Help! My Family Calls Everyone by the Nicknames My Baby Nephew Makes Up.

Advice on manners and morals.
Dec. 10 2013 6:00 AM

Mork and Mommy

In a live chat, Prudie offers advice about out-of-control family nicknames.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo 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. Baby Talk Nickname: I have an adorable nephew who is just learning how to talk, and his attempts at pronouncing names have resulted in the usual "baby words." His family (parents and grandparents) have proudly taken on those "words" as their new nicknames and use them when talking to him and to each other. Recently, my husband and I were informed of our nicknames and the family has begun using them almost exclusively in family conversations, when addressing us in written correspondence, etc. We would prefer that our nephew eventually learn our real names; however, no one is using our real names in front of him anymore and everyone seems thrilled about this new symbol of our collective bond. We use only our real names with him (and everyone else) but no one else seems to pick up on this. I can put up with a goofy nickname for a few months without feeling slightly irritated, but it seems like this is becoming a more permanent thing. Is it appropriate for us to tell everyone what we would like to be called, or should we just go with it and hope that our nephew will start correcting everyone at his high school graduation?

A: Here's an area just ripe for academic study: What make some silly childhood pronunciations of names stick forever, while others fall way. There are families in which grandma is always pronounced Beebah, because a now middle-aged person once mispronounced it that way and it has gotten passed on as a family legend. I can understand that while it's darling to have your nephew call you Dante Doon instead of Auntie June, you do not want to be known at Dante to the rest of your family for the rest of your life. But don't have a tantrum; instead just explain to everyone that you want the nickname to be used only by your nephew, since you know he will eventually get the hang of your real name. If they continue to call you Dante, you can with increasingly exasperated sighs say you need to be left out of this developing tradition. Then continue to refer to everyone else by their actual names, too. If they correct you, say, "I'm just too old to start calling you Beebo and Deedah." It sounds as if nephew may be your family's first entrant in the latest generation. Surely, when the next kid comes along, everyone is not going to adopt a whole new set of baby names.

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Q. Husband and Wife Look-a-Like: My husband and I are happy newlyweds but something has been putting a damper on our celebrating. People keep asking us if we are brother and sister. What's even weirder, is that these comments usually come AFTER we have told people that we are married. People seem to enjoy bringing it up and having a laugh over it, sometimes even mentioning it multiple times. In all honesty, we do look very similar: tall and thin, similar hair color/cut. I know I'm not going to bed with my brother every night, but it's starting to kill the mood. Besides drastic plastic surgery (kidding), what are my options here?

A: You two need to adopt similar deadpan looks and reply, "No, we're not siblings," then change the subject. If the person brings it up again you can say, "Yes, you already mentioned that. We're still husband and wife, not brother and sister." After that, you can say, "Excuse me," while you walk away. Of course, you don't have to do anything at all in response to this social faux pas. But as it is starting to kill the mood for you two, I promise you that if you grow your hair out and put on some make up, and one of you starts wearing glasses, you will drastically reduce these jokes.

Q. Vaccination: This makes my blood boil; I have a sister-in-law who has two children with my brother. The children are aged 10 and 8 years old and have thus far received none of the childhood vaccinations made available to all children in our area. This is due to my sister-in-law's misguided belief that vaccination risks harm to children, preferring instead to inadvertently rely on herd immunity and some cock-and-bull belief in "natural immunity." My 10-year-old niece suffered from chicken pox last year. While she has recovered from this illness, her sores became infected through incessant scratching, and now my niece has facial scars for life. My brother just won't weigh in on this one, preferring simply to keep the peace with his wife. This scenario makes me so mad on so many levels. How can a caring auntie (me), reinform her niece and nephew's understanding that vaccines in society are beneficial to individuals who are vaccinated against many common diseases, as well as supporting herd immunity philosophy, protecting prior who may be at risk from receiving a vaccination (such as immune-suppressed, sick individuals)?

A: I totally agree with you. The tragedy of the anti-vaccination movement is that it undermines the health of the entire society. Enough people have to be vaccinated for herd immunity to contain a disease enough so that even the unvaccinated can benefit. When that herd is thinned, diseases from the past start spreading. How tragic that your niece should bear lifetime scars for her mother's stupidity. You need to print out some articles, even give some books—Deadly Choices and The Panic Virus are two good ones—to your brother and urge him to educate himself about the danger he is putting his children in. Unvaccinated people are at great risk for contracting childhood illnesses later in life with devastating consequences. You could also ask how his children are allowed in school without the proper vaccines. Don't hector, but gently encourage him to see that keeping the peace with his wife over this issue is endangering the health of his kids.

Q. Include Sibling in All Activities?: I have a 14-year-old son and my fiancé has a 12-year-old son. We frequently argue over whether or not they need to include each other in activities with friends. We both feel that if it is an event that we host in our own home, they should include each other (for the most part) to avoid hurt feelings. However, he also expects that if my son is invited to his own friend's house that his son should be included. For countless reasons, I think it is rude to demand or even request that these other families should include his son. My son already works very hard to be considerate of his future stepbrother's feelings and doesn't begrudge letting him hang out with him and his friends. But shouldn't he be allowed to have his own time away and his own friends sometimes? Should siblings (step or not) be required to do everything together?

A: Please put off getting married until you get some counseling. You two are so far off the same page about your kids that you're going to start your marriage by getting into endless conflicts. No, siblings, step or not, are not required to include younger or older siblings when they're playing with their friends in their own home, and especially not when they are going to the home of another friend. That doesn't mean the (step)sibling gets excluded at home. It's lovely if the kids spontaneously start playing together, and at the least they should all share a snack, or if they're watching a movie, everyone is invited. But kids are also entitled to hang out in their rooms, take a walk, etc., with only their friend. Forcing togetherness on new stepsiblings is only going to drive them apart.

Q. Re: Husband and wife look-a-like: After too many of these questions, I would probably just answer "yes" very dryly and move the conversation to another topic, just to see the reactions.

A: Agreed. They could also add that at this time of year it's a great benefit to only have one set of parents they have to visit.

Q. Past Cheater: I have been with my boyfriend for four years. We live together and things are currently going great. We are talking about marriage and future children. The problem is when we met I was single and extremely promiscuous. Mostly because of my low self-esteem and need to feel loved. Unfortunately I had a hard time going from that lifestyle to an exclusive relationship and I ended up cheating on my boyfriend with three of my "friends with benefits" within the first couple of months. It hasn't happened again and I completely cut off contact with all of my previous lovers. My question is, when my boyfriend proposes and I accept, should I tell him about my infidelity so our marriage isn't based on a lie, or is it acceptable to not tell him since it was four years ago and hasn't happened again?

A: I think you should consider those first couple of months a trial run for your real relationship. Your committed relationship began almost four years ago, after you cut off your previous lovers. Three-plus years is plenty of time to prove to yourself that you've changed. There's no point in undermining your happy relationship now with revelations about behavior that's far in the past and hasn't been repeated. Living with knowing what you almost lost should help keep you faithful. Accept the proposal equanimity and joy.

Q. Two Brides, Father/Daughter Dance Etiquette: My girlfriend and I are getting married. She wants to have a father/daughter dance and I really don't want to. I don't mind if she dances with her father, but my feelings toward my father are rather complicated and I'd rather just skip the whole tradition, though my father will attend the wedding. I feel very awkward about this because if she dances and I skip, it WILL be noticed. I brought this up with her but I believe she feels like I'm pressuring her to skip the tradition for my sake, which is understandable from her point of view. I definitely don't want her to sacrifice her happiness just to make an awkward situation less awkward. I'm at a loss.

A: Since you don't want to do it, she shouldn't force you to nor should you force her not to. When the dances start you two should get out on the floor for the first dance. Then have the M.C. open up the floor, and at that point, your girlfriend and her father should have the next dance. You can sit it out or dance with whomever you like.

Q. Overstepping Substitute Teacher: My son is in the third grade, and last week they had a substitute teacher. My son came home to tell me a girl in the class asked the teacher if Santa was real (keep in mind these are 8 and 9 year olds) and she said no! Am I wrong to thinks she should have deflected this question to the child's parents? My son was sad to think that Santa might not be real. Should this be brought up with the school or will I then be overstepping? As far as my son goes, we cleared up that Santa is real if you believe, and he now understands not everyone believes. It worked out OK with us, but there were 15 other kids subjected to that same answer from an adult.

A: I'm going to guess this substitute's name is Miss Viola Swamp. This is a substitute who really doesn't have a feel for third graders if she doesn't know how to gracefully not answer that question. But the news about Santa was not going to be able to be kept under wraps forever. You know you're at the outer limit of kids fervently believing he's real. You handled this beautifully for you son. If you want to talk to the school it should be in the spirit of informing them that this happened, not as a demand that Miss Swamp never be allowed in the school again.

Q. Work/Life Balance: I am a 32-year-old attorney and a mom of a 2-year-old daughter. For the past few years, I have worked at a corporation with an easy 8 to 5 schedule and lots of flexibility. I'm also bored out of my mind. I really want to get into a firm so that I can learn new skills and be challenged, but law firms aren't known for being family friendly. There's a firm interested in me, but they made a point of emphasizing that they never know what time they'll be home and they come into the office every weekend. I am so torn and miserable as it really seems I have to choose between the career I want and time with my daughter. She is my joy and the most important thing in my life. But I've been trying to take better care of myself, as well, and changing jobs is really necessary to do that. My daughter goes to bed at 7 p.m. I could end up not spending time with her at all during the week and that breaks my heart. How do I decide what to do?

A: You stop thinking of this as an binary choice. Your options are far greater than stay in the easy job you hate or take the more challenging one with brutal hours. I know the economy remains weak, but it sounds as if you are in a great position to start exploring other options. There may be all sorts of interesting jobs that would provide you with the necessary flexibility. So you need to take charge of this search. It could also be that there are opportunities to make your job more engaging at your current firm—explore those. You are in the enviable position of having the kind of skills and earning the kind of income that allows you the possibility of being professionally satisfied while being able to get enough time with your precious little girl.

Q. Re: Past Cheater: I have noticed a little bit of a double standard when it comes to men versus women cheating. I'm pretty certain that you would NOT have given a man a pass if he had admitted to cheating on his current girlfriend, not one but three times. What gives?

A: Nope. If the situation were reversed I would have said the same thing. I have written often that I believe in honesty, but there are some things that are just best lived with and not revealed. A contained infidelity that is regretted and not repeated (OK, let's put the three times under a collective umbrella) is one of those things. Coming clean as a way of seeking absolution can end up causing unnecessary pain and havoc for the innocent partner.

Emily Yoffe: Thanks everyone. Stay safe, more snow and ice ahead!

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

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