Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, chats with readers weekly on Mondays here at Slate. 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 email@example.com.)
Q. 13-Year-Old Daughter Reading Porn Disguised as Fan Fiction: I discovered my 13-year-old daughter has been reading fan fiction for a very popular all boy band which describes in explicit detail sex acts between the male band members. I immediately instituted parental control and blocked the sites. We had a brief talk—need a longer one, but I’m not sure what to say? This can't be good for her at 13—reading about explicit sex between ANY two people. Am I overreacting?
A: I remember the thrilling times at my friend Paula's house when I was about your daughter's age when Paula would abscond with her father's Playboy as soon as it hit the mail slot, surgically remove it from its plain brown wrapper, and we would gleefully laugh over every page. You may have put parental controls on her reading, but I assume she has friends, and will simply swallow these unexpurgated tales of male bonding at their houses. Your discovery is the kind of thing that does call for a talk, but first you have to both gather yourself and find your sense of humor. Tell her you love that she's doing extracurricular reading, but you were really surprised by the kind of thing that is found in fan fiction. Then let her respond. Sure, depending on your relationship and her level of comfort, she might not have anything to say. But you want to express that while you understand the appeal of such naughty books, you thought them too sexually explicit for her. The issue here is not your ability to censor everything she takes in—you can't do it—but to express your own standards and leave open a space for her to come to you with her questions and concerns. And I'm guessing that the writers of this series didn't think their most avid fans would be teenage girls!
Q. Do You Have Siblings? Um, Sort Of: When I was a sophomore, my only sibling passed away after a long, long battle with cancer. For the most part, I didn’t date for the rest of college partly due to my dealing with grief and not wanting to involve someone else in it and partly to concentrate on school. Now that I’ve graduated and started to date again, I’m realizing I have no clue how or when to share this with people. “Do you have any siblings?” is a really common getting-to-know-you question for a first date, but it seems a little heavy to share this and on occasions where I have answered honestly, it kind of puts a damper on otherwise pleasant conversation. I have tried saying “Nope, it’s just me,” because it’s technically true, but he’s going to come up eventually if I continue to see people after a date or two.
A: What a wrenching loss; I’m so sorry. You’re right, that this is a go-to first date question. And I understand your dilemma of not wanting to bring tragedy into a light conversation with such tragedy, but you also probably feel terrible erasing the existence of your sibling. I think you should answer honestly, and you can do this in a way that doesn’t make the rest of the date uncomfortable. It will require practice on your part, but you can say something like, “I did have an older (sister or brother). Sadly she died a couple of years ago after a long fight with leukemia. She was the most incredible person I’ve ever known.” Then you can say something like, “I know that’s not what you were expecting to hear. And I do miss her every day. But it also is getting easier to accept and I’m OK now.” At that point what’s crucial is that you bridge the gap for the other person who really doesn’t know what to say. You segue to something like, “So, do you have siblings?” Or even, “Did you like going to UVA?” Or, “What made you want to be an engineer?” Your ability to put the other person at ease about this will help not only your date, but you.
Q. First-World Hair Problems: Several weeks ago, I called my hair salon last-minute to book an appointment with my stylist before leaving town. She was unavailable, but I really needed to see someone so I was booked in with her co-worker. He did an amazing job on my hair—I have been getting compliments since I saw him. I want to switch from her to him, but how do I do that without causing a problem? They work in the same salon and I have been going to her for almost four years. I am due for another appointment soon and I am unsure how to handle this.
A: You must be tempted to sneak in wearing oversize sunglasses and a wig, but there’s probably no way to make the switch without some awkwardness. But you’ve got to do it because you’ve found someone magical a few chairs down. I think you should start by calling the guy you want to be your new hairdresser. Tell him what’s going on and ask his advice for the best way to handle such things—this has got to happen all the time in his business. I’m assuming the best thing to do is to be straightforward and tell your former hairdresser that you’ve had a great run with her, but sometimes people just need to shake things up, and while it’s no commentary on her excellent skills, you’re going to be switching to Charles. You can soften the blow with a box of chocolates, for example. (Don’t bring a bottle of wine, which she might be tempted to bring down on your great looking head.) You might also conspire with Charles to make your appointments on days your former hairdresser is off—it will protect her feelings and keep you from sneaking guilty peeks at her in the mirror.
Q. Re: Deceased Sibling: The letter writer sounds young, like she is still dating for fun. But as a woman in my mid-30s who was dating to find a spouse, I found that the personal tragedies I’d experienced that came up in answers to routine questions were useful quick screening anecdotes for dates. Dating is about getting to know who the other person is, hopefully as quickly and fully as possible. Seeing how they respond to tragedy can give one a quick read on general levels of empathy and social skill.
A: I get your point, but presenting a big ball of tragedy on the first few dates as a test is kind of an unfair one. Lots of perfectly decent, empathetic people might be blindsided by hearing a lot of sad news from a relative stranger. Everyone has a life story, some marked by extreme misfortune, and no one should feel she has to lie about such things. But one also has to use judgment about how much of this to drop during the “get to know you” phase.
Q. Professor Has Cancer: I am currently a university senior and a friend of mine discovered that one of our beloved professors is not teaching this semester. When she emailed him to inquire why, he responded that he is undergoing treatment for cancer and is taking a leave of absence (he is very young). I feel very sorry at this news, and would like to reach out to him with a card signed by the students, or at least an email. However, I do not think his condition is common knowledge (since she had to ask to find out) and I’m sure he wants his privacy. Would it be rude to email him? How would I get a card to him if he is not on campus?
A: That he revealed the information so specifically and didn’t just say, “I’m on leave this semester. Hope to be back in the spring” indicates that he’s not trying to keep this secret. But I think you should check with his department’s administrator for advice on how to proceed. It’s likely that a card from his students with some hand-written sentiments about how everyone misses him and hopes to see him back on campus and in the classroom soon would very much cheer him up.
Q. Sliding Into Despair; Trombone Travails: My son “Souza” is a wonderful, passionate, earnest fifth grader. Last year, his school band instructor encouraged him to take up the trombone. He is an enthusiastic band member and is eager to practice and perform for the family. There are only two problems: He’s a horrible trombonist and the sound of his playing drives me crazy. The instrument squawks and creaks, our dog starts howling, and I find myself cringing and running for cover. I don’t want to discourage his budding love of music or his diligent practicing, but I find myself biting my tongue to keep from sending him to practice in the garden. Our house is cozy, and we don’t have a basement or other far away room that might serve as a practice studio. As the school year starts up again, I am dreading trombone practice. Should I continue to feign enthusiasm, or can I try to steer Souza toward, let’s say, the flute?
A: Please don’t send Souza to the garden. You may have elderly neighbors and you don’t want your son to be the cause of a stroke. Of course your son is a horrible trombonist; the only way you get to be a good one is to start by being a horrible one. I’m assuming even the most diligent fifth grader only practices for a limited time each day. So since you and the dog suffer similarly, just make yourselves scarce. When the bleating starts call out, “Souza, you sound great! I’m taking Pasha for a walk. We’ll be back in about 45 minutes!” You could also find a source for those headphones used by people who guide jet airplanes from the runway. That should allow you to block out both the cries of pain from son and dog.
Q. Delayed Niece: I live with my husband and four children in the same town as my in-laws. My sister-in-law has three little girls, and the youngest appears to be severely developmentally delayed. The problem? No one in my husband’s family will acknowledge the delayed development. At the age of 2, she is not speaking any intelligible words and very rarely even babbles or coos. She is unresponsive to verbal commands, and just began walking (unsteadily) on her own a month or so ago. Her parents work opposite shifts, and my fear is that she is left largely unattended during the day while the night-shift parents sleeps. My in-laws do not take her regularly to the pediatrician for immunization shots, so I don’t think any medical care professionals are aware of her condition. The child has never attended a daycare or preschool, so only close family members are privy to her abilities. I feel obligated to call someone’s attention to this, as I know the importance of early intervention. But my husband says it’s none of our business and not our child. What should I do?
A: You must speak for this child who can’t. An invaluable window of opportunity to address problems at a crucial developmental time is closing, and you must step in on behalf of this child. Surely there is a pediatrician, even if the doctor is not seeing the child regularly enough, so you could start by calling there and alerting the doctor that this child needs to be seen immediately. Let’s hope that gets this rolling. If not, you know the family dynamics and whether more direct intervention on your part will be effective. A final option is to alert Child Protective Services. This is not so this girl is taken away, but so that professional intervene and start working with the family to get this girl the help she needs.
Q. Re: Sliding Into Despair; Trombone Travails: I would encourage you to consider purchasing a silent brass system for your son (Yamaha makes one for trombones). It will let him continue to build lifelong skills as a musician, but save you the headaches. I used a similar system to spare my family when I was a budding elementary school trumpeter.
A: Good advice, if the family can afford the investment. We have a young drummer on our street who is now at a prestigious music school, and I really enjoyed hearing him as he developed into the next Phil Collins.
Q. Ex-Aunt at the Wedding: Growing up, my mom’s brother and sister-in-law, my favorite uncle and aunt, lived nearby. When my mom was diagnosed with cancer and eventually lost the battle when I was 12, my aunt became a second mother. She helped me through puberty, bought me my prom dress, advised me on boys, etc. Unfortunately, my aunt and uncle went through a bitter divorce when I was in college but my aunt and I managed to stay close. I’m in my 30s now and she still sends me cookies, we exchange letters and knitting projects, play Scrabble online every day. I’m getting married next year and I want my favorite aunt and mother figure there. However my uncle and his new wife have made it clear that they will not attend if she’s invited and it’s become a divisive issue among my mom’s family. How do I decide what to do?
A: If your mother had lived and your parents had had a bitter divorce, one parent would not be able to say, “Choose between us.” OK, this happens all the time, but I mean one parent should not do this, and frankly the one who does can be the one who doesn’t come. Your aunt is like a mother to you, and she should be at your wedding. Love trumps blood and your uncle and his new wife are being despicable. You can tell them you are inviting your aunt and you hope he and his new wife will also be at the wedding. Say that if they can’t be, you will miss them.
Q. Recording an Incident: A few years ago, my family went to the beach. Suddenly, a girl got caught in the sea currents and she was drowning. Luckily, a lifeguard was around taking the day off, an, after a few tense minutes, he saved the girl. I recorded the whole thing with my cellphone and my brother gave me a hard time about it. He said I was coldhearted and morbid. Lots of tragic videos are around and most people see them so I don’t think it is bad to record if one is witness to these events, of course, avoiding causing pain or discomfort to the victims or their families. Am I wrong?
A: If only someone with a cellphone had been at on the street in Ferguson that terrible day, we would have a lot better idea what happened. And history is grateful that Abraham Zapruder kept the camera to his eye as the assassination of John F. Kennedy unfolded in front of him. I hope that brave lifeguard got a commendation, and your recording could have been dramatic evidence of how to do a rescue. However, I share your brother’s unease with a voyeuristic celebration of the most harrowing moments of the lives of strangers. But you haven’t done anything with this video except hang on to it. Nowadays everyone carries with them an immediately available recording device. Events are no longer so ephemeral, and there’s no going back.
Q. Re: Professor With Cancer: My brother was a professor who died from cancer. He greatly enjoyed getting letters and cards from his students on how they enjoyed his classes. Now that he’s died, when people I meet ask if I have siblings, I say I have two, but have lost one to cancer, and then I move on to other topics, as you suggest. It’s a fairly easy nonconfrontational way to introduce the topic. Odd to be able to address two letters at once!
A: I’m sorry these letters were so apt and thanks for your insights. And let’s hope the young professor in question is soon back in front of the classroom.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone.
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