Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up below 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.)
Q. Makeup for My Little Nieces: I’m a college student home for the summer who took her nieces, ages 5 and 9, out for a day. While I was reapplying my red lipstick, the two girls begged me to let them wear it too because they wanted to look like me. I agreed. Later that day we took a picture, which I posted on Facebook. Their mother, my aunt, went ballistic, saying, among other things, that I was sexualizing them and a bad role model for wearing lipstick myself. She now doesn’t want me near my nieces and isn’t talking to my mom (her sister), who took my side on the issue. I’m really upset over this situation because I love spending time with my nieces and believe my aunt is teaching them toxic “lessons” about female sexuality. My question is twofold—first, was I wrong to let them wear lipstick, and second, what should I do now to reconcile this situation?
A: How sad that your aunt turned a fun day for her girls—topped by an application of fire engine red—into a bizarre and ugly gender war. Humans have been decorating themselves since we emerged as humans—prehistoric sites are filled with ochre used for body decorations, and little girls have always loved to play dress-up. Sadly, there’s no winning here. Your aunt is wrong, but she’s the mother of these girls. (She really believes a college student is either a hussy or betraying her sex by wearing makeup?) If you want to keep seeing your nieces, be the big one and apologize to your aunt. Say you were out of line to put lipstick on the kids, you understand why she was upset, and it won’t happen again. If she wants to hold this crazy grudge, then my heart goes out to her daughters, who have a lot of unpleasant years with a punitive mother ahead.
Q. Visiting In-Laws: About two years ago, my in-laws moved about 30 minutes from our home. My husband believes that we should visit every weekend. It takes about half a day, a quarter of the weekend. I work during the week and am primarily responsible for the kids, and all I find it is draining. I don’t mind if he visits but I would be happier if it were once or twice a month. Am I being selfish?
A: You work, he works—so why are you primarily responsible for the kids? Your husband is being a kid if he thinks raising your kids is your job—and while he wants to hang out with his parents every weekend. It’s wonderful that he’s a devoted son, but he needs to be as devoted a husband and father. However, I see a win-win here. If he wants to see his folks every weekend, and they’d surely like to see him and the grandkids, then he should pile everyone in the car, except you, and spend half a day visiting. That will give you some well-deserved time to sleep late, or go to the gym, or have brunch with friends. Sure, you can tag along on a monthly basis; otherwise, it’s your special time alone, and everyone else’s special time with the in-laws.
Q. Re: Makeup for My Little Nieces: While I completely agree that the aunt’s response was completely weird and concerning, it’s never a good idea to post pictures of someone else’s children online without parental permission. (Could this be the “among other things” that the aunt is upset about?)
A: Fair point about Facebook, although if the aunt doesn’t like photos of her kids being posted, all she had to do was explain that and ask that the picture be taken down. However, the aunt’s response goes so far beyond this, she sounds rather unhinged.
Q. Business School: I am attending a very elite business school in the fall and I happen to be a black female. I haven’t even started school yet and I have already gotten comments about how I was able to get in thanks to my skin color. Or how I won’t have to worry about getting a job because all the big companies are looking for diversity. How can I respond to people without seeming like I am overreacting or being overly aggressive? While putting them in their place? I worked just as hard and networked just as hard to get in.
A: Don’t underestimate the power of the nonplussed look and the shake of the head. Letting noxious words hang in the air can be very powerful. You don’t say who these people are or your relationship to them. But if you decide you want to engage, you could say something like “So you’re saying that my sole qualification for acceptance to this program is the color of my skin?” Expect sputtering to follow.
Q. Re: Visiting In-Laws: We live about 35 to 40 minutes from my parents and are having a baby this fall, and have already let them know our lives are busy, the weekend is a respite, and if they want to see the baby they are perfectly capable of driving into the city.
A: I hope you haven’t done it as curtly as you’ve expressed it here—unless you need to send your parents a message about their unreasonable demands. Keep in mind that when you tell people to come see you, they might not get the idea about when it’s time to leave.
Q. Re: Makeup for Nieces: Although I agree that the aunt overreacted, especially when calling her niece a bad role model, she’s certainly within her rights to not want her kids to wear lipstick. They are her kids—her rules. When in doubt, always ask the parents’ permission first. When I have other kids over for play dates, I clear everything first: Is it OK if we eat lunch here? Get ice cream? Walk to the park? Watch a PG movie?
A: If someone has a child who can’t eat ice cream or is not allowed to watch movies, that should be explained in advance. Otherwise, I would hope people who entrust their children to other parents for play dates feel comfortable enough to actually trust these parents to act as normal people. When my daughter was play-date age, I didn’t expect to have to sign off on every activity when she went to a friend’s house, and I didn’t ask permission to take the kids to the park or feed them lunch.
Q. Traitor at Work: I work at a very small company where we all fear for our jobs. A few weeks ago, I was accosted by my supervisor, asking me whether I knew of any way in which one colleague of mine (“Jen”) misperformed her duties. I was so stunned (and afraid) that I passed on a piece of gossip that I had heard from another colleague, according to which Jen had behaved less than professionally on one occasion. I regretted it immediately. But now Jen has been fired and I feel very guilty, as Jen has always been friendly, helpful, and professional in all her dealings with me, and I like her. I want to send her flowers as a thank-you for being a great help (which I don’t think has anything to do with my own guilt), but I don’t know how much she has been told about what I had revealed about her behind her back. What should I do?
A: Save the money on flowers—you may need it, because you may be next. Surely if your office operates on fear and gossip, everyone should be looking to get out. And if someone lost her job because of an unconfirmed, coerced piece of gossip, what a toxic stew your office is. However, instead of having the presence of mind to say you had nothing to say, you helped get a colleague fired. I’m surmising you don’t want to apologize to Jen, so I think it’s best you do nothing. Under the circumstances, sending her flowers is creepy.
Q. Re: The Red Lipstick Girls: If your aunt’s daughters are your mother’s nieces, they are your cousins.
A: Good point, thanks for catching. There’s apparently a lot of confusion in this family.
Q. The American Inquisition: I am a married man of two years. My marriage to my wife has been one of the best parts of my life in many ways. One thing that I’ve kept coming back to, though, is our topics of communication. Specifically, my wife likes to talk about the entire day and the decisions made throughout the day, as well as bringing up any long-term decisions or actions daily (such as getting our credit scores up even though we have a debt action plan), even if there’s no action to be taken that day. She also consistently asks me why I do any actions I recall or take. I am more comfortable with less communication on these topics, while my wife is comfortable with more. The reason this has been nagging at me is that I feel like we don’t have a chance to move beyond the mundane into much more interesting topics. I feel stunted intellectually, but maybe most importantly artistically, which is fueled by having those deeper conversations. What are your thoughts?
A: Oh, sorry, I entered a fugue state while you were describing your wife’s daily barrage of endless nattering and minutia. I wish you had described some of the wonderful things about your wife, because she sounds like a colossal bore. Maybe she also is struggling with anxiety because going over and over each daily decision and rehashing endlessly your FICO score indicates she is plagued by worry. You need to gently have a talk with her about this. You can say that you’re happy to go over the things that came up that she’s uncertain about, but if you two spend all night going over what happened during the day, you don’t get to explore more interesting topics. Then bring up more interesting topics! Or so some interesting things that will engage both of you and take her mind off the mundane.
Q. Re: Makeup for My Little Nieces: “When in doubt, always ask the parents’ permission first. When I have other kids over for play dates, I clear everything first. ” This person is right on the money, Prudie. It’s not about a lack of trust in the other parents. It’s just recognizing that every family is different and has different rules for their kids. Maybe the kids aren’t allowed to eat sugary snacks. Maybe they’re allowed to watch only G-rated movies. My little girls love makeup, and if I think makeup will be applied during play dates, I always check with the friends’ parents. My little girls also love scary action/monster movies. But a quick discussion with the other kids’ parents will let me know if we need to stick to Disney cartoons.
A: It’s one thing to check whether a child is up for a scary movie, or if the parents doing the drop-off say, “Please no cookies or ice cream.” But the point of play dates is not to recapitulate everything that happens at your own home, but to allow your child the fun of experiencing someone else’s rules. When I was growing up, there was no soda at my house, so I loved being able to get one at the homes of my friends. I am not a soda drinker to this day, I didn’t have it when my daughter was growing up, but I know she thought it was a wondrous treat at the homes of her friends. Unless there are specific and important restrictions, just let the kids have fun and experience the magic of how other people live.
Q. Re: Makeup for My Little Nieces: Yes, the little girls are LW’s cousins by blood. However, as cousin generally denotes a relationship between those of the same generation, it isn’t uncommon for young children to call older relatives and even close family friends “Aunt.”
A: Another good point, thanks.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Have a great week!