Help! My Mother-in-Law Won't Stop Telling My Young Daughter How Gifted She Is.

Advice on manners and morals.
July 23 2012 3:44 PM

Bad Granny

In a live chat, Prudie counsels a woman whose mother-in-law plays intellectual favorites with her grandchildren.

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A: He may have no filter, so you need to develop a thicker skin. I agree his behavior is way out of line, but it's not sexual, and two weeks into the job you will sound like quite the whiner if you go complaining to HR. Labs are intimate places and you want to make sure this postdoc position advances your career. What you eat is none of his business, but clearly he has boundary issues, so I suggest you deal with this head-on, and also use a little jujitsu. The next time he makes a remark, ask to speak to him privately. Say that he's touched upon a sensitive topic for you because you have a health issue you'd rather not discuss that has caused weight gain. As he can imagine, because has an interest in health, this has been distressing to you. Say you aware aware of what you eat and drink—you agree about liquid calories and consume black coffee and diet soda—so he doesn't have to underline this. Add that his remarks have been a good reminder to you that when you're in a lab for hours on end how easy it is to default to bad eating habits, and you appreciate he's made you more aware of this. You can end by saying with a smile he can expect to see a lot more apple eating at your bench. I reiterate he is owed none of this, but you know how vulnerable your position is, so getting him on your side is the wisest course.

Q. Gender-Bending Interview: My close friend went on an interview last week. During the interview, she made a couple of comments about being a member of a well-known all-male organization. My friend is also very tall (about 6 feet), has a large build, and visible facial hair. After the interview was finished, the interviewer called one of my friend's references and asked if she was transexual. The reference immediately called my friend and told her this. My friend is understandably upset, but also furious with the interviewer and wants to sue her for all she's worth. I understand my friend's hurt feelings, but I think she's overreacting by threatening a lawsuit. I think my friend should not have mentioned the organization she was a part of (it was not relevant) and I see how the interviewer could make an honest mistake. Her field involves a lot of close body contact with customers (not as weird as it sounds, I promise) and the interviewer may have had genuine professional concerns. It's also a small field in our area, so I don't want my friend to burn too many professional bridges so early in her career. Am I not being sensitive enough to my friend's feelings? What should I say to her when she wants to talk about it?

A: I wish you'd explained what the field is that requires a lot of close body contact with customers: Politics? The priesthood? Athletic coaching? For the sake of argument I'm going to guess we're talking about therapeutic massage, and your friend's sex could be relevant because some customers want to have a practictioner who is the same sex. I'm sure readers can explain what the legal ramifications here are of the interviewer's question to the reference. But generally life goes more pleasantly if one can avoid unnecessary entanglements with the legal system. Instead of contacting a lawyer, I think your friend should go back to the interviewer, say that s/he heard from a reference about the inquiry about her gender, and s/he wanted to take this opportunity to clarify the issue. Your friend's comfortable forthrightness might just help snag the job.

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Q. Re: Elementary Education: Perhaps these parents should read Carol Dweck's book Mindset, which talks about (among other things) how praising a child for being smart may actually make that child underperform in the long run. That book could give them some studies they could point out to grandma about how she's hurting all three kids as well as give the parents techniques for helping the twins stop measuring their self-worth based on how much smarter big sister seems to be.

A: Thanks for this. You're absolutely right that constantly talking about innate smarts can be very disabling to kids who then become terrified of being in situations where they aren't whizzes. Praising specific effort is much healthier. What a rotten teacher grandma must have been!

Q. Chubby Bridesmaid, Different Dress?: I'm a very fit person and most of the bridesmaids in my upcoming wedding party are very fit, too. The exception is my fiancé's little sister, who is 15 or so pounds overweight. The dress I want my bridesmaids to wear looks best on skinnier people. I don't think my fiancé's sister will look good in it. Is there a discrete way to tell her she can pick her own dress from the same company in a more flattering cut? I don't want to hurt her feelings or embarrass her, but I also don't want to stuff her into a dress that she'll feel terrible wearing.

A: Instead of looking through bridal catalogues with your future sister-in-law, turn to the consumer goods aisle of the supermarket. You can tell her Hefty bags come in many styles—pull string, twist tab—that you are sure will flatter her more than the revealing dress you've picked out. If in fact you say anything to your sister-in-law I hope she retaliates by growing out her armpit hair. Guess what, she won't be "stuffed into" a dress because you will make sure it comes in a size that fits her. If the dress is very revealing (why Vegas is the prevailing wedding look is a different question) make sure you have shrugs or some other elegant cover that's available for all the bridesmaids to wear at their own discretion. Try to remember marrying into this family is not about one day, but the rest of your life.

Q. Re: To the new postdoc: As someone who has seen their fair share of biology postdocs come and go, I'd have an additional suggestion for the letter writer. I'm getting the sense that the LW has a defensive attitude. The LW seems worried about defending self from comments or retaliation, but doesn't seem to realize that she/he has the potential to develop a positive relationship with her PI's husband. The husband might be a great informal mentor and good colleague. Speaking from experience, the postdocs that tend go on to career advancement are     the ones that look to develop the positive. Maybe there is something the postdoc can do to reach out to this man as a colleague, rather than brooding about his silly and unwanted health advice.

A: Excellent advice. Once a brief food discussion is out of the way, she should engage him as a professional and not brood about his inappropriate comments on eating.

Q. Son Is Nasty to His Adopted Brother: My wife and I adopted 4-year-old Cameron at the beginning of the year. We also have two biological daughters and a biological son. Cam's immersion into our family has gone very well, I'm happy to say. We adore him, and he loves us. The person who has had the hardest time dealing with Cameron's adoption is our other son Joshua, formerly the baby of the family. I think sometimes Josh feels threatened by Cam or that he worries we adopted Cam because he wasn't a good enough son. Most of the time it's obvious how much Joshua loves Cameron, but every once and a while Josh will lash out at his brother. He will remind Josh that he is adopted whereas he is a biological child. Josh's barbs really upset my wife because she is adopted. While I was at work last week Joshua became upset with Cameron and told him his real parents abandoned him and that they weren't actually brothers. My wife overheard the comment and became very angry at Josh. She told him he was being a nasty brat and that she didn't want to talk to him right then because he had really disappointed her. She sent Josh to his room until I came home. I know Josh behaved badly, but he's a kid, and he doesn't mean what he says. When my wife becomes so upset with Josh, he has told me he thinks she doesn't love him anymore. I think my wife should tone down her anger when Josh makes such mean comments, but she thinks she needs to drive home to our kids that Cam is their brother and that saying otherwise is unacceptably cruel. What can we do to deal with Josh's occasional insults more constructively?

A: Josh's behavior is not pleasant, but it's perfectly normal, as I'm sure you'd discover if you joined some support groups for families adopting kids, especially older ones. Of course what Josh said to his new brother was awful, but if your wife's response makes Josh doubt his mother's love, then all of you need help—especially since the issue of adoption is probably particularly sensitive for your wife. Because you've adopted, you already have a social worker. Get back in touch with her and say that all of you adore Cameron, but the adoption has been hardest for Josh, who's just been displaced as baby. Ask for resources for counseling for how you as parents deal with this distress. "Driving home" to her biological children that they had better love their new brother immediately and completely or else is only going to made the adjustment more painful.

Q. Uncomfortable Confrontation: Recently, my wife accidentally found some inapppropriate male-male emails between her father and random contacts on an adult site. She was incredibly shocked, as she believed her parents have had a great, happy marriage for the past 30+ years. She feels like she should confront him to understand what is actually going on before jumping to conclusions about his extramarital activities, but doesn't know where to start. We live about an hour away. How/when/where do you bring this kind of thing up?

A: My general rule is that everyone is happiest if grown children stay out of their parents' sex lives, and that may be the case here. However, if your wife's father is on the down-low and not being careful, he could possibly exposing his wife to STDs (which is true of anyone who cheats). The next time you are going for a visit, your wife should get your father aside—they should take a walk, go for coffee—and as calmly as possible she should say she accidentally saw some emails of your father's from the site. She can say she knows this is none of her business and she doesn't want to pry. She is only bringing this up because she's seeking reassurance that whatever is going on she hopes her father is protecting his health and her mother's.

Q. Re: Chubby Bridesmaid: If the bride is so concerned about what her future SIL will look like in the dress and has no problem with allowing her to wear something different, why doesn't she just let all the girls choose the dress that flatters them the most? Pick a designer and a color and let them decide. At least that way her SIL won't feel singled out and hopefully everyone looks and feels their best.