Advice on manners and morals.

Advice on manners and morals.
Dec. 14 2006 12:16 AM

Suffer the Children

What do you do when a co-worker tells you about child abuse?

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Dear Prudie,
I work with a woman who talks frequently at lunch and in group settings about the problems she's having with her children. She claims they are just unruly, then discusses some rather dysfunctional behavior that seems like a cry for help. She casually talks about how they've been kicked out of every day care they've been enrolled in for fighting, biting, spitting, and threatening graphic, personal harm on teachers. The most recent story involved one child trashing the house while she and her husband slept. Her solution was to lock her children in their rooms at night, but now she doesn't know what to do with the one who has taken to defecating in the corners during the night. It breaks my heart to hear these types of stories, so much so that if she starts telling me about the latest mishap, I try to steer the conversation in another direction. My spouse thinks I should stay out of the situation, but my heart feels for these children, and I have toyed with the idea of anonymously calling the local social services office to report the situation. Do I have a moral and ethical responsibility to step in and report possible neglect? Or should I keep steering the conversation off the topic and keep my mouth shut?

—Heartbroken and Torn

Dear Heart,
Make the call. That's the advice of both Caren Kaplan of the Child Welfare League of America and Dr. Keith G. Hughes, a consultant to the North American Child Welfare Resource Center, after I read each of them your letter. Hughes said these children are exhibiting signs of serious emotional distress, and that parents who lock children in their rooms to keep them under control need intervention to help them learn how to properly deal with their kids. He said most states allow people who suspect child abuse to call the authorities anonymously and be held harmless for making the call. While it's generally best to stay out of the personal lives of the people at the lunch table, your heart is telling you there is something very wrong in this woman's life and that you need to do what you can to stop it.

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—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
My wife and I are in our 40s, married for years with great kids. In the bedroom, I have to supply the imagination or creativity, which can be politely summarized as a handful of positions and occasionally some tricks or treats. I consider my efforts to keep things interesting very modest by today's standards, but it's become a point of contention. My wife thinks what we do is way, way "out there," especially for people our age. She is sure that our neighbors are all missionary-with-the-lights-out types. I say that whether she can imagine it or not, they are almost certainly doing what we do and probably much more. In order to move forward, we need to agree on where we fall on the wildness scale—my wife thinks we're an 11 on a scale of one to 10, while I'm pretty sure we're about a three. Help!

—No Frame of Reference

Dear Frame,
Talk about keeping it up with the Joneses! Your bone of contention sounds like that scene from Annie Hall, in which Annie and Alvy complain separately to their therapists about the frequency of sex. He says, "Hardly ever. Maybe three times a week." And she says, "Constantly! I'd say three times a week." The issue here, however, is not whether the people down the block spend every night practicing reverse cowgirl, it's what makes the two of you happy. Her fallback is keeping things simple and basic; you consider that rutting yourselves into a rut. But could you be accommodating if your wife wants variety only every few weeks? And perhaps she doesn't mind the different positions, but she thinks tricks and treats should be left for Halloween. Maybe instead of your resenting doing it missionary-with-the-lights-out, you could consider it part of the repertoire of the suburban Kama Sutra. That you're open enough with each other to even have this conversation is good news. So keep talking, without becoming so rigid in your demands that she no longer wants to be flexible with you. You both need to accept that while your sexual styles may be somewhat opposed, you can come together and make it work.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
I am constantly having a battle of stuff with my mother that comes to a climax around Christmas. My mom loves to send me stuff—stuff she likes, stuff I don't need, knick-knacks, furniture, dishes. I live in a very small apartment and  move often. After lugging my stuff across the country, I began taking carloads of it to Goodwill. I told her that if I get something I don't need, I'm giving it away. This did not go over well, so now I act grateful and then send it straight to Goodwill or a friend, feeling a little guilty. My system of donating these things was working fine (except for the guilt) until this year regarding Christmas, when she gave me an explicit admonition not to give anything away because the objects have sentimental value for her! How can I get the point across to her (if there's any clearer way of saying, "No, Mom, I have no room for that!")? Or should I just keep doing what I'm doing and bear the guilt?