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 firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Q. Colleague Is Disgusting: A colleague has left town and asked me to care for her cats, which is a terrible inconvenience as she lives really far from me. However, I said I'd do it out of guilt. I got to her place only to discover that she and her fiancé live in total squalor in one room with four cats and four rats, and it smelled like urine. I later found feces on the wall. The cats themselves are well cared for and healthy, but clearly in an unhygienic environment. Do I need to report her? What do I say when she returns—your place is disgusting and you're mistreating your cats?
A: I don't care how healthy the cats and the rats (!) appear to be, what you have discovered is a squalid home that I'm sure animal control would say fails to meet basic standards. Your colleague is disturbed, but usually people who live in such filth try to keep it a secret. It's weird your co-worker wanted you to see it, and frankly I can't understand how you got guilt-tripped into doing this. You have two choices: One is to call animal control now. The other is to wait until your friend comes back and speak to her first. You have to weigh your relationship with this colleague and how blowing the whistle would affect your work life. But I think you would be perfectly justified in reporting the situation now. If you do, just make sure if the cats are seized they are not put on euthanasia watch. You can explain to your co-worker that when you came into her place there was a terrifying rat infestation which left you unable to enter the premises to take care of the cats.
Dear Prudence Live in New York: Unfriendly Skies
Q. Conflicting Parenting Ideals: I spend a lot of time with my cousin and her amazing 4-year-old daughter. We are somewhat close but we mainly spend time together because our kids get along so well. I do not agree with much of her parenting. She is not physically abusive, but is very manipulative and immature. She has given her daughter the silent treatment if angry, and shames her for not being a "big girl" if she's not reaching milestones. She demands affection in return for surprise presents. She seems to enjoy getting her daughter upset so she can be the one to console her. I'm not sure all of this seems a big deal but her daughter is really the most pleasant child, who I adore, and it's so painful to watch. She has tried to get me to go along, giving the silent treatment, not consoling her when upset but I refuse to do so. Sometimes she will get her daughter all riled up, then demand she calm down and then punish her if it doesn't happen. Is it totally out of line for me to say something?
A: Please intervene, although someone with such a punitive, manipulative approach to child-rearing would likely put you in a permanent time-out from your friendship for suggesting her parenting could be improved. Of course you know that critiquing the way someone raises her child is a minefield, so tread accordingly. Get together with your cousin for lunch without your kids and say that she has a remarkable child and you love spending time with both of them, but that sometimes you feel she could take a different approach with her daughter. You can hand her the book, Between Parent and Child by Haim Ginott, which is a wonderful, slender volume on seeing the world through your children's eyes and gently guiding them through life. Materials available at the Gessell Institute of Child Development would also give your cousin some perspective. Then, when you are together with your kids, and she tries to enlist you in one of her manipulative schemes, you can say, "Janis, this is the kind of thing I was mentioning. Chloe is just acting like a kid, and I don't think she deserves the silent treatment." There is a slim chance your cousin will reflect and reform. More likely, Chloe will spend years sorting out the damage done by her mother.
Q. Unheeded Medical Advice: How much sympathy do you give someone who ignores the doctor's advice? My wife had been to dozens of doctors for several health problems. In most cases, she refuses their advice, but complains when she is no better. Among her ailments, she suffers from insomnia. She has had sleep studies done and found there is no physical reason for this inability to sleep. She has been advised to stop napping during the day, spend only eight hours in bed at night and get out of bed and read a book when she can't sleep. She refuses to do them all, yet continues to complain. This has gone on for years. At what point do I get to stop playing the role of sympathetic spouse and tell her that until she tries to get better, I don't want to hear about it anymore.
A: Now would be a good time for her wake-up call. If your account is correct, you've been a sympathetic, if frustrated, source of support for years. If your wife won't do the basics to address her many problems it's likely that she enjoys being mired in them and the attention she gets for her "health crises." So stop feeding the beast. Start with her sleeping problem. If she won't follow these obvious rules, then say, "Honey, I know not getting any sleep is miserable, but you're not taking the doctor’s advice, so I can't talk about it anymore." It may be that you eventually need to tell her your separate sleeping arrangements are going to be in separate domiciles.
Q. Re: Pet rats: The rats from the filthy house sound like pet rats. They are real valid pets just like hamsters, mice, gerbils, rabbits, etc. I agree she should report the house to animal control but she should see if she can find a fancy rat shelter that will take in the pet rats (yes they exist). Many people are unfairly prejudiced against pet rats and it would be a shame if animal control killed them thinking they were pests.
A: So the colleague pressures the letter writer to cat sit for her (which is ridiculous in itself), then it simply slips her mind to explain she's not looking to re-establish bubonic plague, she just has pet rats. If you've given someone the keys to your rat-filled household without establishing the rats are guests, you leave yourself open to having the exterminator come calling.
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