Dear Prudence chats live with readers at Washingtonpost.com.

Dear Prudence chats live with readers at Washingtonpost.com.

Dear Prudence chats live with readers at Washingtonpost.com.

Advice on manners and morals.
Jan. 3 2011 3:13 PM

The Tyrannical Toddler

Prudie counsels a mother whose 3-year-old frustrates his grandmother to no end—and other advice seekers.

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Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat with readers about their romantic, family, financial, and workplace problems. An edited transcript of this week's chat is below. (Read Prudie's Slate columns here.)

Emily Yoffe writes: Happy New Year everyone! And what are we calling this decade? The Tens? The Teens?

Q. Mom Thinks My Kid Is a Spoiled Brat: I love my mom, and she is a true mentor to me. She is smart, intelligent, caring (almost to a fault), and doesn't overstep boundaries. She has been helping with child care lately, and I find myself butting heads with her on my older toddler, who just turned 3. He is, of course, going through the "evil threes"—tantrums, defiance, etc. Being very strong-willed (like my husband), I take a "pick your battles" approach with him (with a strong dose of patience) when it comes to sitting at the table for dinner, getting dressed, etc. The problem is, his verbal communication is very advanced for his age. My mom speaks to him like an older child (which is fine), but she tries to use rational arguments and expects him to comply with her immediately when she requests that he do something (he often needs some time and a few gentle reminders to transition between activities, which he will then do willingly). The result is a lot of tantrums and comments from my mom about how he's used to getting his way, he's spoiled, etc. I tried to remind her that he's only 3, but she's helping out again this week and I know we have more battles up ahead. I am grateful for her help so I try to keep my mouth shut, but my husband is also very bothered (as well as my son), and it's putting me in an uncomfortable position. How do I talk to her without telling her how to parent my kids or making us seem ungrateful for her help? How do I get her to realize that it's not my child who is "spoiled" or "bratty," but her techniques in dealing with a defiant 3-year-old that might need some fine-tuning?

A: If you haven't had a direct talk with your mother about how her child-rearing style is crashing up against your son's child-being style, then you need to. Tell her having her in your and your son's life is a great joy, but that you know from experience your 3-year-old does best with patient, understanding, understated handling. (Readers—any books to recommend on dealing with a "strong-willed" little one?) If she can't adjust, then you should adjust your child care situation. Sure, it's economical to have grandma pick up the slack, but it's really not worth it if it's making everyone miserable. That doesn't mean cutting her out of your son's life, but it does mean not making her the primary care-giver for now. It's likely that in a couple of years when your son's emotional maturity catches up to his verbal ability, he and Grandma will be much more in sync.

Dear Prudence: Singalong Nuisance

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Q. An Unhealthy Obsession: I never suspected I would turn into a superficial, sex-obsessed teenager—but that is where I find myself. My loving partner is in good shape but doesn't have the physical attributes I always fantasized about. My mind drifts to other women all the time, despite her meeting all of my emotional needs, and our active sex life. I've been trying to ignore the disquiet, but as the New Year has arrived, I find focusing on the positives in our relationship is increasingly tough. Clearly, I need a wakeup call before I ruin what, up to now, has been a storybook romance. Any advice?

A: So let's say you break up with your beloved and then go to an online dating service and say you are looking for someone who is exactly like your former girlfriend (list her particulars) but with much larger breasts and longer legs. Those top-heavy, but fleet women should be filling your inbox in short order!

Or, you could consider that perhaps your girlfriend, as much as she loves you, overlooks some of your shortcomings because, well, she loves you and she realizes you simply can't order up romantic partners as if off an assembly line. It sounds as if your girlfriend is a great person and match for you. But if you can't feel committed to her because she doesn't meet some Barbie-doll ideal, then either you need to seriously grow up or stop wasting her time.

Q. Difficult Mother: My mother is a walking, talking poke in the eye. She's alienated most people in her life, including my sister, so the only place she has to spend holidays is with my family. She's critical and negative, and my husband and daughter are tired of having her be a black cloud on every holiday. But if I don't invite her, she'll literally be alone in her apartment eating a can of beans—she hates to cook. I feel guilty no matter what I choose. Help, please!

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A: You survived your miserable mother, but having her ruin every holiday doesn't seem fair to the much happier family you have succeeded in making. You have to start setting boundaries now so that what to do for the holidays will be clearer for you come the end of 2011. Next time you all get together and she starts in on her critique, tell her none of you want to hear it—you'd prefer pleasant conversation to a list of criticisms. If she won't stop, cut the visit short. You might have to explain to her you're going to be limiting your contact because her negativity is so draining. Then she can make the choice whether to be someone people want to spend time with (it's unlikely, but possible) or not. So when the holidays come around, if she finds she's alone with her can opener, it won't be a shocking eye-opener to her.

Q. Facebook Friending an Ex: I have a Facebook account on which I have friended mostly people I went to college with or worked with, and I still see most of these people socially from time to time. I probably have fewer than 40 friends on Facebook. However, I was recently notified that an old boyfriend wants to "friend" me. We dated in high school and it did not work out. About 12 years ago, we got back together and lived together for about three years before we broke up abruptly and rather badly, after an incident of bad behavior on his part. I have since married and continued my life, and have not heard from this person or thought of him since the breakup. Part of me wants to just hit the "ignore" button, but I also wonder if I'm being petty and should let bygones be bygones. (I have a history of holding grudges.) My husband says he doesn't care whether I accept this person's overtures or not. What do you think?

A: It's not holding a grudge to not want a person from your past who once made you very unhappy not to invade your current life. You are not interested in news of his random thoughts and vacation plans, and you certainly don't want him to be privy to yours. "Ignore" him with abandon!

Q. Kids on Property: On Christmas Day, we noticed sled-riding tracks all over our backyard, with footprints clearly leading to our neighbor's home. Their kids had been sledding in our backyard without our permission. (We have a bit more of a hill in our backyard than they do.) If these were neighbors we were friends with, I wouldn't be happy that they did it without asking. But these are neighbors who have been very unfriendly since we moved in over a year and a half ago. If their child got hurt on our property, I would have little doubt that they would sue us. (I am a lawyer, so no need to get into the legalities of such a situation.) How can we politely tell them that we do not want their children playing on our property, when we don't even have their phone number? If I saw them doing it, I would just talk to the kids out the back door, but we didn't see them.

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A: I know it seems counterintuitive, but first try repairing relations between the two of you. It's deeply unpleasant to have a next-door neighbor with whom you have simmering hostilities, especially as there seems no reason for it. So get a box of cookies or chocolates and ring their doorbell and wish them Happy New Year. Say you know you and they haven't gotten to know each other well since they moved in, but you're hoping to correct his in the new year (I know, I know, you don't, but say it anyway). Then add that you were concerned to see their kids were sledding in your backyard. Explain you know your hill is tempting, but you're worried that with no adult supervision one of them could get hurt. Then see what happens. Maybe relations will improve. If not, the next time it snows, shoo the kids off when the sleds arrive.

Q. Rockville, Md.: How important is it for spouses to do special things for each other? I'm not talking huge gestures, expensive jewelry, regular flowers, etc. I'm talking about occasionally picking up a special food you know your spouse likes or maybe a nice little shoulder rub at the end of a rough day, things like that. I do this stuff for my husband quite often, and it occurs to me that he doesn't really ever do stuff like that. The kicker was over the holidays, when we were talking about another couple and he indicated to me that women who are past a certain point in the marriage shouldn't expect any romance. I know he loves me, but he never really does any real relationship stuff. I usually have to plan my own birthday dinners, for example. We've been together over a decade, so maybe it's too late in the game to change the rules. I guess I should just learn to live with it.

A: Tell him you've been thinking about what he said about romance dying after a certain point in the marriage, and it seemed as if he feels you've reached that point, but you strongly disagree. Explain what he said hit you hard and made you realize that while you don't want flowers and jewelry, you are missing the little gestures that make partners feel they are cherished.

Tell him you enjoy picking up something special for him to eat, or rubbing his shoulders at the end of the day, but there is no sense of reciprocity. You can make a kind of joke of it and say, "So, honey, I'd like a foot rub!" and stick your foot in his lap—and make him rub it! Since taking you for granted comes more naturally to him than making you feel special, you may have to tell him the kinds of things you would like him to do. But even such an avowed unromantic as your husband can work on changing his habits. If he prides himself on his "rationality," you can tell him it's in his best interest to pay more attention to his marriage.

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Q. To the Parent of the "Spoiled Brat": Have you read the Love and Logic books (Jim Fay and Foster Cline)?—I see they even have a book out for grandparents now. They emphasize 1) letting kids make decisions whenever possible, and 2) letting children experience the natural consequences of their choices (which is great for nonconfrontational people like me!). Sounds like your mother would approve of their calm, rational style, and they include practical methods for dealing with preschoolers.

A: I don't know this series, but I like your summary of their philosophy.

Q. Why Should I Care?: What would you say to a person (moi) who is in a constant state of worry over what people think? "Do they think I look old?" "Do they think my son isn't friendly enough?" "Do they think my husband is overweight?" "Do they think I should be smarter?" "Do they think my jewelry doesn't match my outfit?" … and on and on and on.

A: Try cognitive behavioral therapy—you will get homework and exercises to help redirect these useless thoughts. You might also benefit from pharmaceutical intervention.

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Q. Wedding Question: My husband's brother is getting married in the spring. His bride-to-be seems like a lovely person. However, my brother-in-law (the groom) is telling us that they plan on having an open marriage. Since I do not know the bride-to-be well, I don't know if I should ask her if she knows about this, or keep it to myself. Also, am I a prig if I decide not to attend the wedding? My husband is the best man. Thanks!

A: Since your brother-in-law appears to be telling everyone the good news, you can assume the bride knows—if not, she'll find out soon enough. But why skip this wedding? Maybe the groom will demonstrate how open his marriage is by kissing the maid of honor instead of the bride! This could be a memorable event you don't want to miss.

Q. Inside Jokes and Who "Owns" Them: This summer, I went away for an amazing weekend with newly rediscovered friends and had a blast. Like any good weekend, several inside jokes came out of the experiences we shared. When I got back, I told a mutual friend, "Suzie," about the weekend. The problem is that "Suzie" now drops references to these jokes to me and the rest of that weekend's attendees more than we do! I know it's silly, but it makes me want to scream, "You weren't there!" every time she references someone we met or a conversation we had that she was never in attendance for. She's been going through a rough time lately with family issues and is rather lonely, but her constant reference to events she was never part of is cheapening what was a very rare and special time for me. Do I just let it slide, knowing it makes her feel more connected? I'm afraid I'll snap at her someday if it catches me in the wrong mood, and that's not fair to her. Is there anyway to keep these memories special to me without screaming, "Mine!" next time she brings it up?

A: Sure, it's strange to hear Suzie say, "I thought puce was a synonym for puke—ha, ha, ha, ha!" Or, "Salsa is easier to eat if you wait for the chips, Justin!" when she wasn't there for the uttering of these deathless private references. But equally strange would be for you to scream, "You weren't there for the 'puce' comment, and you wouldn't know Justin if you fell over him. Stop trying to steal my memories!" Maybe you don't like Suzie that much to begin with, so you need to re-evaluate your friendship. Or maybe you like her OK, understand she's going through a difficult time, and you're willing to cut her some slack. Your memories are your memories, and Suzie making occasional references to inside jokes is not sullying them—this isn't Inception, after all. When she does it, just shrug and change the subject.

Q. Unwanted Family History: My mother-in-law is a semi-professional genealogist, and she's taken it upon herself to research my family. At every visit, she pulls out her laptop and shows me new documents she's found concerning my relatives, many of whom I remember being alive. The trouble is that my family life has been far from happy. In particular, my grandfather molested several generations of children (my mother-in-law wouldn't have learned of this, since it was never reported to police). There were other problems and conflicts, too, less spectacular than that, but still painful. I live thousands of miles away from my relatives for a reason, and I don't enjoy hearing about them. Is there a polite way that I can ask my mother-in-law to stop, without telling her sordid details that may traumatize her (or change her opinion of me)?

A: "Beverly, I know genealogical research is your specialty, but for many reasons, finding out more about my family is just not my thing. So I'd rather not talk about what you've found out about my family, but I appreciate your taking the time to look them up."

But why shouldn't your mother-in-law know that you come from a painful family background? Surely she understands there are such things as unhappy families, and perhaps she will have admiration for how you've coped and turned out.

Q. Mothers and Mothers-in-Law: For all the griping about moms and MILs (and grandmas) on this chat ... I want to remind each and every reader that there is always a way to work around differences. I was fortunate to have a wonderful relationship with my mother and grandmother (maternal) while they were alive. I miss them every day. No mother–in-law yet (gay and single) ... but I have seen the devastation in others when they lose a loved one and cannot reclaim the time to make up for (often) petty arguments and foolishness. Not a question, just an observation.

A: I would amend this by saying there is often a way to work around differences. You were fortunate to have a loving mother and grandmother, but not everyone has this. And sadly, sometimes the best course is to cut a destructive person—and this can be a parent—out of one's life.

Q. Fading Friendships: I am reaching my mid-20s, and I have a "real" job in my chosen profession as well as a part-time job on the weekends. A friend of mine from high school is going back to school to get his master's, but he's still living the college life. When he comes home for the breaks—he's ready to party every night. It was fun when I was still in school, but now I'm all partied out. However, not only do I not want to party hard, but he's starting to get on my nerves. He calls me CONSTANTLY, begging me to go out, which is really starting to bother my boyfriend. When we do hang out, he makes very inappropriate comments/jokes. I really feel like I've outgrown the friendship, and I just don't want to hang out with him anymore. How do I let him know that I want to move on with my life and not be friends anymore without sounding too harsh?

A: Your friend is an oblivious jerk, so stop worrying about being too harsh: "Brad I'm working seven days a week. I don't have the time or interest in hanging out anymore. So please stop calling. I wish you the best for the new year."

Q. RE: Unwanted Family History: My husband's family is very fair-haired and fair-skinned, and most of the older relatives are rather racist. Imagine the reaction when my husband discovered through U.S. Census records that one of their ancestors was a freed slave in the South following the Civil War. Now the relatives are taking sides between those who are fascinated and those who are in denial and angry at those who are interested in learning more. Should we who are fascinated just drop it in the interests of family peace till the racist elders have died?

A: Now here's some genealogy I can get behind! What a fantastic revelation. Those of you who are fascinated should feel free to pursue this. But as with the letter writer above with the genealogist mother-in-law, those who are not interested in their forebears should not be forced to hear lectures about their origins.

Q. Racism: How should I respond to racist comments made by childhood friends and relatives?

A: This is when it would be great to whip out a family tree and say, "Well, look here, seems as if you're talking about yourself!"

In the absence of that, you can say, "I find that kind of talk offensive. We need to change the subject." If it's bad enough you might have to excuse yourself from the gathering.

Q. Bowing Down at the Altar of DeBeers: I am seeing a wonderful woman and I love her very much. We have reached the point in our relationship where marriage comes up as a regular topic of conversation. During one of these discussions, I shared with her the exciting (to me) news that my parents have saved an engagement/wedding combination ring for me to give to my future bride. It is a lovely ring and has a fair amount of familial history. While my girlfriend has no qualms with the style of the ring, she objects to the metal of the setting. Traditional gold is evidently out for her; white gold or platinum only will do. I have further been informed that as I go out and purchase a new ring, a "three-months' worth of your salary" standard is now appropriate. Given that I already have a lovely ring in my possession, the purchase of such an extravagant piece of jewelry rubs me the wrong way, particularly when the "tradition" of diamond engagement rings was created by DeBeers within the past century to begin with. I don't want to disappoint the woman that I love, but the thought of spending the money I could use toward our future together on a piece of compressed carbon is objectionable. Can you offer any advice on how to handle this situation?

A: This is one of those opportunities to see if this is just a little glitch in your road to happiness or a klaxon telling you there's danger ahead. If your potential fiancee doesn't care for the family ring, she should politely be able to tell you that while it's beautiful, it's not her style. (Would it violate the family's feelings if it was put into a setting more to her liking?) But I understand you're being deeply put off by being told to you need to forgo your financial obligations for three months in order to give her a big enough rock for her to flash to her girlfriends. Openly and honestly figuring out how to resolve this impasse will give you some insight into how you two would go about dealing with the conflicts that would come up in your marriage.

Emily Yoffe writes: Thanks, everyone. There's no such thing as a conflict-free new year (and there would be nothing to chat about), but let's hope for a good one.

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