How do I tell my kids they crushed their hamster to death?

Advice on manners and morals.
Sept. 17 2009 6:13 AM

Fuzzy's Gone to Hamster Heaven

How do I tell my kids they killed their pet?

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Dear Prudie,
My kids accidentally crushed their hamster, but at 5 and 6 years old, they're too young to know. (I just told them she'd bitten into her lip.) To further protect them, I told them the veterinarian said she was fine but that she was not allowed to leave the hospital and was happy to be with her friends. I may be projecting—the sight of the hamster dying was awful to me, and it took two days to get over the depression. Some people think I should not "lie and pretend," as they put it, by not allowing the children to "deal with the death." I find it absolutely abhorrent to think of my children discovering that they were responsible for their pet's death, when I, their father, could not go to sleep due to grief.

—Crushed

Dear Crushed,
I can almost promise you that after your kids were finished squeezing, sitting on, or hugging really, really hard their darling hamster, and it just lay there looking like a bloodied, dying hamster, even at 5 and 6, they pretty much knew, "Uh-oh, I think we killed the hamster." Your reassurance that the hamster had a lip boo-boo and is now recovering at an extended-care facility has probably only imparted the confusing lesson that their hamster has Wolverine-like healing powers. (Your story must be the rodent equivalent of telling the kids the dog has gone to "live with people in the country" when it's actually just gotten a shot of Fatal-Plus.) I understand that you're stuck on an emotional hamster wheel, but you've got to get off and tell the truth. When you explain to your kids what really happened, you don't want to be either punitive or despondent. You need to tell them that small, furry creatures require gentle handling. Sadly, their hamster died because they were accidentally too rough with it. If they cry, comfort them, and if they're shockingly blasé, accept it. Answer simply but honestly any questions they have. If they want to know where the hamster is now, tell them the vet takes away the bodies of the dead animals. If they ask whether the hamster was in pain, you can explain that it was but the pain didn't last long. And if they say they want another hamster—well, Dad, see if you can cross that Rainbow Bridge when you come to it.

—Prudie

Dear Prudie,
Last year, my boyfriend started a prestigious job halfway across the country, and I moved with him. In the year that we have lived together, I have discovered that he has some shocking habits. He smokes pot every day. On days when he is not working, he will get stoned and watch television all day. He often drinks to excess, which has resulted in him receiving a DWI and spending a night in jail. He also frequents strip clubs. He asked me not to come on a company retreat because he wanted to go to clubs while he was away. However, we still have a lot of fun together, and I know that in his retarded, selfish way, he adores me, and I love the big jerk. We've talked extensively about marriage. I've brought up his behavior, and he says that he's simply enjoying his youth and will settle down when the time comes. (We're almost 30.) Also, he makes a lot of money and is slated to make much more. I know that sounds shallow, but with him I'd be able to live comfortably for the rest of my life. His salary has also allowed me to take a low-paying job I love. Without him, I would have to live with roommates until I'm 45 (a fate worse than death). I'd also have to start all over again in the dating world, which is depressing. Is it spineless to stay with a lovable cad just because he'll provide for me? Or am I morally obligated to go back home and return to working long hours at a job I hate while having to share a bathroom with roommates?

—Daisy Buchanan

Dear Daisy,
What an appropriate literary reference, to call yourself the name of the selfish, careless character in The Great Gatsby, given that a crucial plot twist in the book is a hit-and-run accident. Ah, yes, what a beautiful future you and your boyfriend will have together in East Egg, until he drunkenly runs his car off the road, probably with a stripper in the front seat, killing himself or someone else. Maybe an alcoholic stoner can successfully climb the corporate ladder—given what we know about corporate America, it's possible no one would notice—but as he compiles an arrest record, slurs his words at meetings, or forgets to show up altogether, that could impinge on the ability of the "big jerk" to provide the comforts you so enjoy. You oddly envision only two futures: one of cramped misery without him and one of indulgent ease with him. Instead, try considering that if you want material comforts, you can make the decision to find a job that will pay for them (while doing volunteer work that you find satisfying). If you conclude you're more interested in someone's character than his paycheck, you might also open yourself up to the possibility of a relationship with someone who is less likely to ruin your life.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
I am 25 years old. I recently received a promotion at my job and now manage a group of my peers. Our boss is now relying on me to pass along departmental information about who is working diligently and who is not. My problem is that two people in the department hardly work at all. They come in an hour or more late, then they are on the phone, surfing Facebook, online shopping, or talking to each other all day. Their behavior is causing complaints from managers and co-workers. These two people happen to be my close friends; we often go shopping or to happy hour, and we confide in one another. I feel like I am ratting them out if I tell my boss what they really do, but at the same time, it is completely frustrating to be surrounded by people who have so little work ethic. I have the authority to say something, but one of them has been here longer than me and is a little bitter I've surpassed her, so I am uncomfortable "disciplining" her. Do I let our boss know what is really going on?

—Stumped

Dear Stumped,
I assume you know how many hardworking people are desperate for jobs, yet you let these two manipulative dead weights take advantage of you, and the company, because they're smart enough to go out for mojitos with you and encourage you to spill your most intimate thoughts. You're the boss now, so start acting like one. That may mean no more happy hours, and it definitely means telling them you expect them to work during working hours. Explain to your (probably soon-to-be-former) pals that their full-time extracurricular activities have been noted, and there are going to be severe consequences if they don't start doing their jobs. Tell your boss the truth: that you have spoken to these two about their self-indulgence and that you will monitor whether there's an improvement. If there's not, think of how refreshing it will be to have two new colleagues who appreciate and enjoy their work. And if you can't bring yourself to discharge your duties, then you should be looking for work elsewhere, along with this pair.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
I am a 16-year-old girl who works at a supermarket collecting shopping carts in the parking lot and lining them up near the entrance. Customers frequently express to me their disapproval of a girl pushing shopping carts. They've said: "Girls shouldn't be doing this," "Tell your boss he should be sending boys outside to do this," and "You're too cute to be doing this job." Some customers have tried to pry the shopping carts from my hands, and one man even threatened to talk to my boss. Surprisingly, the biggest perpetrators of sexist comments are women. By the end of the day, I feel awful. I want to tell the customers to stop when they say sexist things to me, but it's been my experience that adults get indignant when someone younger tries to set boundaries. Is there any way I can let people know to leave me alone and let me do my job?

—Leave the Girl Alone

Dear Leave,
You're right—you don't want to give lectures; you want to use your youthful charm to defuse the sexist commentary. You need to have several ready replies that you deliver with a disarming smile, such as, "With this job I get exercise and fresh air. Please don't complain to the manager, because then I might have to work the cash register!" "When I'm an adult, I'll have to do my own grocery shopping, so this is giving me plenty of training in pushing carts." "Someday we'll have a woman president. But for now, I'm blazing the trail for female shopping-cart wranglers."

—Prudie