Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is online 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.)
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon. I look forward to your questions. I know summer’s not officially over, but it feels over.
Q. Reclining Seat Etiquette: Last week when I commented to my girlfriend about the person using the “knee-saver,” I told her that my usual tactic for dealing with recliners is to just put my knees up against the seat until the person stops trying to recline. I value the space in front much more than other people do, and almost never recline my seat. She told me that if she saw me doing that while I was sitting with her on a flight, that she would report me to the flight attendant! Obviously the situation is the fault of the airlines, but is it really so rude to just as silently say, “No, I don’t want you to recline” to someone who is practically putting their seat in my face without asking?
A: When the story broke about the plane that had to be diverted because a fight broke out over a reclining seat (and the new stories since then!), I just felt thankful I never caused a plane to land somewhere other than its destination. I once got in a hassle on a 15-hour flight with the person in front of me who refused to put her seat up so I could eat (the flight attendant intervened), but I am not proud of my knee-banging response. After that episode I promised my husband and daughter I would reform. I did, and now I just take it. Yes, indeed it is the airline’s fault. When you literally cannot reach to the floor to get your handbag to retrieve your glasses, tempers are going to flare. But the airlines are only going to cram us in tighter, so the only solution, when you find yourself with your circulation cut off at the waist, is to very politely ask the person in front of you if he or she would mind putting the seat up just a notch or two to give you a little more room. If the person would mind, then you endure it. However, these hassles are for the two parties to work out. Sure your girlfriend could tell you you’re being a jerk. But let’s hope she never has you hauled off the plane in handcuffs.
Q. Kindergarten Teacher Woes: It’s only the first week of school but I already have a concern about my son’s teacher. In her welcome letter to parents, she mentions the kids may see/hear/talk about Mr. “Joe” who is her boyfriend and likes to be in the classroom when he’s available. This seems very odd to me. I don’t know this man or his background. He’s not a teacher. I think a boyfriend in the classroom is a distraction and unprofessional. Do I bring it up with the teacher or go straight to the principal or school district?
A: It’s one thing to allow the babysitter to have her boyfriend come over to the house once the kids are asleep (and it’s fine to tell the babysitter that her boyfriend is not welcome when she’s on the job). It’s another to find out that “Mr. Joe” will be hanging around during nap time. Normally, when you have an issue with a teacher, you should first take it up directly with that teacher. But this teacher—on the evidence you have presented—seems to so utterly lack judgment that I would bypass her. Go in to see the principal. Be calm, not confrontational, and simply hand her the notice from the teacher. Say you would like a clarification about what’s going on, because you are uncomfortable with the notion that someone not employed by the school is going to be socializing with the teacher during school hours.
Q. Mom Affair: Due to a phone’s staying on, I heard my mother having a steamy sexual encounter with someone other than my father. This happened when she was out of town. I’m at a loss for what to do. I thought my parents were devoted to each other. I suppose it is possible that they are swingers, but my dad works from home (where I also live), and rarely goes anywhere without my mom. So I doubt that he has any such liaisons. I don’t know how to even begin to bring this up with either Mom or Dad. But living with this secret would drive me crazy! Should I confront my mom, tell my dad, or stay silent?
A: At some point after she said to you, “Bye, bye, Sweetie, have a good week” and continued with, “Hey, Big Boy, is that an AK47 in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?” you must have realized that Mom forgot the “end call” button. Yet instead of hanging up, you decided to hang on until the climax. You likely did hear what you think you heard, but you actually can’t confirm the particulars and you definitely don’t know the context. Maybe your mother has joined an avant garde community theater and was rehearsing their Shades of Grey production. If you bring this up to your parents, you could unravel their marriage. Or you could be told by your father that he and your mother have an understanding and it’s most unfortunate that now this understanding includes you. You accidentally started hearing something that was none of your business and decided not to stop. (Your mother screaming, “Don’t stop!” was not actually directed at you.) That’s your mistake. Don’t compound it by wading into the intimacies of your parents’ marriage.
Q. Baby Name and Porn: I was hoping you could settle an ongoing debate between my loving husband and me. I am currently pregnant with our first (and last, by mutual agreement) child. My husband is dead set on naming the child “Ariel,” which he says is a great name for all sexes. The only problem is that his first wife had a brief side career (during their marriage) as a pornographic actress, in which she starred in a film as “Miss Ariel,” as a slave to “Mistress Kelly.” I’ve told my husband that common sense dictates that you can’t name your child after your ex-wife’s porn name and that any etiquette maven would agree. Could you please weigh in?
A: Obviously the answer to this dilemma is to give your baby a much more traditional porn name. The popular formula is: first pet plus street you grew up on. That could result in your child being named Fluffly Third Avenue Phillips. But that’s better than thinking of your kid as, “Miss Ariel, slave to Mistress Kelly” for the rest of your life. I agree with you about common sense. I also wonder if before you got married you clarified how your husband had worked through the issues surrounding the fact that his first wife was a porn actress during their marriage, because apparently he hasn’t. I think you need to make clear that you would consider naming your child after someone near and dear to you both, and neither Miss Ariel nor Mistress Kelly fits.
Q. A Distracted Trucker: A high school classmate became a truck driver a few months ago. We’re friends on Facebook and he often describes how he texts, uses Facebook, and even watches videos behind the wheel. He also posts photos and videos taken while he is driving. His friends tell him it’s dangerous, but he scoffs. People tell him he could lose his job but he doesn’t think his boss can see his comments. Friends have complained so much that he was “sick of hearing” this and that, “I’m not going to stop. At all. Ever. So stop wasting your finger typing energy.” He’s posted the name of the trucking company he works for and I feel like I should send them some screenshots of these posts. I hesitate to put an old friend’s job at risk as he has a child. But he’s putting people’s lives at risk.
A: Send the screen shots, NOW! He has a child who is going to grow up fatherless if he is not stopped. Actually, since he’s in a truck, he might survive and end up taking out someone else’s father, or mother, or child, or entire family. After you contact the company you need to monitor your friend’s Facebook feed, and also check back with the firm that action was taken. If you see your friend is still trucking and still watching, forward your information to the police.
Q. Re: Kindergarten Teacher Woes: I have to wonder if the caller would have been so concerned if it was Miss Jane instead of Mr. Joe. While I certainly agree that noncertified and vetted people should be limited in the schools, as a male elementary teacher (who has taught kindergarten through eighth grade), I am well aware of the not-so-subtle sexism against my male counterparts.
A: Sure, there is something about hearing that a “Mr. Joe,” who is not a school employee is going to be hanging around the kids. It would raise the question in lots of minds as to whether Joe got involved with a kindergarten teacher in order to have access to kindergarten students. But no one not affiliated with the school or cleared by the school should be hanging around the classroom for no reason. Maybe the clarification will be that Joe is getting a masters in early childhood education and is interning at the school—but there would still be something odd about a couple hanging around together during the school day. Even if a teacher was having her mother help out in the class all the time, that would have to be something approved by the administration.
Q. Unwanted Affections: I first met Jacob when I was 18 years old at the tutoring center of the college I was attending. He was my tutor. We became friends and he eventually became a mentor to me. I continued contact with Jacob even after I graduated and even befriended his wife. One day, Jacob revealed his marital problems to me. He then confessed that he had been attracted to me since the day we met and asked if I wanted to hook up with him. I was blindsided and disgusted by his behavior and ceased contact with him. Jacob is now a professor at a different university in the area. I fear that he may abuse his position. Should I report his behavior to the dean of his university or even to his wife?
A: Jacob behaved abominably and you were right to cease contact with him. But if you analyze the facts of the case, you have nothing to report. He may have nurtured a desire to get you into bed from the moment he saw you. But he waited to spring this idea on you until you had graduated from college, were no longer in a teacher-student relationship, and you yourself were a young adult. (Note to jerks like Jacob: Saying stuff like, “I know you’re friends with my wife, but I actually can’t stand her and she’s terrible in bed, and I would really like to be sleeping with you” is not as seductive a line as you think.) You have no evidence at all that Jacob has behaved inappropriately with a current student, so no, I don’t think you should say anything to anyone at his university. And as for his wife, I think this is a situation from which you are best walking away, not getting in deeper.
Q. Re: Mr. Joe: My husband helps in my classroom before he goes to work and during his lunch sometimes. There aren’t a lot of people who will do heavy lifting, fix broken shelves, install a projector bulb at the last minute. And as for administration, I see my principal a few times a month. We are all overworked and need all the help we can. I tell parents and students to expect my husband to be volunteering, and that they are welcome to volunteer, too!
A: Lots of people are saying teachers are desperate for good volunteers, especially those that are in cash-strapped districts where teacher aids have been cut. Yes, Joe might be the greatest thing to happen to the kids, and we need more men in the classroom. But I still think it’s reasonable for the mother to calmly check with the administration that they know Joe will be there and that he’s gone through the kind of background checks that are standard for the district.
Q. Re: Thoughts of Hurting 3-Year-Old: The letter from the man who fantasized about hurting his nephew needs to discuss this with a therapist who works with OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). It is not unusual for a person with OCD to have thoughts pop into their head that are disturbing to them and try not to think them. The fact that these thoughts are bothersome to the person is an indicator that they do not like the thoughts and would not act on them. If OCD is not considered, a therapist could miss it, as people with OCD will sometimes see a therapist for years without being properly diagnosed.
A: Thank you for this note about last week’s column. Indeed, I have heard from many people, including those with OCD and mental health professionals, who have made the same suggestion. I hope the letter writer indeed sees a therapist right away and brings up this potential diagnosis. If that is the case, he can quickly get help for these disabling thoughts.
Q. Carbs: My wife insists that all flour-based carbs are bad for my health. I’ve been following my doctor’s recommendation by replacing unhealthy carbs with healthy ones (replacing white bread with whole wheat, white rice with brown, etc.). My wife will have none of it, even going so far as to throw out my whole wheat bread and brown rice. I’ve explained to her why these are healthy, but she doesn’t believe it (we had the same argument about vaccines for kids—she finally relented after months of arguing and our kids now have all of their shots.) Should I just try to wear her down again? Is this some kind of mental illness? Nothing else in her behavior seems odd.
A: This is a bad day for your side. The New York Times has a story on a big study out of the National Institutes of Health showing that a high-protein, high-fat diet totally beats a high-carb one for weight loss and general health. However, low carb doesn’t mean no carb, and complex carbs (as opposed to highly refined manufactured food) certainly have a place in a healthy diet. In addition, you are an adult and while it may come as a surprise to your wife, you get to decide what you eat. It is a very good thing you won the vaccination war with her—that’s far more important than whether you start the day with toast. I often recommend the intervention of a professional, but in this case, I think you two need a nutritionist, not a therapist. Find one who is certified, recommended, and most of all not a nut. That way you can both get your questions answered and come up with a plan for the whole family to eat healthy—and even get your wife out of your cereal bowl.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks everyone. I am off next Monday so no live chat then. We’ll run Part 2 of this week’s chat write-up instead.
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