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.)
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Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon, I look forward to your questions.
Q. Boyfriend Is Terrible at Gift-Giving: My boyfriend has always been terrible at giving gifts. For our eight-year anniversary I gave him lots of hints that I wanted something special. In all the previous years he gave nothing. This year he said he got me something meaningful and stupidly I got my hopes up. On our anniversary day, he gave me his—wait for it—wisdom tooth. He had to have it extracted a few weeks earlier and kept it so he could give me a “part of himself.” I’m upset beyond words. How do I teach an otherwise wonderful man how to give good gifts, without specifying exactly what I want?
A: There is a list of traditional gifts for anniversaries: 1st year, paper; 25th year, silver. But I missed your boyfriend’s innovation: 8th year, enamel! But the thing about giving an enamel gift one grew in one’s mouth is that it should guarantee that the recipient doesn’t hang in there long enough to get the 9th anniversary gift of a rectal polyp. I have long defended people who are bad at gifts or don’t remember anniversaries because I’m one of them. (One of the things that binds my husband and me is that we can never remember when we got married.) But your boyfriend has me rethinking this. He’s not an absent-minded but well-meaning goofball. This gift was crude and deliberate. Maybe he got a laugh when you opened the box and reacted in horror. You say he’s another one in a long line of “wonderful, but” people. I acknowledge there are far worse things than being a lousy gift-giver, and if his other qualities make up for it, so be it. But if after eight years, he wants to mark your togetherness by giving you something his dentist would otherwise dispose of in the biomedical waste bin, he better be really worth it.
Q. Helicopter Grandparents: 25 years ago, when I was a little girl, my younger sister died after a very short battle with an aggressive form of stomach cancer. This left me an only child and my parents were always extremely protective of me. Fast forward to the present—I, my husband and our two children live near my parents and we’re very close to them. Our daughter “Sally” is approaching the age my sister was when she died and I think I can see this starting to get to my parents. They’ve always been hypochondriacs about Sally, but they are now taking it to the extreme. Every time Sally gets sick, my parents go on and on about how ill Sally is, saying that “something’s just not right” and urging me to take her to the pediatrician. While Sally does tend to get more colds and tummy issues than the average kid, she’s never had any major health problems, gets a yearly checkup, and receives all her vaccinations. How can I stay sensitive to the unimaginable pain that my parents must have experienced while getting them to stop the constant worrying over Sally’s health? Their constant fretting over every cold and tummy ache is starting to stress me out!
A: Of course you understand, especially now that you’re a mother, that while parents can eventually cope with the loss of a child, it’s something no one ever fully gets over. You understand that your parents are being drawn back in time and re-experiencing those awful days when they were realizing how sick their beloved daughter was. While you see what is happening, they may not. So you need to bring this out in the open and help all of you deal with your parents’ real, but irrational, fears. Even though your sister’s death was many years ago, your parents may benefit from going to some meeting of the Compassionate Friends, a wonderful organization that helps people who have lost a child. There, they will be able to talk about fearing for the health of their granddaughter, and others will totally understand and comfort them. Also consider having a consult with you and your parents at your pediatrician’s to discuss this. Your doctor can explain how relatively rare childhood cancers are, how healthy Sally is, and your doctor can reassure all of you that she is totally on top of this issue.* Perhaps that will give your parents a sense of permission to release this fear. If that doesn’t work, since you are close, physically and emotionally, go for a few family therapy sessions. Your parents have to hear that their concerns come out of a kind of magical thinking: If they are hypervigilant, nothing bad will happen again. But they need to hear that obsessing over Sally’s physical health is very bad for a little girl’s mental health. The three of you can develop some boundaries about discussing how Sally’s feeling, for example. If they get some techniques to deflect their anxiety, or come to recognize their fears are harming their beloved granddaughter, it may allow them to calm their emotional turmoil.
Q. Charity for Someone Else: I am the president of a debating society. One of our new students is very talented, but cannot afford to come to an important tournament for financial reasons. I feel background should be no impediment and would like to apply to charities to get him to come. I’ve already found over 50 that he might be eligible for, and it’s a relatively small amount of money. I ran this idea past last year’s president, who is worried it might be embarrassing. How do I raise this option with my debater with tact and sensitivity?
A: Thank you for recognizing that many of the extracurricular activities at which students can hone their skills and experience success may be out of reach for those of low income. It is not embarrassing to make sure everyone on your team can take full access of the opportunities your society offers. I think you should simply tell your student you need him at the tournament and want to look into getting a scholarship for him. That shouldn’t be embarrassing, it should be a relief.
Q. Re: Wisdom tooth boyfriend: Hey, maybe her boyfriend is a fan of Girls and saw how happy Hannah was when Adam gave her one of his teeth on a chain. A fan of Girls is a keeper, by the way.
A: Thanks for the reminder; I had suppressed that particular plot turn. Our letter writer does not say she got the Girls reference, nor did her boyfriend say, when she reacted in horror, “I’m Adam, you’re Hannah, get it!” (And really, it would be a stretch to see that as an endearing comparison.) So, instead of the gift being a pop culture reference, I think it was just blech. I hope the boyfriend is not gathering a bag of toenail clippings as an apology gift.
Q. Dating: I am a woman in my mid-50s and haven’t dated in quite some time. The other night I attended an auction and met a man just a few years older than myself. When he initially approached me, he had said he was getting ready to leave, however, ended up staying another three hours. We chatted almost the entire time and when the auction was over, he said he’d like to keep in touch. He is an athlete, quite accomplished in his sport/sports (world famous and a record-holder in fact) and I was able to do a bit of research (snooping) on him, so I know he is who he said he is. I had mentioned that I was wanting to get back into the gym and could use a few pointers. The next morning, he sent me a text message asking if he could call and if so, may use the number he had from my original text message. He rang me up last night and we talked for quite a long time. We talked about my eating and workout habits and he said “Well, I will go to the gym with you, teach you what I can, but I cannot become your trainer as I don’t mix business with my social life and let’s face it, I am trying to get into your pants.” I think I said something like, “Let’s see if we get to that point, because you’re going to have to work pretty damned hard to get there.” Have I missed something? Is this typical behavior for men these days? Have women made such demands of equality that men no longer feel the need to act like gentlemen? Should I kick this fellow to the curb or tell him I was shocked at his being so forward? Or, am I being hypersensitive?
A: I don’t think that while you were out of the dating scene a generation of gentleman decided to become crude beasts because of female equality. Crude beasts have always walked among us. And if you want stories of lewd behavior, listen to the tales of attractive, newly single middle-aged men and the sexts they receive from horny, single, middle-aged women. Yes, this guy’s come-on may have turned you off, but I guarantee he’s used it many times, likely to great effect. You say you were flummoxed by it, but you came up with an excellent zinger that surely got him more excited because the chase is on. You’re in your 50s and have been out of the dating scene for a long time. You know that the number of available men is small, and most of them will not be to your taste. If you remain intrigued by this cocky athlete, then go ahead and see him again. And stick to your vow that his getting what he wants is going to take a lot of work.
Q. Re: Talented, low-income student: To the debating society president: As a talented student from a low-income background, I think it’s great that you are taking the initiative to help out your teammate. While I don’t think I would’ve been embarrassed in that situation, It the club has an adult sponsor, I’d recommend having them sending notice about scholarship opportunities to the whole team. It’s entirely possible that there are other students on the team who could also use the assistance, but are too shy to mention it themselves.
A: Great point. And at my daughter’s public school, she went on a couple of big, over-budget field trips, and the teacher sent a notice to all the parents soliciting funds from those who could afford the trip to underwrite those who couldn’t. All the students got to go. So if the philanthropies don’t come through, it could be that the other debaters could pay for their fellow students. Of course, the identity of those receiving the funds should be kept confidential.
Q. Re: More on the tooth thing: Supposedly, ScarJo gave her (gold plated) tooth to Ryan Reynolds (or vice versa) when they were married. So giving one’s teeth must actually be a thing. A gross, uncreative thing that smacks of trying too hard, but, nonetheless.
A: And that marriage lasted about 20 minutes. Now, I’m so regretful that I didn’t have my fibroid gilded for our 20th anniversary.
Q. Sharing Sorrow With the Elderly: I just found out my foster brother committed suicide. He came into our family, my parents’ and mine, at the age of 9 and completely “fit” from the start. My mother was especially close to him and I’m not sure how she will handle this. She is 80 and has been declining both physically and mentally lately. Do I need to tell her this news? Is it my “duty” or can some things go untold to spare the fragile?
A: This is so heartbreaking, and I think situation such as this need to be handled on a case-by-case basis when you’re dealing with a fragile old person. First of all, the default should always be toward honesty and dignity. That is, just because someone is old does not mean she has to be sheltered like a child. But you have to look at the overall circumstances. If your foster brother was someone who was in regular touch with your mother, and his absence will be baffling to her, then you have to tell. Also important is the degree of mental decline of your mother. It doesn’t sound as if she is unable to understand what is going on around her. So if she’s still largely competent, then again, she’s going to know something is up and things are being kept from her. Telling her will be one of the most painful things you ever have to do. But unless there is an overwhelming reason to withhold this, not telling her is not right.
Q. Co-Worker Problems: Lately at work, I have been bothered by a co-worker who seems to spend most of her time trying to gossip and get people in trouble. She recently asked me about my computer usage at work and while I denied anything wrong, the day after this conversation, a meeting was scheduled between me and my supervisors over computer usage. I found this humiliating and even had the company IT person check my computer to prove that I do spend my time working. This woman leaves early, takes longer breaks, and brags about not doing her job, yet constantly is “telling” on co-workers for things that aren’t even an issue. I want to tell her to knock it off yet I’m afraid she will do something to threaten my job. I feel like this is high school but it is making the work environment no longer enjoyable. Is there anything I could say to my HR department?
A: I wish someone who understands corporate life would explain to me why, given our high unemployment, every place of work seems to have a toxic incompetent who never gets fired. Since this woman apparently was the cause of your little “review,” I think you need to push back. Perhaps you can find someone else who she made up accusations against, and you two can go to a mutual supervisor and express your concern about her behavior and its effect on morale. Do not be defensive, do not get ad hominem, just explain that this co-worker seems to enjoy threatening other people and making false reports, and it’s disturbing everyone in the workplace.
Q. Law-Breaking Little Sister: My sister is eight years younger than me. She’s still in high school, and I moved out of the house six years ago. Last time I was home, she kept bragging about reaching 5,000 followers on Tumblr. Naturally, I looked up her blog, expecting to find the same sorts of things I posted on LiveJournal years ago. Instead, I found posts bragging about her smoking pot and lying to our mom about it, getting drunk at 2 a.m., and a picture of her driving with friends in the car captioned “Illegal driving selfie!” (Her license is restricted for another three months.) She uses her real, very unique name on the blog and regularly mentions the city she lives in. I found her Tumblr by Googling her name. Should I tell our mom about all this?
A: Before your sister becomes a sad recipient of a Darwin Award, I think you have to alert your mother. I’m sure it’s no surprise to your mother that her little darling is out of control, and that she has little influence. However, I’m most concerned about the “illegal driving selfie” meme, and about its mutating into the “carful of drunken, mangled teenagers” meme. It’s one thing to drink and take drugs, also a poor idea is posting about it online, But it’s a big escalation when you threaten your own safety and that of innocent people. Perhaps in this one area, your mother might have some influence before it’s too late.
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Correction, April 21, 2014: This article previously mischaracterized the incidence of childhood cancer as "vanishingly" rare. About 1 percent of cancers are diagnosed in children: a small proportion compared with the general populace, but still not insignificant. (Return.)