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There are two little girls in my neighborhood seeking my attention. Several weeks ago they started coming up to my house uninvited to play on my porch swing. One day I noticed they were playing a little too roughly, and I told them that they're only allowed to sit there as long as they swing gently. I stayed outside for about 20 minutes and talked to them about school, favorite movies, pets, and such. Ever since that conversation, they flock to my porch and have begun ringing my doorbell daily to ask if I can talk to them. I don't always oblige, but when I do it's usually the better part of an hour before I can manage to duck out of the incessant chattering. They're sweet and I don't mind spending time with them once in a while. They live with their single father, who has a limited income and has a gruff personality and doesn't behave very tenderly toward his daughters. I'm pretty sure they lack a stable female influence, which is why I feel so guilty for being annoyed by them. They could clearly use a sensitive listener in their lives. How can I tell them that the badgering must stop without making them feel as if I'm rejecting them?
—Want To Be a Good Neighbor
I wish you hadn’t painted such a poignant picture of these two little girls longing for someone in their lives who has a motherly gentleness and regard. You have no obligation to them beyond being pleasant in a distant, neighborly way. But I hope you will be moved to do more. It’s commonplace to hear stories of successful people who came from difficult childhoods and credit a teacher, a neighbor, a volunteer, with making them feel special, encouraged, heard. Perhaps you can set up a time for the girls to help you with certain chores—they could join you in weeding and watering the garden, walking the dog, cooking. That way you wouldn’t feel they’re a drain on your time, and conversation would flow while you were doing your tasks and they were learning from you. If you make your get-togethers regular and contained, say, every Thursday afternoon for an hour or so, then it would be much easier to set limits at other times. (“Girls, I have work, so I can’t talk to you now. But I look forward to spending time with you in two days.”) You would have to run this idea by their father, but please don’t imply they are imposing on your or becoming pests—that would likely result in a serious reprimand. You can also tell the girls they are welcome on your porch if they swing gently, but you can’t come out all the time because you are busy. If you do see them consistently, then down the road you would be in a position to suggest to the father that Big Brothers Big Sisters, for example, might be a good organization for the girls. It’s possible, if you step up, that you will find you’re getting as much out of this friendship as they are.
Dear Prudence: Novelist Drawing Too Much on Real Life?
I have a 9-year-old son, "Jake," who is starting to ask questions about his deceased grandfather. When I was 13, my parents divorced, and about a year later my mother began dating. My father found out about the boyfriend and came over, killed him, then killed himself in front of my mother and me. The trouble I’m having is telling my son how his grandfather died. I don't want to give him the perception that my father was a monster, because he certainly wasn't. He went through a crippling depression and made a horrible decision to end his pain. How do I convey to him what happened without making my father seem like a bad person?
When you eventually tell your son the whole story, it’s going to require that you acknowledge you went through a terrifying trauma and that your father committed a horrifying act. I understand your need to put the best light on this, but an innocent person was murdered, and you and your mother were forced to witness two point-blank deaths. However, I doubt Jake is expecting to uncover this family nightmare; he probably just wants to know why you never talk about your dad. The most important thing for Jake to know is that he can ask questions about his grandfather and that you are comfortable answering them. Since he’s brought up your father, start by showing him some pictures and telling him some pleasant memories. You can say that your father died when you were 13. If Jake doesn’t ask how, you can save that information for later. If he does, here’s a resource for helping to explain suicide to children. You can say your father had a brain illness called depression, and though there is help for that now, he didn’t get it back then and he killed himself. You can then say it’s a sad story that’s kind of complicated, so you would like to talk more about it with him when he gets older. For now you’d like him to know some interesting things about your dad’s life. And if the thought of telling, and reliving, what you went through is causing you understandable anxiety, then you might want some counseling to help you deal with your own pain.
I just finished my freshman year in college and have found out who my new roommate will be in September. It’s someone I’ve gotten to know a little bit, and when I told him that I was gay he said he "doesn't agree with homosexuality." Yet he's had homosexual experiences. He flirted with me, kissed me, and we've even taken things a little bit further. I know he's a Christian and I know he views homosexuality as a sin or whatever. I don't want him to end up hating himself because of me, but I also want to date this guy! However, I'm not sure if I can help him accept himself. A part of me thinks that I should request a roommate swap, but another part of me doesn't want to hurt him. What should I do?
—Chasing Mr. Closet-Case