Dear Prudence

My Mother-in-Law Dresses My Daughter Like a Doll and Stages Creepy Photo Shoots

She became hysterical when we had to give my kid a pixie haircut.

A little girl wearing a frilly dress and gloves poses with her hands on her cheeks.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Dear Prudence,
My mother-in-law has always doted on our 3-year-old daughter. She has beautiful blond hair, and my mother-in-law loves to brush it, braid it, and dress my daughter up like a doll so she can stage photographs. I always thought this was borderline ridiculous, but my wife doesn’t have a problem with it. Recently my daughter was playing with my sister’s kids and ended up getting a massive amount of gum in her hair. Kids are kids. My sister apologized and paid for the haircut when we couldn’t get all the gum out. My daughter has a pixie cut now. My wife was upset, but her mother turned on the waterworks—actual sobbing over a kid’s haircut. She upset my daughter so much that she started crying too.

My wife kept apologizing, her mother kept up the hysterics, and I told my mother-in-law she needed to get a grip and that hair grows back. My mother-in-law snapped at me and then used a racial slur to describe my nephews (they’re biracial). I told her to leave my house. She apologized later. My wife has a hard time maintaining boundaries with her mom because the woman is a bulldozer. I want these photo shoots over, and I don’t want her to have unsupervised contact with our daughter. My wife thinks I am being too harsh. Am I? I would usually ask my family for advice, but I obviously can’t in this situation.
—Hair-Trigger Grandma

I’m struggling to imagine what about your response could possibly be considered harsh. This woman reduced a little girl to tears because she was incapable of restraining her own totally disproportionate response to a haircut. Worse, she called your nephews—children—racial slurs because they happened to be playing with your daughter when she got gum in her hair, a totally anodyne and common childhood mishap. That’s absolutely horrifying, and an apology is just the first step toward recovering from this. You don’t (and shouldn’t) quickly unhear that sort of language, especially when it’s directed at some of the youngest and most defenseless members of your family. Growing up with this woman as her mother must have been demoralizing, and I can understand why your wife feels exhausted and defeatist at the thought of telling her mother no and really sticking by it. But you can extend sympathy and compassion for your wife’s experience without denying reality or pretending that this (very reasonable) boundary is in any way harsh. You two might consider seeing a couples counselor for a few sessions over this, and if your wife’s open to the idea, it might help her to see someone on her own to talk about her relationship with her mom.

But your strategy works in a way your wife’s doesn’t. When she kept apologizing to her mother for something she had no reason to apologize for in the first place, her mother only got more hysterical and convinced of the rightness of her grievance. When you told her to get out of the house—and you backed that up with action—you actually got an apology. Your mother-in-law will respond to consequences in a way I don’t think she’ll ever respond to attempts to placate her. I imagine she will continue to find ways to make herself unpleasant when she doesn’t get what she wants and to save the worst of her emotional manipulations for your wife, so the two of you should talk about how to handle her as a team. How can you support your wife when she has a hard time saying no? What scripts can she rehearse with you so she feels ready to deliver them to her mother? At what point will she feel prepared to end a conversation with her mother that’s become combative and unproductive? How is she going to handle that panicked voice inside her mind that screams “Call it off! Just apologize and give her what she wants so she leaves us alone!” every time your mother-in-law complains of “harsh” (read: reasonable) treatment? If you don’t nip this in the bud now, I guarantee you’re going to have to do it in the future. These photo shoots were way beyond taking a couple of fun pictures of grandma-and-granddaughter time—they were obsessive, creepy, and a perfect display of the way your mother-in-law wants to trample over other people’s boundaries. You’re right to stop them.

Dear Prudence,
At the beginning of the year, our 14-year-old dog died. We finally felt ready to start looking for a new dog, and going through either a breeder or pet shop is out of the question. We want to adopt a dog from a shelter. The issue is that there’s one large no-kill animal shelter in our area, and the person who runs it has very loud, hateful political views that are anathema to us. He’s even made the local news over the last few years for some of his political stunts. Should we consider those available dogs while we are looking? It’s not the dogs’ fault that they’re currently being housed by this organization, but on the other hand, I’m loath to give this person any of our money or support. What should we do?
—Awful Dog-Lover

No, it’s not these dogs’ fault that whoever runs the shelter stands against everything you value, but given that any shelter would be able to provide you with a dog in need of a home, I don’t see any reason why you should include this place in your search. A homeless dog is a homeless dog. If you have to drive one or two towns over to avoid giving your money to someone you oppose both politically and morally, then drive one or two towns over.

Sometimes people talk about “adopting” a dog from a shelter as if it were a totally disinterested act of charity. I don’t say this cynically, and I absolutely believe that you want to dry up demand for puppy mills and unethical breeders, but you’re also getting a dog because it will bring you pleasure to do so. You’re not just trying to do good by animals in general; you’re seeking out a pet whose temperament pleases you and whose companionship brings you comfort and joy. So if you consider this both an act of goodness (giving a home to a lonesome dog) and an act of self-interest (purchasing an extended experience you think will make you happy), you have an even stronger reason to avoid this guy. You don’t think he does much good in the world outside of his sheltering animals, and he doesn’t reflect your tastes or values. Take your money somewhere else.

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Dear Prudence,
When I was a kid, my dad opened my checking account for me. Recently I discovered $500 had been transferred to an unfamiliar account. I found out from my dad that he needed to borrow money to give to my mom so she could go to the grocery store and that he would put the money back that afternoon.

I don’t know what is worse—realizing that for all these years, my dad has had access to my bank account, seeing how much I make and what I spend, or the fact that my parents need money to buy groceries. While letting them use $500 for a single day won’t destroy me financially, I am concerned they needed it in the first place. They are in their 70s, semiretired, and have lived in the same house for 25 years. It’s too big for them, but they refuse to move to something smaller. Should I change my account, like my brother did when he got married? Should he and I see if our parents need to change their spending habits? And why $500 for the grocery store?
—My Parents’ Financial Trouble

I don’t think your parents needed $500 for groceries, and my guess is that if you sit both of your parents down to talk about this, there’s at least a decent chance your mother will have no idea that your father withdrew $500 that supposedly went to her. Whatever version of the truth you’re getting from your dad right now, it’s not the full story. Certainly you should contact your bank and change the settings on this account so that you are the only person authorized to make withdrawals, but I don’t think you should just leave it there. It’s possible that your parents are in worse financial shape than you realize, but it’s also possible that your dad has been spending money secretly on something he’s tried to keep from both his children and his wife. Regardless, you won’t know until you ask. It’s possible that they might decide to clam up and refuse to tell you anything, and while I don’t advise you to try to force them (not that you can, really), you can at least set a policy for the future: If they need money, they can ask you for it, and you’ll be happy to give what you can (or help them discuss their other financial options if it’s more serious than occasional help with the bills). But they can’t just help themselves to it without alerting you, and they won’t be able to access your bank account any longer.

Dear Prudence,
My boyfriend and I occasionally have parties at his home. I’m not much of a drinker myself, but we supply some alcohol and invite people to bring their own if they care to. The last few times we’ve hosted, some of our guests have started playing drinking games like beer pong. I think drinking games belong in college. We’re all in our 20s and 30s, and I wish they’d leave the games on campus. I didn’t want to be a buzzkill, but the second time our guests started a drinking game, it broke up in a near fistfight over the rules. I want to establish a “no drinking games” rule for our next party, but my boyfriend plans to set up a table specifically for beer pong. I’m surprised by this, since he was more upset than I was over the near fight at our last party. Am I being unreasonable for wanting to ban drinking games at a party of adults? I’m not out to ruin everyone’s fun, but I think drinking games promote getting very drunk very quickly, which can lead to bad outcomes. We also don’t have room for anyone to spend the night if they’re too drunk to drive, so there’s also a safety concern. We don’t plan on inviting the people who caused the last altercation, so I’m not worried about an exact repeat, but I do think the odds are decent someone’s going to propose another drinking game in the future.
—No Pong, Please

If you and your boyfriend have an extended conversation about your relationship with drinking games and find you don’t have the same goals, you may decide to skip the parties where the beer pong table comes out and only attend the ones where drinking games are banned. If these gatherings were a weekly occurrence, I might have a different answer, but as it is, I think it’s just fine for you to ask that your boyfriend consider hosting a few drinking game–free parties (or even throw some of your own at your house). Ideally, he’ll be flexible and ready to compromise. If he seems deeply enamored with the idea of turning his house into a frat house and tries to persuade you to attend (or play) by telling you to “just be cool,” then you might have cause for concern. But if he’s willing to throw parties with no drinking games and make sure you feel a part of the decision-making process, then make alternative arrangements the nights you know they’re going to haul out the ping-pong table and catch up with other friends elsewhere.

Dear Prudence Uncensored

“You get to set huge, Sleeping Beauty-castle-of-thorns-style limits over that.”

Daniel Mallory Ortberg and Nicole Cliffe discuss this letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.

Dear Prudence,
I’m a stepmother to a sweet, smart, generally awesome 9-year-old boy. My husband and I are both heterosexual supporters of LGBT+ rights, and we’ve tried to impart those values to my stepson. A few years ago, my stepson announced, “I like boys! I think I want to be gay when I grow up,” when we were talking about a fictional gay character, and my husband and I both said we were happy he felt comfortable saying that to us. Last year at school he had his first crush, which was on a girl, and that was just fine with us too.

Recently my stepson told me he had a new crush but that he didn’t want to tell me who it was yet. His manner was giggly and playful, so I asked, “Can you at least tell me something about them? Are they a girl or a boy?” He suddenly looked upset and said, very seriously, “Stop.” I told him that I respected his privacy and he didn’t have to tell me anything if he didn’t want to, but that I was curious why it had upset him so much. He said, “You’re right—there’s nothing wrong with it. I mean, my friend told me he might like boys, and I’m fine with that.” This made me worry that my husband and I haven’t done enough to counteract garden-variety homophobia: the idea that one might publicly claim there’s nothing “wrong” with being gay, but privately think of it as worse than being heterosexual. My stepson went on to ask me if I knew anyone who was gay. This surprised me as well, because both my husband and I have numerous friends, relatives, and co-workers who are gay or bi, and a few who are trans, and my stepson has met several of them. We certainly haven’t consciously kept that information from him, but the sexual orientation and/or gender identity of family friends isn’t exactly a topic that frequently comes up naturally in conversation with a young child. I have no idea what my stepson will grow up to be. But I want him to grow up knowing that everyone is worthy of recognition, inclusion, and respect. Any advice on how I can work toward that and how I can undo some of the harmful messaging he’s already absorbed?
—Anxious Affirming Parents

You are absolutely radiating nervous good intentions, which is very sweet. I don’t think you have as much to worry about as you think you do. Nine years old seems like a pretty age-appropriate stage for a kid to start testing out the ideas they hear at home, even challenging or flatly contradicting them, and that doesn’t mean the same thing as if he were 29 and in full possession of his adult faculties, commitments, and ideals. This is a totally normal developmental stage, not a sign that he’s going to grow up to be barely tolerant of gay people. It can also be surprisingly easy to offend a 9-year-old’s dignity sometimes, especially when it comes to something as vulnerable and fraught as a crush! They occasionally display the level of touchiness and desire for privacy one might normally expect of, say, Blanche DuBois. So while you should definitely have a follow-up conversation with your stepson, please don’t feel like the foundations of homophobia have already taken root within the depths of his soul.

Now’s a great time to start letting him know that he actually already does know a lot of gay and bisexual people (assuming your friends are all out) and making yourself available to answer his questions. You can also ask some mirroring questions about being “fine” with someone’s orientation and not seeing anything “wrong” with it. How would he feel if someone else was merely “fine” with him? Would he feel loved and supported and seen? Would he feel held off at arm’s length? But he’s asking the sort of questions (“Do you know anyone gay?”) that are totally normal and appropriate for a kid his age, and while I can understand your jolt of surprise when he expressed some unexpected forced casualness about his friend liking boys, I really don’t think it means you have to mount a full-scale intervention. Your kid is growing up in a supportive, warm, gay-friendly environment, and you’re just continuing and deepening a conversation you already started with him years ago. You’re doing great.

Dear Prudence,
I have started being more mindful of my alcohol consumption. It helps to have periods where I don’t drink at all. I still like to go out, but when I say I am not drinking, my co-workers and friends often want to have an extended conversation about it. They ask me why I’m not drinking or tell me long, involved stories about times they quit drinking or drunken revels they’ve had. I find these conversations uncomfortable. What’s a good way to defuse them? Why is it so uncomfortable to talk about alcohol consumption?
—Taciturn Teetotaler

When it comes to a co-worker or someone you’re not especially close with, you can always offer the sort of vague response that prevents follow-up questions: “Oh, I’m not in the mood.” (Help this along by sounding pretty bored and uninterested.) Excuses like “I’m driving later” or pretending to be on antibiotics all have their place in escaping this tiresome conversation, but the best excuse is a whim because whims really can’t be argued with, if your interlocutor seems inclined to press the subject. It might also help to invite your friends out to places other than bars and clubs. Even if you go to a restaurant (or a bowling alley or a botanical garden or whatever) that serves liquor, if drinking isn’t the only activity on the menu, you won’t feel as out of place if you just ask for a soda. You can also add, “I’d really rather talk about something else,” if someone starts to launch into that awful, endless sort of anecdote about how many beers she had once. When it comes to your close friends, you can be a bit more forthcoming and say, “I’m not drinking right now, but I’d really appreciate it if we could talk about something that’s not drinking, or giving up drinking, or anything drinking-related. I’ve had to deal with a lot of different people’s reactions to this break, and I’m a little tired.”

As for why it’s so difficult to talk about alcohol consumption, I think that largely depends on whom you’re talking to. Lots of people are perfectly calm and friendly when their companions order a club soda or something nonalcoholic, and you should seek out those people as often as possible. That’s not to say that all of your friends who react awkwardly in the moment are closet alcoholics whom you need to start avoiding. Sometimes people just react clumsily to even a small change in social rituals. Let them know that you’re not abstaining because of a profound life crisis, that you don’t need to discuss it in detail, and introduce a change of topic.

Classic Prudie

My girlfriend had a nose job done three years ago at my request. (I did not pressure her.) Tragically, the procedure went wrong, and her face was disfigured. We stayed together throughout this, and I covered some of her legal and medical bills and did my best to support her emotionally. For the past year, however, I feel like I’m with her out of guilt more than anything. I find myself losing patience with her and making excuses to cancel our dates. I do not have the heart to break up with her because I feel obliged to look after her. I’m sure she’s noticed this but hasn’t said anything to me—in fact she treats me more nicely, as does her mom. Am I a jerk for not loving her anymore?