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.

—Prudie

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

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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.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
I have some of the best friends I could ever ask for, but they have one habit that absolutely drives me up the wall. Every time we are out doing something as a group, one of them always has to be attached to his or her cell phone, text messaging people who are not with us. I don't use text messaging, and I don't consider myself to be a very demanding person. Is it unreasonable for me to request that they have a conversation with the people who are there instead of spending a half-hour texting with someone who isn't? At times, I just want to get up and leave. I've brought it up once or twice, and it stopped for about a week at most. I've thought about bringing some stationery with me and writing out a letter to somebody the next time it occurs. How can I reach them without having to go to such extreme measures?

—H8s Txts!

Dear H8s,
I love your idea, especially if you write your epistles on parchment using a quill pen and an inkwell. However, the result would probably be that your friends start snapping your photo with their cell phones and sending text messages about you to everyone who's not there. I wish someone could explain why a banal text message from a disembodied person is so much more alluring than a conversation with the friend in front of you. Perhaps if you were to leave the room and start texting your thumb-wagging friends, you'd suddenly become the focus of their attention. I endorse the rule promulgated by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe, authors of the e-mail etiquette guide Send: Are you in a situation in which it would be rude for you to be doing a crossword puzzle? If the answer is yes, then stop texting. Since you've brought this up before, and everyone tried to reform, raise the issue again, and mention the crossword-puzzle edict. Let everyone agree to some ground rules. For example, it's fine to send a text to someone who's joining you to alert them to your location. But if people are too addicted to refrain from lengthy exchanges on their PDAs, they should banish themselves from the table and join the smokers outside.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
I'm a 50-year-old female. One of my dearest friends, who is just a few years older than I, has recently given up wearing a bra. Unfortunately, this is causing no small distress to several of her friends, as it is rather distracting. Recently we all went on a trip together, and when we went through our snapshots, she kept discarding pictures because "I look terrible in this one." As far as we could tell, the only problem was that her bust line is now at the level of her waistline. She is a feminist and seems to really enjoy the freedom to hang loose, as it were, but how can we tactfully tell her that this is not a good look for her? I thought of a sports bra with a birthday card that says "Only your friends will tell you" but am afraid that it wouldn't go over well. Any suggestions?

—She's a Bust

Dear Bust,
This reminds me of a friend who, noting the effects of age and childbirth, said she could stop buying brassieres because it would be cheaper just to stick her breasts in her pants pockets. And wasn't there an episode of Maude in which the well-endowed Bea Arthur explained that she had a black eye because she was jumping rope without a bra? If your friend is old enough to have gone braless back in the day as a protest against repression, she is too old to go braless now. Maybe the reason she's going National Geographic on you is out of some physical discomfort. Ask if the reason she's suddenly braless is because there's a medical issue she needs to address. If there isn't, then tell her that since you're bosom buddies, you have to let her know that she really needs to resume containing herself.

—Prudie

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