Help! My Son Played a Prank on a Neighbor and Got a Smack on the Back for It. Should…

Advice on manners and morals.
Sept. 5 2012 6:00 AM

Not So Sweet Child o’ Mine

In a live chat, Prudie offers advice on a prankster son, a pedophile son, and a love child tired of apologizing for existing.

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 the 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.)

Q. Am I Underreacting?: My 10-year-old son recently came home in tears because a man on our street slapped him across the back. When I got the full story out of him, it transpired that he and a couple of other friends had been ringing people's door bells and running away. I checked his back and there wasn't even a red mark—he was crying out of embarrassment and shock and was clearly not physically harmed. I took him to the neighbor's home and made my son apologize for being a nuisance. The neighbor was also deeply apologetic and said he went too far. He said he was at home receiving medical treatment and this wasn't the first time he was disturbed by young pranksters. I gave him my number and said if he ever found my son doing this again, he could call me and I would ensure there was a proper punishment. The neighbor also said sorry to my boy. The rest of the family, however, is  furious. They say I handled it the wrong way and I should press charges against the neighbor. We have been arguing over this nonstop. Was I wrong?

A. So a pack of Dennis the Menaces mildly harass a man who is in the middle of medical procedure and he overreacts by smacking one on the back. Everyone involved realizes they were wrong and apologizes. This certainly sounds like a scenario in which the death penalty, or life imprisonment, is called for. Because of what transpired your son has learned a valuable lesson about how things may go awry when you set out to annoy others. Do not undermine that by trying to push charges that surely any police officer would consider nonsense. Tell the rest of your family the incident is over and so is the discussion.

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Q. How To Explain an Unusual Situation: I have a situation similar to that described in a Washington Post article a while back, about the woman whose ex-husband was in assisted living after suffering a stroke, and she and her new husband included him in their new family. In my case, my husband has early-onset dementia. He's like a child now and goes to adult day care. I've been seeing a wonderful and terrifically understanding man for a year now, and my teenagers have met him and have been understanding as well. They're happy to see me happy, and they like "Bill." No one but us knows this at this point, but we plan to marry when I am free to do so, which will probably not be for several years. My problem is, how do we explain this to our families (older siblings and parents)? I intend to stay married to my husband until his death, because I'm his guardian and committed to his care, but I also want to be able to include Bill in more of my life than we've been able to do so far. Any ideas?

A: I'm sorry you and your children are in such a painful situation. In the article you mention the wife in question, like you, fell in love with someone else after her husband suffered a grievous brain injury. She eventually divorced her husband, making sure he was represented by excellent legal counsel, and married her new love. The incredible and moving twist is that this new couple brought the wife's ex-husband with them across the country and are both committed to caring for him and keeping him part of the family. I frankly don't see why you can't consider something similar when you feel that time has come. You have lost the man you married, but one of the cruelties of dementia is that while it takes away someone's mind, the body can last for a long time. It is admirable that you are committed to caring for your husband and intend to remain his guardian no matter what. But I don't think that means you have to put your life on hold for what could be years. You know that your husband's condition will only continue to deteriorate and he will need round-the-clock care. At that point, it may be better for your teenagers to visit their father in a nursing home than to have to construct their young lives around caring for someone at home who no longer knows who they are. I'm glad your kids are accepting of your boyfriend. I hope all your relatives understand the agony you are going through, and that they will support your plan to care for your husband while also making a new life. If they don't, they should devote the bulk of their free time to visiting your husband.

Q. Should I Disown My Pedophile Son?: My youngest son is a pedophile. Despite knowing this, I still love him. I am horrified by his sexual preference and by the harm he inflicted upon his victims before his arrest and subsequent incarceration. I feel intense guilt and shame over bearing and raising a human monster. My son's last victim was my own granddaughter, my daughter's child. My daughter, my other son, my husband, and the rest of my family have disowned my youngest son. Even knowing the evil things he did, I cannot bring myself to hate him entirely. I cannot stop loving him. I visit my son in prison once every three months. I would visit him more often, but my husband said he would divorce me. I also keep a handful of pictures and mementos of my youngest son. My refusal to disown him angers and confuses the rest of my family, especially my daughter. I fear I will lose my family if I do not cut my son out of my life. I know my son is a bad person, but I cannot stand the thought of him being entirely alone in the world. Am I a terrible person? Should I disown my son?

A: What agony it must be to be the parent of someone who commits a heinous crime. You recognize the horror of what your son did and you are making no excuses. You understand the family members who consider him dead. But you are entitled to your complicated feelings and they should understand that your visiting him in no way implies you condone his behavior. I think your husband's threat is cruel—he is entitled to his reaction to his son, and you are entitled to yours. Please find a counselor who specializes in sexual abuse issues so that these issues can be aired and all of you can find a way to support each other as you deal with the aftermath of these crimes.

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