Advice on manners and morals (Sept. 18, 2008).

Advice on manners and morals.
Sept. 18 2008 6:54 AM

Brutal Beginning, Happy Ending

How do I tell my daughter she's the result of a sexual assault?

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Dear Prudence,
I was raped by an unknown person and as a result have a lovely daughter who is now 10. My family and close friends know all about her origins. She has always asked about her father, but when she was younger I could deflect the topic. Now I feel that she needs to know something, but I don't know what to say. I've asked my family: My mom is at a loss, and my dad and siblings think I should just tell her that her father died.

—What Do I Do?

Dear What,
How could you not be at a loss? What you have to convey is so painful and fraught with consequences for how your daughter views herself, her relationship to you, her understanding of sex, and so much more. For help, I contacted Dr. Alan E. Kazdin, Yale child psychologist and Slate contributor. First, you have to tell the truth. Lying may seem like the kindest thing to do, but too many people know; eventually your daughter will find out, and you will have done terrible harm to her trust in you. Kazdin points out that when you have the conversation with your daughter, keep in mind that what you say will be matched in importance by how you say it. You need to express in your manner and tone that even though this subject is difficult, you are comfortable and at peace. Also remember that opening this subject does not mean opening a floodgate. You don't have to tell everything in the first conversation. Your daughter will derive comfort from knowing that this topic is allowed and that she will be able to bring it up with you over many years.

Pick a time when you are both relaxed to tell her you want to discuss the questions she's had about her father. Because this involves things she's still too young to understand, Kazdin says you might be able to get her agreement to delay the actual talk for now. You can tell her that she's asked important questions that deserve an answer and promise her she will get one. But explain that the answer is complicated and will be hard to understand. Ask if she'd be willing to wait until she's a little older before you give her the details. She might be satisfied enough to know that you will tell her—that the subject isn't taboo—and agree to wait. If she says she wants to know now, you have to give her just enough information to satisfy her. You can say something like, "You remember how we talked about how babies get made? The best way for that to happen is between two people who love each other. But it's not always that way. The way it happened for Mommy was different. I know this is going to sound strange, but I didn't know the man who is your dad. But what matters to me is that I got the most wonderful thing in the world: you."

If she asks for more details, then you can say, "We are going to talk about this many different times, and it's good we can have this conversation. But we'll save what you're asking for when you're a little older and you can understand better." Rehearse all this so when you bring it up, you can control the tempo and tenor. And keeping in mind the joy your daughter brings you will help you express to her that however this story began, it has a happy ending.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
I am a college student doing an internship at a nonprofit organization. Last week, my boss, who has always been very professional, asked me if there was a way to reach me outside of work. I gave her my cell phone number, and she called me last weekend. She asked me to meet her away from work to talk about a "strictly nonwork-related" business opportunity. The meeting was a ploy for a pyramid scheme involving a health product. After we listened to a speaker talk about this "amazing opportunity" for two hours, my boss said that she wanted me to be part of her business network. I didn't want to be rude, so I told her that I would think about it and talk to my parents, and she scheduled another meeting for us over coffee. Was it right for my boss to ask me, an employee 25 years her junior, to be part of a creepy business venture, even if she did so outside of work? My parents say that I shouldn't even have coffee with her, but I don't want to appear rude. I have no intention of getting involved, but I don't know how to say no.

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—Perplexed Among the Pyramids

Dear Perplexed,
Wouldn't you just love to forward her some financial opportunities you've received by e-mail from Nigeria and tell her if she springs for these ventures, you'll go for hers? Of course she's exploiting your youth and position for her potential personal gain—that's why she's trying to pretend she's avoiding this conflict by pressuring you outside of the office. Your parents are right: Don't go for that coffee with her. Instead, see her at work and politely and firmly say you've thought about her offer and talked about it with your parents. Tell her it's just not for you, and you can't get further involved. If your boss is not experiencing sun stroke from too much time among the pyramids, she'll be smart enough to drop it. If you have a professor who supervises your internship, you could tell him or her what happened and how you handled it. And definitely do so if your boss keeps bringing it up or starts acting hostile.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
My mom just remarried last year, and I have a new stepbrother the same age as me—we are both 21. I never really knew him before they got married because he does not live around here. I've seen him a total of five times, and I have never really considered him my stepbrother. The problem is that we have really come to like each other and would like to be in a relationship. We do not think that there is much wrong, since we are not really related, but we know others will think this is wrong. We haven't told anyone yet. If we had met two years ago, this wouldn't have been a problem, but what do we do now?

—Step by Step

Dear Step,
You two don't know yet if you want to be in a relationship; you just know that you want to see if you might possibly want to be in a relationship. You're right, if you'd met two years ago, your attraction would have preceded your parents' trip down the aisle. But now that you are stepsiblings, it doesn't mean that you shouldn't have the chance to date—it does complicate things, though. You're both adults, so even if your families have qualms, they can't stop you. And since you're adults, you don't have to ask their permission to act on your interest. But what you should do is go very slow. Think of this as a Victorian-style courtship. I can't give you a schedule, but put off holding hands, or that first kiss, for many dates. And don't even think of getting into bed until you both agree you're serious and exclusive. If you end up being soul mates, how lucky that your parents have brought you together. If you realize you don't want a romance but just enjoy each other's friendship, terrific. What you want to avoid is ending up with a failed romance and bad feelings, which will get stirred up for decades of Thanksgivings and Christmases to come.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
My wife recently left her two-week-old MacBook computer at my sister's house. While I offered to drive the 90 miles to pick it up, my wife and sister agreed to have it mailed via UPS. I warned them both to pack it very, very carefully. My sister stated that through her workplace, it would be insured for $3,000—more than the value. It arrived the next day with a broken screen. The repair cost is $700-plus. When I saw the inadequate box it was shipped in, I was absolutely appalled. Because it wasn't packaged properly, UPS won't honor the claim. Is my sister obligated to pay for the damages? Or is it my wife's fault for allowing it to be shipped? Should we just forget the whole situation and chalk it up to bad judgment? It's causing a huge rift in my family.

—Tech Spouse

Dear Tech,
I don't see how it's your wife's fault. By that logic, the only safe way to get a MacBook to anyone's house is for Steve Jobs to pick it up from the factory and personally deliver it to each customer. If the computer was broken because of improper packaging and your sister promised to take care of the packaging, she should at least offer to pay part of the damages. I assume the rift is over the fact that she's said what happened to the computer after it left her hands is not her responsibility. So, you could seethe for years over everyone's idiocy and endlessly reiterate that if only these women had let you make the drive, none of this would have … blah, blah, blah. Or you could pay for the screen to be fixed, enjoy this delightful piece of technology, and let it go. 

—Prudie

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