Dear Prudence

The Birds and the Bees

Prudie advises a letter writer on what to do when her child asks about sex.

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg

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

Readers! Ask me your questions on the voicemail of the 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.

Q. My 8-year-old asked me “What is sex?”: I am a very open and honest parent with my inquisitive 8-year-old daughter. We can sometimes have lengthy discussions on a wide range of topics. I try to answer as honestly as possible—within reason, of course, depending on whether it’s appropriate for her to know something just yet.

However, I just can’t seem to come up with an appropriate response to: “What is sex?” She has asked twice now. I freeze up and tell her we’ll talk about it when I have time to explain it properly. She already knows something about it, though—when we went to the zoo this summer and saw two bears playing closely with one another, she exclaimed (with about 20 other people around), “Are they having sex?!” (It was like the needle on a record screeched to a halt at a party, and everyone turned their heads to see what little kid just yelled that out. So unbelievably embarrassing!)

I’m just hoping there is a book that is appropriate for kids her age and covers topics like puberty and sex in a healthy and informative way. I don’t want to keep skirting around the issue when she’s honestly just curious.

A: Tell your kid what sex is! If anyone has any books they’ve found particularly helpful, please feel free to share them in the comments, but yes, your daughter is repeatedly asking you what sex is, so it’s a pretty big sign that you should start, you know, telling her what sex is. That doesn’t mean you hand her a book and say, “Read this and let’s never speak of this again!” The book may be a great supplement, but it’s not a replacement for a conversation with you. (Also, that zoo story is going to be such great embarrassment material in about 10 years. Please enjoy telling that story to any friends she brings home from college.)

Q. Toilet seats: Can you issue a ruling on this? I’m a man. When I use a gender-neutral bathroom to pee, I put the toilet lid down when I’m done. But when there’s no lid, I still put the seat down so if the next person to use the bathroom is a woman (or a man who will be sitting), the seat will already be down and they won’t have to handle the seat. I think men tend to be the ones who make the seats gross in the first place so we should be the ones saddled with this mildest of burdens to occasionally touch toilet seats. But am I encouraging lazy men after me to just pee on the seat, making the whole bathroom less hygienic? This turned into a whole thing when I brought it up with friends.

A: You are not responsible for the laziness of other men, or the women who hover, or anyone who leaves toilet paper on the floor or fails to flush, or any other combination of bad bathroom behavior. You are being perfectly polite, but don’t overthink it or try to persuade your group of friends to come ’round to your way of doing things.

Q. How do I tell her I’m pregnant?: I am a mother of two perfect, healthy, amazing daughters. I thought I was done having kids and have just started the process of weaning my youngest from breast-feeding. I have been very vocal about not wanting more children. I wanted to really focus on me, my marriage, and raising my two awesome kids.

Well, I just found out I am pregnant with No. 3! Total surprise.

Here is the problem: One of my best friends has been unsuccessfully trying to get pregnant. She is currently doing in vitro fertilization—shots, surgeries, the whole nine yards. I want so badly for her to get pregnant and for this to be an easier road for her. It may just be my guilty conscience and feeling like I didn’t even try for this, but I don’t know how to even tell her. I don’t want to, and I want to avoid the conversation at all costs. It’s not that I think she would be upset with me, but she would be upset and I totally understand—life is unfair. How do I gently let her know? She knows I have not been trying.

A: It’s good to know that your friend will be able to separate her frustration at the unfairness of life from her feelings of love and support for you specifically. I think all you can do is tell her your good news without piling on too many apologies. You can say you understand this may be tricky for her for a while, and acknowledge that she’s going through a difficult time. But you can’t unring this bell for her, and however she processes her complicated feelings about your pregnancy, it’s not going to be with you. If she needs a little space after learning the news, let her take it, but I think you should trust your friend’s ability to both support your joy and deal with her own grief and frustration at the same time. And congratulations!

Q. Romantic comedy: Last month, my fiancé left me for his ex and canceled our wedding. And I am fine. Now that everything has settled down, I find myself relieved. We were together three years, never fought, and were good on paper together. I used to describe us as OK when the real word was lukewarm. I feel like a fraud for not feeling bad. We lost some deposits, but my ex has lost our entire circle of friends. His family has apologized to me and bad-mouthed his new girl to me. My ex even paid off my car for me as a ‘sorry for leaving you at the altar!’ gesture. His girlfriend wrote me a letter (she seems very nice, actually).

What do I do now? I really don’t want to see my ex with his new lady love, but I feel bad that everyone is coming down on them when it could have been so much worse down the line. What do I tell people?

A: So many proto-romantic comedy plotlines in the mailbag this week! Congratulations on at least getting a paid-off car out of this whole situation. You won’t be able to convince people not to gossip or judge your ex, if only because what he did was incredibly cinematic and attention-getting, but you can certainly say, “It was a surprise, but I’m not as devastated over it as you might think—our relationship was rapidly losing steam, and it’s honestly for the best that he’s with someone else now. Mostly, though, I’d just like to talk about something else.”

Q. Re: My 8-year-old asked me “What is sex?”: As I learned from a sex educator, it’s never too early to learn about sex and it is the parent’s job to be the first educator. Knowing about sex also makes kids less vulnerable to sexual predators. Good age-appropriate books to get started are It’s Not the Stork! and It’s So Amazing! They encourage the use of the proper medical terminology without getting into the emotional side of sex that becomes a hang-up for parents.

A: Official Prudence disclaimer that I have not read any of these books and therefore can’t speak to their efficacy in keeping enthusiastic 8-year-olds from bellowing questions about sex at the zoo, but I’m passing them along from one stressed-out parent to another.

Q. Widow seeks celibacy: My husband died three years ago, which was and is the most devastating event of my life. People used to praise me for how well I recovered, but the only thing that sustains me or brings me joy is our children. If not for focusing on them, their loss, and how I can try to fill that space for them, I would not get out of bed.

Our youngest just started elementary school. Suddenly, all of my friends and family act as if some magical boundary has been crossed and the time for grieving is up. They encouraged me to date gently at first, but now more and more urgently. I explain that that part of my life is over, that my husband was the first and only man I ever loved or will ever love. They can’t accept this. They tell me I am being selfish for denying my children a chance at another father figure; that I am only in my mid-30s and one day, I will wake up and be alone and then it will be too late.

I don’t know how to explain to them that I’m done. That part of me is dead. This level of being OK was so hard to reach and now even that is not enough. How can I communicate my desire to be left alone with my family, without alienating people who loved my husband too?

A: You have every right not to date if you want to, and your family should not pressure you into it. (It’s particularly unsavory of them to suggest that you are somehow letting down your children by not remarrying.) The fact that you’re having trouble getting out of bed, and that you find your current level of numb functionality hard-fought and hard-won, suggests to me that you are not currently receiving the level of emotional and logistical support that you deserve. If absolutely nothing else, you do not have to endlessly entertain this train of thought from your friends and family. Tell them, “I think you’re trying to be supportive right now, but you need to know I find your repeated suggestions to start dating again exhausting. Suggesting that I am failing my children by not providing them with a stepfather is exquisitely painful and cruel, and I will ask you to not say that to me again. I am trying to be a loving, attentive, healthy single parent, and that’s more than enough work for me right now. I would really prefer your support in that, rather than trying to push me to date when you know it’s not something I’m ready for or want.”

Q. Re: My 8-year-old asked me “What is sex?”: Sex can be a difficult subject, but 8-year-olds are talking about it. Your daughter will get her information from somewhere, so it’s good you’re looking into how to have this chat. It is important to have ongoing, age-appropriate discussions about your body, how it changes, physical affection, sex, consent, love, et cetera. It’s important for both boys and girls.

There’s a weekly parenting column in the Washington Post by Meghan Leahy that I really like. There are some lovely books that can help you tremendously with this topic; I like What’s the Big Secret?: Talking About Sex With Girls and Boys by Laurie Krasny Brown and It’s Perfectly Normal by Robie H. Harris (meant for slightly older children, 10 and up). Remember, you don’t need to have perfect answers; you just need to be a listening ear and a source of age-appropriate honesty.

A: That last part is great advice! Your kid is going to have plenty of follow-up questions and you can’t hand her an eternal succession of books—at least some of her information is going to have to come from direct conversation with you. You can do this imperfectly, and she’ll be just fine.

Q. Feelings for my future fake husband: I’m a manager in the service industry, and I love my job, but insurance under the Affordable Care Act is unaffordable and impractical (the back surgery I need would cost me tens of thousands), and I make too much to qualify for any help.

I met “Jack” through my job about a year ago, and we’ve become very close. Jack works in health care and gets excellent, fully subsidized insurance. I recently joked that I should just find a well-to-do man to marry to get on his health insurance. Last week, Jack sat me down and actually offered to marry me so I can get the help I need. I brushed it off as nonsense, but he was serious! It would be a godsend to have his insurance and finally end this daily pain, but I keep avoiding answering his question because it wouldn’t be so simple for me. I’ve developed serious feelings for Jack but have so far kept it under wraps (going so far as to set him up with a friend of mine, but it didn’t work out). I can’t fake-marry someone I have romantic feelings for, but I’m afraid that if I tell Jack why I’m rejecting the kindest thing any other human has ever offered to do for me, I’ll risk losing this very important friendship, too. What do I do?

A: There are plenty of good reasons not to do this that don’t require revealing your personal feelings! Tell him that while you appreciate his generous offer, your joke about marrying someone for the health insurance was just that—a joke—and you’re not actually comfortable doing it. I wish you the absolute best of luck in accessing resources for getting medical help, and I’m so sorry you’re even in a position where you might have to contemplate getting married in order to pay for the surgery you need.

Q. Is my co-worker joining a cult?: Around two months ago, one of my co-workers mentioned that she was trying a new spiritual practice and has been acting strangely since: She often comes in late or won’t show up at all; she deleted her social media presence; her demeanor is distant and confused instead of bubbly and engaged; and she’s started using terms like “good energy,” “negative energy,” and other similar things in everyday conversations. When she misses work, she says that she was meeting with either a “spiritual counselor” or “godparents.”

I strongly believe that everyone has a right to their spiritual beliefs, but I am genuinely concerned about my co-worker’s health and think that maybe she has joined a cult or cult-like group. I live in Los Angeles, so I am familiar with New Age and alternative spirituality practices, but it seems like whatever she is doing is much more controlling. In any case, this new spiritual practice is affecting her work and adding a lot of extra things to my workload when she’s not in. Should I ask her what’s going on in her life? Should I make sure that she’s not in a cult, or should I just mind my own business? Should I bring this up to our boss?

A: If your own workload is affected when your co-worker shows up late, then you should absolutely bring this up with your boss. There’s no reason to bring up her spiritual beliefs when there are real-world, practical issues like “I fall behind on my own work when I have to cover for her when she comes in late” to discuss. Stick to talking about what’s happening at work, and don’t pry into the details of her personal life, even though she’s brought it up on more than one occasion. Let your boss handle the issue directly, but absolutely you should raise the issue right now.

Q. Re: How do I tell her I’m pregnant?: Please do not do this face-to-face. As someone that has been on the receiving end of this news while facing infertility, send a heartfelt email. Give her time to process. She will likely hate herself for feeling angry and will not want to react that way in person, because in her heart of hearts, she knows that you being pregnant does not impact her infertility, but it’s hard not to feel like it’s unfair. There are plenty of resources on for how to help those dealing with infertility.

A: That’s a thoughtful suggestion, and one I hadn’t thought of! It may be kindest to let her have whatever her initial response may be in private, so that she can collect herself before you two speak again.

Q. To clean or not to clean without permission: Do you think it rude to clean someone else’s home without their permission? When my mother-in-law “Deb” visited from another state, she cleaned our house while I was at work—making me feel ashamed about my housekeeping, throwing out things I still wanted, and reorganizing in what I found to be a confusing fashion. My husband said to just let it go because that’s what his family does and she was just trying to be helpful.

My husband’s great-aunt “Carol” lives in our town and will soon be hospitalized for a fairly invasive procedure. Carol asked me to watch her cats while she’s away and I agreed, but now Deb wants to surprise Carol by coming out to housesit and clean. She thinks her aunt will be delighted to return to a clean house, but I suspect that Carol might be greatly upset by it.

I admit that Carol’s house is cluttered and she might be better off with a spectacularly clean home, but I can’t help thinking that this is overstepping. My husband, once again, thinks that I should just allow this to happen, but a part of me wants to say something to Carol so she’s not caught off-guard. I also don’t want to be part of the deception. What should I do?

A: “That’s such a thoughtful idea! Let me check with Carol to make sure she’s OK with that and to find out if there’s anything she’d rather we didn’t throw out or rearrange.”

Mallory Ortberg: Thanks for chatting, everyone! I hope everyone’s romantic lives are incredibly dull and staid for the next week.

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

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