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.)
See Emily live! She will be talking to Slate editor David Plotz and taking questions at Sixth and I in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 11. For tickets and more information, click here.
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon, everyone. The fun is over, back to school and work!
Q. Proselytizing in the Classroom: My son's elementary teacher sent a note to all the parents last week. The email included a link to her website. Included on the site was a note stating that she couldn't wait to share Christ's love with the children. We are a religious minority in this community and, living in the Deep South, I deal with this kind of thing every single year, whether it's school-sponsored Bible study, the choir concert that includes Christmas songs almost exclusively, or my middle-school-aged daughter feeling like she has to become a Christian because the other kids at lunch tell her she's going to hell if she doesn't. Do you have any suggestions for handling these issues without causing my children to be ostracized or suffer retribution from the teachers?
A: It sounds as if your kids go to public school, so there's something wrong with teachers who don't understand their job description means keeping their explicit religious beliefs out of the classroom. Let's hope the teacher means that Christ's love animates her feelings about her students, not that she intends to proselytize. But as you say, the religious assumptions of those around you are so pervasive that bringing a complaint might not do much except make school more unpleasant for your kids. If your concerns are mostly about afterschool Bible study or Christmas carols, I think you have to just shrug this off. When the annual Christmas concert comes around you can tell your children you know it's not your holiday, but it's a lovely one for those who celebrate it with beautiful music and you're all going to just enjoy. Mostly you need to be teaching your children why you love your religion, showing them the joy and sustenance it brings you, and instructing that you will treat those of different faiths with the respect you wish all of them treated you. Being in middle school is for many kids a kind of torture at best, and being told you're going to hell must only add to the fun. But unless your daughter finds her treatment intolerable, you have to help give her some tools to deal with this: "Thanks for thinking about my soul. But my family is happy to be Jewish/Muslim/Hindu."
Dear Prudence: Insensitive Stepsons
Q. Update From the Uncle of the Bride: I am the uncle who wrote to you earlier about my niece who's engaged to my secret biological son. Before reading yours and commenters' responses, I was going to tell my niece, but now I've decided to let the issue rest and remain a secret. I realized that at their age, they've surely done the deed with one another, what many would consider the gross part, and there's no putting that back in the box. And I know the older women get, the harder it is to find a good husband, not a geezer or a divorced man with a bunch of kids (her words!). She's always wanted to settle down and have a big family (tick tick tick), so why ruin what is possibly her one good shot? Since I never had a family of my own, she's is the closest to a daughter I will ever have, and I just want her to be happy. You're right, a one-off cousin marriage isn't going to contaminate the gene pool as it does in subpopulations where this is practiced routinely and over generations. Thanks for your help.
A: Thanks for this update. I am happy to hear you've decided to bury this secret. (I was interested to read that the commenters seemed split about 50-50 over telling.) I think keeping quiet will help this couple feel doing the deed is the fun part, not the gross part.
And since you mention the commenters, I have something they brought up to bring up with you: How is it you're so certain that you in fact are the young man's father?
Q. Parenting: I am a 22-year-old student living 800 miles from my hometown. I have an 8-year-old sister, to whom I was a third parent for most of her life while our parents worked and Mom cared for my terminally-ill grandfather. My sister is one of the most important things in my life. My mother didn't raise me well, but I thought she was better now. During a long visit, I saw she wasn't. She stood over Lil Sis and shouted at her about individual math problems until Sis broke down in tears of frustration. Then Mom went from calm to angry in seconds, and made comments like "Do you WANT to be a little brat? DO YOU? People will never want to be your friend." The loving/angry cycle was scary and sad to watch. Mom already resents the parental relationship I have with Sis. We have a rocky relationship—we disagree on politics and religion, she feels I've "spit on her values," and I'm gay but chose not to come out to them so I can be in Sis' life. Dad sees the problem but won't help. I don't think CPS can do much here, and a home visit I fear would just make Mom angrier. She could be a good parent, but she has a lot of issues. The aforementioned grandfather physically, emotionally, and verbally abused her. She's cruel and negative to herself, but won't seek therapy. I can't be a parent to Sis anymore, and I can't watch this. What do I do?
A: As you so vividly portray, this is one of those destructive messes for which there's no easy answer, and the pain gets passed on generation to generation. You are entitled to and deserve your own happy life away from this shredding mother, but you rightly feel an obligation to your vulnerable sister. First of all, be in your sister's life. Having witnessed this awful scene, you should tell your sister that it broke your heart to see your mother treat her the same awful way you were treated. You can tell your sister your mother was wrong in what she said, that she is a troubled person, and that sadly she sometimes strikes out and says hurtful things to the people she should be most loving to. Let your sister know she can call you anytime. Try to figure out a way to set up a private time for you two to talk regularly without your mother overhearing. Come home for holidays and spend time alone with your sister. You also need to try to have a private conversation with your father. As bad as the abusive parent is, I also hold in contempt the so-called "decent" parent who allows the abuse to go on because it's just too unpleasant to deal with the volatile spouse. You need to impress upon your father the fact that your sister's mental health is in the balance here. There's no guarantee she will emerge as strong as you, and that if he doesn't feel capable of stopping your mother's attacks, he can insist that the entire family go togethr and get some outside help.
I agree with you that CPS will likely see a physically well-cared for child and your mother can probably make the case that occasionally she raises her voice—just like any other parent. But call 211, a referral service sponsored by the United Way and describe what's going on and see what they recommend. They could say call CPS, or they may put you in touch with private organizations that offer parenting classes, or nurturing for your sister. How painful it must be to see the ugliest scenes of your childhood played out again on your sweet little sister.