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.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photograph by Teresa Castracane.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of this week’s chat is below. (Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at prudence@slate.com.)

Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon, everyone. I look forward to your questions.

Q. Elementary Education: My mother-in-law taught third grade for about 40 years before she retired from teaching. We have 6-year-old boy-and-girl twins and a 4-year-old daughter. Our twins are at their age level for every subject, and more importantly love school and are well-adjusted. Our 4-year-old is quite advanced. She reads at a level beyond her siblings, can solve complex mathematics, and has logical reasoning skills better suited for an 8- or 9-year-old child. My husband and I challenge and enrich all of our children's lives with access to reading materials and family learning activities. My mother-in-law noticed my younger daughter's natural intellect and constantly brings it up in conversation. To make things even more awkward, she will give her tests far beyond her grade level in front of her siblings. As a result, our daughter feels pressure to perform around grandma, and our twins think that they aren't smart (which isn't true, and a damaging idea at their formative years). My husband and I tried a direct conversation with her about this, but she brushed us off and told us that one of our children is smarter than the other two—and coddling our twins isn't going to change that. She also said that parents of our generation are too focused on self-esteem over achievement. My husband and I disagree with her, but we do not think this is a big enough issue to warrant cutting contact with her. But it is big enough that we do not want to just let it go. What should we do to strike some middle ground?

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A: I wonder if for 40 years your mother-in-law shredded the little hearts and minds of the charges she considered to be underperforming dunderheads. Given her attitude, third-graders in her school district are probably much happier people now that she's out of the classroom. The middle ground you strike is that you tell her that her job as grandmother is to be a loving, fun, inspirational figure to all her grandchildren. Unfortunately, her excitement about your younger daughter is distorting their relationship and putting pressure on your little girl to be some kind of performing bear. It's also insulting the intelligence of the twins—and all the rest of you. Say she is visiting as a grandmother, not a proctor at     the SATs. Tell her that maybe you haven't made your objections explicit enough before, but she needs to lay off the chattering about smarts and the invidious comparisons. If she can't, fewer visits will be sad for everyone.

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Q. Friend Politicized My Baby's Death: My toddler died this spring. He battled a very painful illness, so his father and I find some comfort in the knowledge that his suffering is over. Otherwise, we're in agony. I have been friends with "Heather" since high school. We enjoyed each other's sense of humor, even though she was ardently pro-life and I am very pro-choice. Last week Heather sent me a message telling me she donated a sizable sum of money in my son's name NOT to a foundation that funds research to cure my son's illness but rather to a pro-life organization. Among other things, this organization deploys volunteers to protest outside of clinics where abortions are performed. I am outraged that Heather would choose to donate money to that organization in my late son's name, that she would send me an email telling me she did so, and that my son's name is associated with a group whose behavior I find disgusting. I never asked for this donation and, had I known Heather wanted to honor my son, I would never have asked her to donate money to a pro-choice organization. I feel as though I have lost my mind in anger over this, and I'm not sure if I'm having a proportionate reaction, because all I feel is fury toward Heather. Is this a political jab disguised as a heartfelt gesture? What can I say to Heather, without going crazy, to convey my unhappiness at her actions?

A: I'm so sorry for your loss, and of course you are in agony. I hope you're surrounded by loving people who are helping you get through this. On your behalf, I am now seething at Heather's insensitivity and presumptuousness. Often people who have lost a loved one suggest that in lieu of flowers, contributions be made to a charity connected to the person who has died. It sounds as if you did that regarding the organization that deals with your son's illness. Of course people are free to donate to other charities in honor of the deceased, but they should always be appropriate ones that would be meaningful and at the least inoffensive to the family. Heather is a dolt, and I hope she has some other redeeming qualities, or that she was a sturdy support for you during your son's illness. Perhaps in time you can overlook her behavior. Since she notified you by email, respond the same way. Write a note saying that she is free to donate to whatever causes she believes in, but it was deeply distressing to you to hear she gave money in your late son's name to an organization that not only had nothing to do with him, but which she knows you detest. Say that since you have known each other so long, you hope she understands that your friendship requires that you speak your mind and let her know how angry you are.

Q. Cousin Love: My first cousin and I haven't seen each other much over the course of our lives and recently reconnected. We developed a deep friendship that eventually turned into a mutual love. We are both mature adults in our mid-30s and want to be together. However, we both struggle with the reaction our families will have. As an educated woman, I am aware that cousin love is more of just a social taboo than anything else, and is not as unusual as people think. Cousin marriage is even legal in our state. But I know there are a lot of misconceptions and we will face a lot of ignorance and harsh words. I just want to be with the person I love without having to sneak around. What can we do to make people understand we have a mutual respectful love, and that the image of of inbred backcountry cousins is false?

A: If Charles Darwin could do it—he was happily married to his cousin Emma—you can, too. You could also cite Biblical sources. After all Jacob married two of his cousins, Rachel and Leah. In more recent times, actress Greta Scacci has had a child with her first cousin, although they had to endure the appalled reaction of their mutual family. I hope people will surprise you with their good will—after all think of the older people who are now attending gay and lesbian weddings who would have once considered such events unthinkable. What will be most important is the attitude of both of you. If family members are distressed, you can say you understand at first it does seem odd, but you hope when they see how happy you two are, that they will come around and celebrate your love. If you both refuse to act defensive, it will mean there's little target to attack.

Q. Inappropriate or Hilarious?: My sister and her boyfriend enjoy posting "silly" pictures of their kids doing inappropriate things on Facebook. They've told my 4-year-old niece to give the camera the middle finger. They've photographed my niece and her 6-year-old brother holding (unloaded) guns and (empty) cans of beer. Their friends think it's hilarious. Am I a wet blanket for disliking these pictures? My sister thinks they're harmless and is always sure to post that the guns and beer cans are empty.

A: Let's agree it's a poor idea to put on the Internet actual photographic evidence that you are unfit parents. Yeah, it's just a joke that these two nitwits are teaching their children obscene gestures, suggesting they engage in violence, and are drinking. Beyond your sister and her boyfriend's colossally bad judgment, there is an underlying assumption that their children are their props, not vulnerable individuals in need of guidance and nurturing. Have a sit-down with your sister and explain that if people who don't get the joke see these pictures, the could be painful consequences for them. These two sound in desperate need of parenting classes. Please do some research and suggest places where they could go to learn the basics about raising kids.

Q. Boss's Husband Has No Filter: Two weeks ago, I started a postdoctoral position in a biology lab, where the husband and wife are both lead investigators. I was hired by the wife, and her grants pay my salary—I get no funding from the husband and I do not work for his "lab," even though most resources are shared. He strolls around the shared office space a few times a day and has made a habit of commenting on all the junk food I eat. One day I had leftover pizza for lunch, and I regularly have a commercial soda cup or coffee cup on my desk. When I was interviewing for the position and the couple took me to dinner, he commented that I had a very "healthy appetite." I find his behavior to be very inappropriate and it makes me uncomfortable. I'm extremely insecure about my physique right now because I've put on a fair bit of weight due to health issues before I began this job, and I'm not even eating junk food—the soda is diet and the coffee is black, not that you can tell from the container. The problem is this is a new job so I am not comfortable anyway, I do not want to irritate my boss, and postdoctoral positions are not nearly as protected as other jobs, so I'm scared of retaliation if I go to HR. How do I deal with this situation?

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