Dear Prudence

My Sons and I Want My Daughter to Dress More Appropriately

When we’ve tried to address the issue, she asks how can we judge her for having legs.

outline of a teen in a crop top on the left, with a woman in her 40s/50s staring at her, concerned, on the right
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Dear Prudence,

I have a daughter who is very depressed and suffers from anxiety and outbursts of anger. She is trying medication and also sees a psychologist regularly. We are just trying to manage things the best we can for her. We even welcomed a puppy into our family to hopefully help lower her anxiety. However, most interactions, even the most basic of topics, are strained and difficult with her. She is always seeking out any way possible to push back on everything we say or be argumentative. She is a smart, beautiful girl and is quite developed for her age. My question is: What is the best way to discuss dressing appropriately with her? She makes fairly good choices for school except for the odd midriff (which is not worth the argument). At home she dresses in short shorts that are far too revealing and often a shirt that is low cut.

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We have always had the family rule that we must always be dressed or wear pajamas around the house for the respect of ourselves and others in our family. My sons have both said they are uncomfortable when their sister wears this inappropriate attire. Our family is quite progressive, and we want to see the societal norms around labeling women by how they’re dressed change for the better. When we have brought up our daughter’s dress, she has sharply retorted that how can we judge her for having legs, and why should she have to cover up her perfectly natural body. In some ways, I agree, but that is the perfect attitude for living alone, not in a small house with four other people. Please help me with the right words to reach her.

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—Mystified Mother

I do have some words I think will prove useful to you, but they’re for your sons, not your daughter: “I’m sorry you feel uncomfortable when your sister wears shorts. I’m also sorry for how I reacted when you first shared this with me, because I was wrong to agree that your discomfort was her responsibility. Regardless of how someone else’s outfit makes you feel, you’re responsible for managing your own reactions and treating everyone respectfully and appropriately.”

By your own account, your daughter follows the family clothing rules. If she were naked in the common areas of the house, you would certainly have grounds to intervene, but I think you’ll set yourself up for unnecessary conflict if you try to monitor all of her hemlines. I’d also encourage you to rethink that line about how your daughter is “quite developed for her age,” the implication being that she’s unable to dress in a way she finds comfortable and stylish because she has to keep herself covered up, lest she “invite” sexual attention.

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The problem with the clothing rule is the unspoken corollary, which is apparently something like, “Keira has to wear shorts that reach the knee, because it’s inherently disrespectful for a girl to have uncovered thighs.” You’re trying to punish your daughter for violating an unspoken rule, and I think because you’re aware on some level that this violates your supposedly progressive values, you’re also trying to make her responsible for both her brother’s discomfort and yours. That’s an awful lot of pressure to put on a teenager (or preteen—you don’t say how old your daughter is!). Your sons need to cultivate a stronger sense of personal responsibility, and it’s incumbent upon you to help them do so. They must learn to treat everyone with respect, even if they personally feel uncomfortable at the sight of a girl’s leg. That does not make their discomfort the problem of the girl in possession of the leg. Punishing your daughter because you have failed to teach self-discipline, respect for personal space, or respectful attitudes to your sons is inherently anti-progressive, and your daughter is quite right to object to being made the scapegoat.

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I realize I’ve been rather sharp here, but all parents make mistakes in trying to live out their values, and you have plenty of time to course-correct. It’s difficult to lovingly parent kids with varying needs, instincts, bugbears, sore spots, and temperaments, especially when those temperaments come into conflict. It’s especially difficult to lovingly parent a kid who’s struggling to regulate her own emotions, and I don’t doubt for a minute that your daughter has a knack for pushing your buttons. I’m sure you’re doing your best—but I think you need to change your priorities here and ease up on your daughter.

Dear Prudence,

I have been with my partner for 11 years, and for nine of those years, he has attended college full time. He has two undergraduate degrees and a few different certifications, but nothing that has translated into gainful employment. One of my friends called him a “professional student,” and I felt this was an appropriate description. He is not working toward any particular goal beyond taking as many classes as he can, indefinitely. I’m getting tired of being the sole provider in our household. We barely have enough income to support the two of us and certainly nothing to put in savings. My partner takes out loans to pay for school, and he doesn’t want to discuss exactly how much he owes because “you can’t put a price on knowledge.” I have asked him to get a part-time job and scale back on the classes, but he says this would not be fulfilling and a life that is not fulfilling is not worth living. He has even told me that I am falling victim to “toxic rhetoric” that judges a man’s worth based on his ability to provide financially. Other than this conflict, we typically agree on most things and he is a loving and supportive partner. Am I in the wrong here? Is there any way we can argue more effectively about this? I suspect that deep down, the endless classes are his way of avoiding having to get a job and take on adult responsibilities, as he has made remarks before about “The Man” and not wanting to be a “drone.”

—Professional Student

I don’t think there’s anything “deep down” about your partner’s desire to avoid getting a job. He seems able to avow that desire readily and frankly! I won’t try to dispute whether he’s an otherwise supportive partner, but there’s not a lot of “otherwise” to focus on around the edges of this issue. This affects your day-to-day life as well as your future and prevents you from saving for emergencies. He’s taking out more and more loans, refusing to countenance even the possibility of a compromise, dismisses your concerns as “toxic rhetoric” (toxic rhetoric that’s paying his bills for him!), and insults your intelligence by pretending that “you can’t put a price on knowledge” means “it’s a great idea to take on a decade’s worth of student loan debt for multiple bachelor’s degrees, and you shouldn’t tell your partner how much money you owe.” “Knowledge” is not a synonym for multiple undergraduate degrees!

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I can’t possibly advise you in ways to “argue more effectively” about this. You’ve been single-handedly supporting this man for nine years, and his only response when you suggest he get a part-time job is, “Such a life would not be worth living. It would be better to be dead than go without reenrolling in Philosophy 201 this spring.” That’s not a position worth trying to compromise over, and I don’t think the fact that he’s otherwise a sweetheart makes up for his treatment of you like a nagging parent instead of an equal partner. I think you should assume that he is never going to stop prioritizing his own pleasures over your life together, that he will continue taking classes and avoiding work as long as he thinks he can get away with it, and that the only person who’s capable of changing the situation is you. What might you be able to do if you decided to stop subsidizing his never-ending senior year? What would you be able to save up for, what trips might you be able to take, what opportunities might open up for you if you stopped carrying his load for him? Spend some time thinking about what you want and less time trying to find a way to coax this eternal student into graduating.

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Dear Prudence,

My husband’s always been an avid gamer, but for the last couple of years it’s been an issue of contention in our marriage. He games from the time he comes home until bedtime. Sometimes he’ll help with dinner. We eat together for five to 10 minutes while he gets up to check his games, unless I put a movie on. When he’s not working, he games from 7 a.m. to 10 or 11 p.m. I play video games too, so I understand the appeal, but I try to limit my time to an hour or two a day. Lately the only way I can get time with him is if I suggest we play a game together, but I don’t want that to be my only option. We’ve been married for three years and both want to start a family, but I worry he’ll be a neglectful father and put the workload of parenting on me. He’s helpful when I ask for something, but he gets tunnel vision over his games and leaves household management to me. It’s also becoming less likely we will have a child when he games every night. We only have sex once or twice a month now, and I have to initiate it every time.

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I’ve tried talking to him about how I feel. I’ve asked him to set a schedule for his gaming. I’ve asked him to limit gaming to four nights a week. I’ve asked him for one date night a week. I’ve suggested couples counseling. His reactions range from apologetic with a promise to do better (which doesn’t last), to sleeping on the couch and threatening to give up gaming entirely. I’m becoming exhausted from having the same conversation over and over. I’m willing to change whatever I need to make our marriage work, and I’ve gone to counseling alone in the past. I’m just not sure he’s willing to do the same. Is there anything else I can do?

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—Second Fiddle to Second Life

I’m sorry to be so pessimistic about two relationships in a row, but I have to agree with your fear that your husband will be a neglectful parent. I think you can say with perfect confidence, given your years of consistent experience with him, that he absolutely would be a neglectful father and would displace all the work of parenting onto you. You say that you’re willing to change whatever you need to make your marriage work, but you cannot change the fundamental orientation of your husband’s heart. You cannot create willingness to compromise that doesn’t exist, cannot manifest a desire to connect with you, to prioritize your time together, to share your interests, to treat household management as a shared endeavor between two equals instead of an assortment of tasks that you’re responsible for managing, where he’s your occasional delegate.

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You’ve suggested compromise, you’ve argued your case repeatedly, and you’ve asked for less and less as he’s become more and more begrudging in response. He either makes promises he clearly has no intention of keeping or throws a fit at the prospect of a life where he “only” plays video games for seven hours straight four nights a week and spends the remaining three nights talking to his wife. Do you really want to compromise further with a person whose values are ordered like his? Who seems to think of you most of the time as an annoying nonplayable character who interrupts what’s really important to him? You would be miserable, I think, if you had a child with this man. You’d be a single parent in everything but name. But you do not have to live like this. You don’t have to stay married to someone who makes you beg for more than 10 minutes of his time, who “sometimes” helps you make dinner and maybe sticks around to watch part of a movie before vanishing again. There are so many things worth compromising with a partner for, but this isn’t one of them.

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Help! My Creepy Boss Calls Me at All Hours to Tell Me I’m Wonderful.

Danny M. Lavery is joined by Kristen Meinzer on this week’s episode of the Dear Prudence podcast.

Subscribe to the Dear Prudence Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Dear Prudence,

I’m a teacher working in an area that’s been moderately impacted by COVID. Things aren’t great, but we’re far from the harder-hit areas. Vaccine rollout is slow, and I likely have another month before I can get the jab. I’ve refused to return to work in-person since September. I’m not alone in this—my union has supported me, along with many others—and, for the most part, I feel at peace with my choice. The problem is my two next-door neighbors. They live on either side of me and both struggle to balance child care, their full-time jobs, housework, etc. Their children are in virtual school and having a hard time. I don’t teach any of their kids. But they are clearly looking to me as a “proxy” for every teacher who either refuses to work in-person or is struggling to effectively teach at a distance.

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These neighbors, with whom I used to be quite friendly, have turned icy. They sigh, roll their eyes, and make pointed jabs about how awful life has been with the children unable to return to school. My three children used to play with theirs, but now I’m reluctant to let them, because of their parents’ veiled barbs. I recognize everyone is going through it, and these neighbors are just misplacing their reasonable frustration. I’m the personified reason their children can’t go back to school. What should I do or say? What happens if this frostiness remains after I’m vaccinated and return to work? Should I just give up on the friendship now that they’ve shown their true colors? My kids do enjoy playing with their kids, and I’m reluctant to isolate them even more during an already-isolating time.

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—Neighborly No More

I agree that there’s no reason to break up the play dates, as long as the children enjoy them. I also agree with your assessment of the situation: Your neighbors aren’t acting rationally! This is not about a series of individual actors who just need to “buck up” during a pandemic but a widespread, ongoing health crisis—and even if it were, you’re not their kids’ teacher. You’re not the cause of their problem, even by proxy—you’re just a convenient scapegoat. Rather than try to argue them out of an irrational position, I think the best (and easiest) route is simply to remain friendly but superficial. And it’s possible that some of these complaints aren’t even directed at you. I imagine that life with all the kids at home 24/7 really is difficult! Keep your interactions cheerful but short and say, “Well, see you later!” as soon as someone rolls their eyes or tries to lob a pointed comment your way. Hopefully they’ll get over it, but even if they don’t, you certainly don’t have to stick around to absorb their frustrations.

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Dear Prudence Uncensored

One can almost admire the bravado of saying ‘You can’t put a price on knowledge’ with a straight face.”
Danny Lavery and Slate staff writer Rebecca Onion discuss a letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.

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Dear Prudence,

I have a friend I supported through undergrad, grad school, and serious postpartum depression (including hospitalization) twice. She was still reeling from her last pregnancy a bit at the beginning of the pandemic, but when things locked down and I couldn’t physically be there anymore, I was, to my horror, relieved. She seems to be managing OK now (though it’s hard to tell through infrequent texts), but the longer I’ve gone without seeing her, the less I … care. She never calls or checks in on me and never reciprocates invites, and I just don’t think she has the capacity to reach out. Do I just let her go? It’s clear that it was a one-sided friendship, but I feel terrible about it.

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—Ghosting a Depressed Friend

On the one hand, you have a right to end a friendship, especially over a seriously lopsided emotional dynamic that’s been in place for years. And sometimes it does take a big change for people to realize the existence of such a dynamic! You may not have noticed it before or may have dismissed it at the time because there was always a new crisis to attend to. You needn’t fault yourself for not realizing just how much this lack of reciprocity bothered you before now. But on the other hand, if you were to simply end this long-standing friendship without a single conversation about what’s been on your mind, I think you would cause your friend a great deal of unnecessary distress, bewilderment, and pain. Ghosting a close friend is not a kind thing to do, and although there may be some circumstances in which it’s a necessary unkindness, I don’t think it’s called for here.

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That doesn’t mean you two have to have a heart-to-heart right now or even anytime very soon. There’s still a pandemic on, everyone’s got limited time and energy to spare, and it’s a difficult conversation to have over Zoom or on the phone. I think you should keep up with the infrequent texting, since that requires relatively little effort but makes it clear you haven’t forgotten each other. If you want to tell her something that’s going on with you, or share some fun news, don’t wait for her to ask—just do it. Set the tone of these occasional text conversations as a generally light one, and don’t initiate in-depth discussions about mental health you’re not interested in having with her. You can save the “I’ve been thinking about our friendship dynamic lately, and I can’t offer the same kind of support I have in the past” conversation for later on down the road. But she deserves to have that conversation with you at some point. Just as importantly, it will save you a lot of the guilt and discomfort that would inevitably accompany the decision to ghost. Ghosting is for lousy first dates or a last resort after all attempts to talk things out have failed. It’s not for close friends who have no idea you’re upset because you’ve never said anything on the subject before.

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Now available in your podcast player: the audiobook edition of Danny M. Lavery’s latest book, Something That May Shock and Discredit YouGet it from Slate

Dear Prudence, 

I’m a writer in my early 20s who grew up on the internet. This means that I’ve been posting my thoughts online ever since I was a tween (yikes!). My career is now starting to take off, and I’m gaining recognition for my work. I thought getting here would feel good, but it’s terrifying. I can’t stop imagining the worst-case scenario of getting “canceled” or having people turn against me for things I thoughtlessly posted when I was younger. It’s not that I’ve ever posted anything egregious—I don’t think I have—but my stomach drops whenever I think about my 13-year-old self’s thoughts, especially being taken out of context. This fear is amplified by the knowledge that even the stuff I’ve deleted from Facebook, Twitter, or wherever else technically still exists on some web archive somewhere. I’ve built up an unreasonable amount of fear around this. The thought makes me nauseated. I’ve always dreamt of gaining recognition for my work, but now that it’s happening, I kind of just want to disappear from the internet (which I know isn’t an option in my field). How do I work through this?

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—Dreading Cancellation

My first thought is whether this brings up for you any sense of unease or regret about how you may have participated in (or vicariously enjoyed) various cancellations. Fearing that professional success will bring greater exposure and risk is understandable, so I don’t mean to suggest this is only an externalization of an internal problem, but it’s worth reflecting on your past behavior and asking if you have treated others the way you would hope to be treated in a similar position.

“Cancellation” is a vague concept, and it might help to get specific about what you fear. Do you fear being widely disliked? Occasionally disliked? The mere idea that someone, somewhere, might not think well of you? Do you fear losing your job? Do you fear a widespread harassment campaign? Who are the people you imagine “turning against you” when these anxious fantasies pop up? Are they close friends, colleagues, lovers? Are they anonymous readers, former fans, relative strangers? Do you fear the loss of your personal reputation or the loss of a public persona? It seems less like you regret specific, harmful beliefs or actions from your past and more a general sense of embarrassment that your teenage emotional archive exists, however provisionally, somewhere online. That’s a useful indicator, albeit an unpleasant one. You’re not contemplating making serious amends for wrongdoing so much as struggling with a general interest in “the right to be forgotten,” particularly when it comes to your social development at 13.

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Keep a written log of your answers to these questions. You should also draft a policy or plan of action for how you hope you’d behave if you were corrected, admonished, or criticized publicly for something you’d written or done. What values would you want to uphold? What would restraint look like in such a scenario? What would panic look like? How would you determine whether such a criticism was substantive and the source trustworthy? If the criticism were substantive but the tone harsh, how might you temper your initial defensiveness in order to deal with content before style? How can you begin to cultivate a sense of self that exists independently of outside approval, which is inherently unpredictable? What steps would you need to take to keep yourself safe? This might sound like a great deal of homework for a fear you’re hoping will just go away, but I believe specificity and planning make great antidotes to free-floating anxiety.

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Classic Prudie

Ten years ago I was in my early 20s, living in a large city and having fun. I went on a date with an attractive man but he told me things about himself that seemed too good to be true, so I ruled him out as a potential boyfriend. But we did go to a hotel and had a tawdry one-night stand. Today I have an amazing career that has taken me to a rural location. A year ago a new friend invited me to supper and presto, her husband is the hookup from my past. He did not give any indication of knowing who I was. I have since determined that they didn’t know each other when he and I had our date. (And it turns out he was telling me the truth about his life.) I see my friend frequently, and see them as a couple occasionally. Because I live in a small town, finding romance has been difficult. Until now. I recently met an attractive man and we both feel a sincere connection to each other. It turns out he is the brother of my friend’s husband. Do I have any responsibility to disclose to this new man that I had a tawdry night with his brother 10 years ago?

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