by animals and then left on our walkway, so I object pretty strongly. Our city doesn’t have a green-bin program, so I’ve said if he wants to get a composter and learn to use it, then that’s great. But otherwise I’d like our garbage to go in the garbage. He asked me to write to you and said he would accept your verdict as binding. Who’s right?

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A: You are. You are so right that the rightness of your position should bleed over into future arguments and allow you to win them. “Maybe I shouldn’t have said that in front of your mother, but … remember the time you thought strewing garbage in our backyard was an acceptable alternative to composting?” The Mysterious Tree of Smells and Trash needs to go. There’s a reason most gardeners don’t just apply their kitchen waste directly to their topsoil. Composting is a process, not a question of simply moving garbage. This is helping exactly no one—it’s not helpful to the raccoons and pigeons and various scavengers learning to depend on human garbage as a reliable food source, and it’s not providing any garden soil with nutrients. Maybe it’s nice for the flies. Your husband uses a tree as a trash can and thinks he’s John Muir all of a sudden. He needs to clean out whatever gunk he’s flung into that poor tree, buy himself a composter, and learn to use it properly. Bless his heart.

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Q. How to live without bragging?: I am lucky enough to have a very well-paying job, and I live in a fairly working-class small town. This setup is a blend of both chance and conscious choices—I have gotten advanced degrees, moved often, worked hard early in my career, and had to travel almost every week. Now that I have school-age kids, they are starting to notice that other kids tend to be jealous of them. We don’t spend money on things like labels, but they do have a fair few toys, and we will go on big trips about once a year. I’ve tried to teach them to live honestly and without bragging, but so far they don’t really get it. Any advice?

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A: I wonder what you mean by “notice”! If your kids are being hassled for things outside of their control (like how often you travel), I think you should encourage them to ignore it. There’s no reason they should feel guilty over what kind of job you have or where you take them on vacation. If they’re simply finding their classmates get tired after they start going on about their Barbie Jeep for the 15th time (that was the big-ticket item in my day), they may simply be learning a valuable lesson in knowing your audience. You already encourage them not to brag, and their peers may be reinforcing this lesson; they’ll get it when they get it.

Click here to read Part 2 of this week’s chat.

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