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.

Q. Babysitters and Broken Dreams: I inherited an antique vase from a great aunt of mine who passed away within the past year. Recently, my husband and I went out for a date night leaving the kids with a babysitter. We came back to find my vase on the floor shattered into pieces. The vase is situated as such that it is out of reach from the kids unless they use a ladder. Neither my kids nor the babysitter are admitting what happened. I obviously was furious and heartbroken since this can't be replaced. The babysitter's mother is mad at us because we didn't pay their daughter for watching our children and have told them that they need to pay us for the monetary value of the vase. We didn't think we needed to pay her since she clearly wasn't watching our kids as closely as she should have and wouldn't admit how my vase got broken. Now the mom has taken her anger with this whole situation to a very popular social network. We have common friends on this site and they are now taking sides. I am at my wits’ end as to what to do. Now I feel like I am not going to be able to find a decent babysitter with all of the mudslinging this mother is doing.

A. Do you have a cat? If not, there is a conspiracy of silence about what happened to the vase. If your children are old enough to actually give you a narrative, sit them down and tell them no matter what occurred or what promises of secrecy were made, you simply need to be told the truth. Say that breaking the vase was clearly an accident, you're not going to punish anyone over that, but lying is not acceptable. Let's hope that shakes loose the truth. It could be the kids don't know because once they were asleep, the babysitter decided to get a closer look at the vase and—oops! I think you should have separated the issue of the vase from her babysitting and paid her but said you would not be using her services again in the absence of an explanation about your antique. You could then have brought the issue up with her parents since a teenager is not going to be able to replace an antique. But reimbursing for broken antiques is what homeowners insurance is for. Do not engage in the online mudslinging. Now that the vase has been dropped, drop the issue yourself. If one mother wants to engage in one-sided Facebook vendetta, she will end up looking crazy.

Q. Apologizing for Being a Love Child: I am the product of my dad's affair with my mom. As part of their reconciliation agreement, my dad's wife has always dictated how much he sees me. For most of my life I've seen him once a week and spent every third weekend at their home, where my older half-siblings also live. But twice my dad has stopped seeing me because visitations were too rough on his wife. Each time our visits resumed, I had to be very thankful to his wife, because she had the grace to allow her husband's illegitimate child back into their lives. I love my dad very much, but I've always felt like a source of pain when I'm with him and his family. I'm 17 now and at the point where I feel brave enough to talk to my dad and his wife about their treatment of me. I appreciate her pain, but I'm also tired of feeling like a cross to bear. Should I talk to them?

A: I understand you love your father, but what a little weenie he is. First he cheats on his wife and neglects to use birth control, then he caves to mistreatment of you because of the pain your existence causes his wife. I understand the wife's distress—yes it's terrible to find out your husband was unfaithful and you will never be allowed to forget it. But upon discovering that her husband had an out-of-wedlock child her choice was either to leave the marriage or to make sure the new child was treated lovingly (as hard as that would have been). Of course you are entitled to express your feelings! It's terrible if the lesson of your childhood is that you should try to make yourself disappear. But I think you should first address this with your father. Since you two have so little experience being honest with each other, tell him you would like to improve your relationship and that means you'd like to see a counselor with him. That will allow you to air your experiences and require him to hear them. A good therapist should help guide you two about how to change the dynamic in your father's home. It's very mature that you appreciate the pain of your father's wife, but it's not your job to make it go away.

Q. Re: 10-year-old prankster: Regarding the kids who were playing pranks on the neighbors, I'd like to say that I think his mom handled it perfectly. It wasn't right for the neighbor to hit her child, but it was obviously not a serious strike and the neighbor was provoked. Taking her son to apologize for his bad behavior and giving the neighbor a chance to apologize for HIS bad behavior was just right. And extra points for giving the neighbor a proper way to react when the local menaces are around again.

A: Thanks. Yes, it's amazing to me that someone would want to prosecute the neighbor and undo all the good lessons that the son has just learned.

Q. Conflict With My Polyamorous Sister-in-Law: My brother and his wife are polyamorous. They have people that they both date and people that they date individually. I have met some of the people they date, but usually not until they are serious with my brother, his wife, or both. My brother and his wife also watch my twin daughters often, allowing my husband and I to go out. A few days ago my sister-in-law offered to watch the kids so we could go to a friend's birthday dinner, and when we came back we found her cuddling on the couch with her new girlfriend, a woman we have not met before. We did not know my sister-in-law would bring someone over, and I think we would have been all right with that if she had told us beforehand and we felt comfortable with that person being around our kids. But that wasn't the case, and we asked her not to do it again. She accused us of being intolerant, and now she is mad at us. I don't believe we overreacted, but we want to mend our relationship with them. How much crow should I eat to make nice, and on what issues should I hold my ground?

A: You need to find some teenage babysitters who will break your valuables but not cuddle with their latest crush while watching your kids. Your brother and sister-in-law are entitled to their love life, but not while they are watching your kids. You can say to her you're sorry if you came off as intolerant. Your issue was not her personal choices, but bringing a stranger into your home while babysitting. But say you don't want this to become an issue between you and you'd like to call a time-out and drop it. Then turn down her future sitting offers, her free service isn't worth it.

Q. Get Over It, Love Child: Oh for goodness sakes. The dad actually sees his out-of-wedlock kid. He provides child support and brings her into his home. Now she wants to be treated as some sort of legitimate half-sister, when all she's really doing is sucking up inheritance money, funds for an extra week at the beach, etc. Fact is, love child hit the jackpot—her mom knew with whom she should sleep. Love child needs to learn you get what you get and you don't get upset.

A: Either you're joking or you're the wife.

Q. How To Exclude Someone Nicely: I am a part of a coffee club for moms and their babies and we meet together fortnightly. I love catching up with the other ladies but there is one mom who consistently makes me feel uncomfortable. I've known "Teresa" long before I met these other moms. I stopped meeting up with her a year ago because she asks invasive personal questions, she treats my house and things like her own, she tracks my Facebook page and makes weird remarks about it later (until I unfriended her, that is). These are just the tip of the iceberg. The final straw was when she made fun of my surgery scar and started poking it. I wasn't pleased when she started coming along to our local coffee group but of course it wasn't my place to dictate where she chooses to socialize. But I face a dilemma whenever I organize a social event with the coffee club ladies outside of our fortnightly meetings. I feel like a Mean Girl to exclude Teresa, but on the other hand, I feel uncomfortable inviting her into my home. I don't know how the other ladies feel about her and I don't want to start a gripe session about why I don't want to invite Teresa around. Do I have to invite her every time I want to see my other friends? Or is there any way I can tactfully exclude her from the invitation?

A: It sounds as if Teresa is a permanent member of the fortnightly group. But that doesn't mean she has a permanent place on the invitation list of any other social event you have in your home. If you are inviting everyone except Teresa and this is brought up by the others, you can explain that you knew her before the group formed and unfortunately because of some conflicts between you two, you've had to limit your contact with her. (However, what you post on your Facebook page is fair game for others "to track." It's another thing if she makes rude comments about what you've posted.) Presumably some of them will know what you're talking about, but then don't engage in Teresa-bashing. Since this isn't high school and you're not moving in a designated pack, you should also have get-togethers with just one of two other mothers so it becomes more normal not to have to invite everyone to everything.

Q. Workplace Bathroom Rules: I work for a small nonprofit in an office of around 30 employees, mostly women. Our director has some quirks about—ahem—bodily elimination, and she insists on taking them out on her staff. Our building has three bathrooms: a nice, two-stall bathroom on the main level for women, a private main-level bathroom for men and an old one-stall bathroom in the basement. Our director has sent repeated emails instructing staff that doing number two is prohibited in the main bathroom, and that we must use the basement toilet for such business. I feel it's preposterous to dictate which perfectly human functions an employee may do in the privacy of a bathroom stall. Making a trip to the basement has become something of a Walk of Shame, and I feel it's inappropriate for an employer to legislate bathroom activity. It hardly seems worth it to raise my concern, but I have to wonder if her request is even legal.

A: I can imagine that in some cases it turns into a Trot of Shame to the bowels of the building. You don’t want to dump a good job just because of your boss’s issues, but her orders stink. Perhaps you could spring for a big can of air freshener, which might help alleviate her concerns. If that doesn’t do it, either continue to ignore her, or, number two, the next time she discharges one of her memos get a committee together to tell her, using more diplomatic language please, that she’s full of crap. If she keeps at it, forwarding her series of missives anonymously to the board of directors might not eliminate her as a boss, but it could end the memos. 

Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week.

In a new approach, we’re publishing the chat transcript in shorter, more digestible pieces. You will still be getting all the questions and answers, and we may even publish bonus letters Prudie didn’t get to address during the chat hour.

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

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