Advice on manners and morals (June 26, 2008).

Advice on manners and morals.
June 26 2008 7:13 AM

Who's My Daddy?

How do I tell my son that "Gramps" isn't my real father?


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Dear Prudence,
I am the product of a relationship my mother had as a college student. They never married, and I have never met my father, though I do know who he is and where he lives. I am an adult now with three children of my own, ages 5, 3, and 18 months. My mother married when I was 33 and though the man she married takes a grandfatherly role with my children, it is pretty clear he and I are not father and daughter (largely due to my age when they married, etc.). My oldest son asked me out of the blue the other day, "Mom, who is your dad?" I knew this question would come, as he is a very bright and inquisitive boy, but I was totally unprepared. This subject was handled with a total shutdown when I was a child. No questions were allowed or answered. I do not want to do this to my children, but I also do not want to burden them with too much information for their age. This would be a huge problem if they brought it up to my mother or her husband, so I have to address it somehow—and soon, as we are going to see them shortly. This has always been my problem to deal with, but having to pass it on to my children is nearly unbearable.

—Dadless Mom

Dear Dadless,
I actually doubt your 5-year-old inferred all that you are reading into his question. Likely he noticed that you call your mother "Mom," but instead of calling the man who appears to be your father "Dad" you refer to him instead as "Bob." You're right: You don't want to give your children more information than they can understand, but you want to be able to answer their questions honestly. Since your son is probably trying to figure out who "Bob" is, tell your son he's your stepfather. Explain that means he married your mom after you were born, and he's like a dad. I'm sure he has friends with stepfathers, and you can explain that Bob is to you as his friend Zack's stepdad is to him. That might be all he wants to know. But if he follows up and asks where your real dad is, simply tell him the truth, that you know who your dad is, but you didn't grow up with him. Your own painful childhood taught you that as important as the information you convey is the way you convey it. You want to be calm and comfortable when you have this conversation so that your children don't feel, as you did, that there's a cone of silence around the subject. More importantly, stop worrying about how your mother will feel if this comes up. She caused great pain by making this subject verboten, and you're a grown woman now who can make a different decision. What's your mother going to do? Send you to your room? You're right not to want to pass on the fear and shame you lived with, but you have to free yourself from the belief that you're still living under her control. This might mean discussing this with a therapist or support group and even exploring whether you someday want to contact your father.


Dear Prudence,
My boss is an educated, intelligent man. He's also a good guy, and I enjoy working for him. He's a VP and therefore has a good deal of exposure to the senior executives and board members of our company (including almost daily meetings with the COO). I'm struggling with this problem: My boss consistently uses the word duplicitous when he actually means duplicative. Needless to say, this misuse dramatically alters what he's trying to say. Unfortunately, he misuses the term frequently in conversation. Should I correct him to help prevent ongoing potential embarrassment on his part? I'm concerned that doing so would not only be uncomfortable, but that I would come across as being some kind of smarty-pants.

—Don't Wanna Be a Vocabulary Monitor


Dear Don't,
This isn't a case like that of John McCain saying the "transcendental" issue of our time is the war on terror when he means "transcendent"—you know what McCain's trying to say (and it also made for a good bit on The Colbert Report). But in your boss's case, when he's trying to say something was redundant, he ends up leaving the impression that an employee is doing something deceptive. Surely he'd want to know if he's inadvertently smearing his colleagues. You should correct him, but the task for you is to do it with both tact and confidence. The next time you hear him misuse the word, shake off your embarrassment, and when you get a chance to be in private with him, at the end of whatever you're discussing, say matter-of-factly, "Oh, one other thing. I noticed at the meeting you said 'duplicitous' when it seemed clear what you really meant to say was 'duplicative.' " Don't spell out the definitions. If he's the smart and good guy you say he is, he'll look them up himself, and maybe even thank you for pointing out his error.