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Carolyn Hax Live: Advice columnist tackles your problems

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Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 4, 2009; 12:00 PM

Carolyn was online Friday, December 4 for her Holiday Hootenanny, taking your questions and comments about her current advice column and any other questions you might have about the strange train we call life. Her answers may appear online or in an upcoming column.

Carolyn's Recent Columns

Past Carolyn Hax Live Discussions

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Carolyn Hax: Hi, everybody. I'm getting a flood of notices that my column of Nov. 22 contains inaccurate information: namely, that parents of college students automatically receive their children's grades. Privacy laws now enable colleges to send grades only if the student signs a release.

This was the first I had heard of this change, and so it didn't occur to me to check for accuracy before I filed that column; I didn't know there was anything to check. Argh. I am sorry for my ignorance.

However, now that I know, I would amend my answer only in one way: to say that any parents who are footing the bill for college have a right to do so on the condition that their kids sign that release.

I realize many may regard this as preparation for failure, the way, say, prenuptial agreements are often viewed.

However, in accepting a gift as large as college tuition, I believe a student with the maturity worthy of such a gift will agree that parents have the right to mind their investment. Accepting money for college (i.e., accepting anything less than complete independence from parents) means accepting even this minimal level of parental oversight, if only as the last bit of monitoring before the cord is cut. After all, nosedives happen in college, even to so-called "good" kids. Depression, for example, is a common, non-discriminating agent of the collegiate crash.

Parents have an obligation of their own, to keep this oversight minimal; ranting over one bad grade, for example, is to infantilize a near-adult child. The point of having the grades is to spot a nosediver, or even a blatant advantage-taker. Otherwise, it's best for both parties to leave sufficient room for that nearly grown child to finish the task at hand.

Thanks to everyone who called my error to my attention.

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Carolyn Hax: Also, confidential to "Somewhere in the East," from the Nov. 20 discussion: I'm asking again, please write to me at tellme@washpost.com. I will not publish anything--it can be between us.

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Carolyn Hax: Hi, everybody. Pops filed his 2009 re-mangling of "The Night Before Christmas" on time, so we're on for the Hootenanny of Holiday Horrors in the second half of the show. I'm hoping it kicks me into the holiday spirit, because I'm just not there yet for some reason. Couldn't even face putting the tree up, which we do every year the Sunday after Thanksgiving. So, pull up a Death Chair, and keep an eye out for bad verse, worse annual holiday letters, and a special guest appearance by Hank Stuever's Christmas survey.

Until then, let's air our usual grievances.

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What's the deal: Tiger, Eliot, Bill, John Edwards, John Ensign, Mark Sanford, and any number of other famous people. I actually don't think the rate of adultery is that higher whether you're in public life, private life or Ohio. When is the first person going to come out and say "Yep, I cheated. But darn it, you'd figure since so many people seem to do it (including most, if not all of the greats, JFK, MLK, FDR) - maybe we need a fundamental reassesment of marriage, fidelity and monogamy?"

Carolyn Hax: I agree with the last part, and have said it before--though I would be more specific here, and say that we need both a societal reassessment of our mass idiocy over famous people's affairs (our need-to-know level on Sanford and, say, Spitzer warranted the coverage, since their infidelities overlapped with their public obligations; our need-to-know level on Tiger? 0)--and I think we all should be more rigorous in our own thinking about marriage, fidelity and monogamy.

People in general seem to embrace an under-scrutinized, rather simplistic societal/party line as their own set of principles, yet reality insists on being complicated in spite of (in part because of?) that. I think an important precursor to making a commitment to anyone is to scrutinize one's own principles, and specifically to scrutinize one's tolerance for complexity.

I don't fully agree with the first part of what you said. I believe infidelity is often a "crime" of opportunity, which would make it more prevalent among those with a lot of opportunities. If you're a star athlete, for example, it's pretty much a given that you have an opportunity waiting outside the locker room every day. We mortals just don't have to fight that kind of temptation, and I do think that has to be considered.

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Alexandria, Va.: I recently broke up with my live-in boyfriend of three years. I have been through break-ups before but this has really hit me hard. I was taken aback by how different it feels than the other ones (non-live-in break-ups). I still live in the same condo(I own it) and I find it harder and harder to stay there...I cannot sell it (which would be drastic and the market is crap)so I am really struggling to get it together.

Carolyn Hax: I'm sorry. I could suggest you rent another place and rent out your condo, but the truth is people have been finding ways to live with their ghosts since well before there was such a thing as a real estate market.

Since one of your problems is that you are still grieving, and since the other is that your apartment hosted your once-happy relationship, combine the two to find, ifnot a complete solution, then at least some relief. Work through your grief by updating your apartment, and using it to host a new set of memories.

I'm assuming you'd have to do this upgrade on the cheap, and that might actually be to your advantage. Making big changes on a small budget forces creative thinking, and that forces your brain to work on something other than re-living your past three years. If you have some good old friends or even some encouraging new ones, then recruit them to help you, even if it's just to have them over for a movie solicit their ideas.

It really is possible to trick your eyes into seeing your home as a different place. But that's not the only point of the project; time is going to help you get over this grief, no matter what, and a project is going to make that time go faster and in a happy direction.

Good luck and have fun.

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Too fragile?: My live-in significant other makes fun of me a lot. It's never cruel and he never does it in front of other people, but it's exhausting and especially after long days, he definitely strikes a chord. When I protest or tell him to stop he'll pull the typical "oh, you're so sensitive" or "where did your sense of humor go?". I know you've addressed this issue in a column in the last couple years, but I can't seem to find it. Can you reaffirm your stance on this annoying habit and subsequent bad feelings? The persistence always shocks me-there is nothing else we deal with where he blatantly ignores my request for him to cut it out.

Carolyn Hax: "Let's say I am sense-of-humor challenged. That still doesn't answer the question, why would you knowingly do something that bothers me?"

What I have written before is that people who love you and care about you won't look for reasons to blame you for their behavior.

His making fun of you is actually a different issue from the "oh, you're so sensitive" responses. His teasing could just be his way--which, then, would present you with a decision, accept it or break up with him--but the blame shifts aren't something anyone should tolerate. Blame shifts are his refusal to take responsibility for who he is, and that's so much worse than what might otherwise have been just some good-natured if tone-deaf ribbing. Please treat the two as separate when you talk to him about this.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Hi Carolyn -

Please help. My 6-year-old has all of a sudden started saying she doesn't want to be around her daddy (my husband). She hates when I leave the house without her and cries before and after he takes her anywhere himself. She used to adore him. My husband is clueless about what brought on this change and so am I. I have started to think terrible thoughts, like that he might have done something to her I don't know about, but I hate to ask that and undermine our marriage on what might be the flightiness of a dramatic little girl. I have not yet asked a pediatrician about this.

Carolyn Hax: Ask your pediatrician, asap. I would say to ask your 6-year-old directly--that's certainly old enough for her to verbalize a problem--but you have to be so careful not to put words in a child's mouth that I feel more comfortable steering you to a pro.

I'm not trying to alarm you, just urging you to treat your daughter's behavior as an alarm, even while you keep your mind completely open about what the alarm is about. I.e., do not rush to any conclusions, but instead rush to competent, trained avenues for diagnosing the problem.

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Washington, D.C.: Carolyn,

I'm submitting early because I'm stuck in an all day meeting on Friday.

My question is: How do I learn to lighten up? I have been getting more defensive and less fun over the past couple of years. I am also uncomfortable with having personal conversations with pretty much anyone, even my boyfriend. Why am I so closed up, and how do I fix this? (I'm hoping the answer is in a book, not on a couch).

Thanks

Carolyn Hax: What us it that you resent having to share? Anything specific?

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Dupont Circle, D.C.: How do you prepare to move in with someone? Or is being anxious a sign of a bad idea? We are both very introverted homebodies who think our living space is our castle. I can forsee one of us just wanting the other person to not be around sometimes. We're looking at places with a lot of space for our brooding selves to be able to escape to. Are we doing the right thing?

Carolyn Hax: Dunno. Why are you moving in together?

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No pets allowed: When your child wants a pet but you are seriously allergic, what do you do? I know, don't get the pet. It breaks my heart not to let her have the pet she wants. As the only child of a single mom she gets a little lonely sometimes. A friend suggested periodically fostering animals that will eventually get a permanent home not with us, but that will still put the allegens in our house. And allergens stay even when the animal leaves. Any suggestions?

Carolyn Hax: How old is she, and does her being with pets outside the house bring in enough allergens on her clothing to aggravate your allergies?

If she's old enough, I'm thinking, she can either start a pet-watching/walking business, or volunteer at shelter.

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Re: college grades: One further clarification, please (I'm an employee at a large university and trained on FERPA): FERPA allows any parent who claims a student as a dependent on their tax returns FULL access to that student's educational record. Although the school may or may not directly mail the grades, the parent can call and ask if the student is a dependent (which, if the parents are footing the bill, they probably are).

Carolyn Hax: Thanks--I'm posting this unverified, given the nature of the chat.

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London: Dear Carolyn,

My former future mother-in-law (the engagement didn't work out) has been keeping in contact with me through email. She's a nice lady and I wanted to maintain a friendship with her. She has been asking about the dissolution of our engagement, why it happened, etc. The truth is that her son cheated on me multiple times with the same woman--who claims to have been pregnant by him at one point--and lied about it until I confronted him with undeniable proof. It is clear that he has told his mother a different story and made it seem like I was too rigid or something. It's fine if his mom doesn't know all the details, but it doesn't seem fair that she should think I'm the bad guy or that my ex expects me to support his lie by omitting the truth. Since she's asking me directly, am I allowed to tell her what really happened?

Carolyn Hax: Think of it this way: She has presumably gotten an answer to the same question from her son. That she is asking you now means she, on some level, doesn't buy his answer.

I would suggest you take that approach. Tell the mom that it feels strange to tell the son's business to the mom, then ask her--did he not give her an explanation? See what she has to say to that.

I actually don't think you should spell it out for her--it's between you and your ex, after all, and it really isn't even her place to be asking--but also don't take it so far that you start sounding coy. I just think it's fair to ask her to lay her cards on the table before you decide what to do with yours.

If you're satisfied that she has a legitimate interest in knowing the truth, then you might just want to say, "He hurt me very badly, and I hope he's honest with you about that."

Again--she may be his mom, but the details are not her business.

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Re: Lightening up: The poster who needs to lighten up started by saying she would be in an all-day meeting, so my guess is that she ain't going to write back to answer your questions.

Carolyn Hax: Oh, duh. Thank you. Next week, then ...

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Chinatown, D.C. : I'm a gay female and my best friend/roommate is a straight female. We are both pretty shy in social situations so we prefer to go out together, when we go out. The problem is that I go along with her to mainstream bars and clubs and she never seems willing to reciprocate by joining me at gay venues. She gets lots of male attention when we go out and has met many nice guys this way, but our outings don't offer much for me in that area. Would it be overstepping a boundary to ask her to return the favor for me once in a while? I get that she might be uncomfortable hanging out at gay clubs, but that's pretty much how I always feel at straight clubs.

Carolyn Hax: How would that be overstepping a boundary? Just ask. Fair's fair.

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I'm not feeling the holiday spirit yet either: Why do you think that is? I could barely manage to pull out my Santa Claus cookie jar, much less do any other decorating. I can't pinpoint why. I'm not depressed, nothing tragic has happened recently, etc. Maybe I'm just tired? The holidays ARE a lot of effort. I do think a tiny part of me thinks it's ridiculous- I am very fortunate, as are my loved ones, so the idea of spending hours on end searching for gifts in a ridiculous squandering of money on things we don't need while others have fallen on hard times... well, I can't get excited for it. Am I just being a stick in the mud?

Carolyn Hax: That's me, too! "I'm not depressed, nothing tragic has happened recently, etc."! Even the etc.! And I usually love this ... just the decorating/music-and-lights stuff, even the parties--I'm not a big shopper and most years I don't receive any gifts, so I know it's not about money or malls. And, I'm tired all the time, so this year has no reason to stand out.

A mystery, I tell you.

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Washington, D.C.: Carolyn: I think you are missing part of the answer in your response to the woman whose boyfriend teases her. I am like that boyfriend -- I have always enjoyed relationships with women when the two of us enjoyed teasing and laughing with one another. I have, however, sometimes dated women (briefly) who don't enjoy that sort of interaction, and like the poster, don't find the humor in it. Those relationships have usually died a quick death because I don't like getting shut down and accused of offensiveness, but mostly because I just miss the intimacy and playfulness of joking with someone I care about.

So it's not just about a boyfriend who rudely refuses to stop teasing his girlfriend. It could also be about a boyfriend who is trying to have the type of relationship and interaction that he needs and wants.

Carolyn Hax: Then he needs to say so. I think I was quite clear in my answer: The teasing could well have been good-natured, but blaming her for it was not. If someone doesn't "enjoy that kind of interaction," then you don't do it, and then you see if you can he happy in a relationship that way. If you can't then you break up. What you don't do is call her a humorless stiff and keep teasing her, knowing it makes her feel bad.

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For SS with scared 6-year-old: I had a friend years ago whose 4-year-old son started screaming and would not go in the car with the father. Neither parent knew what was wrong. Long story short - about six months later it came out that he had been in the car with dad who had to slam on the brakes to avoid a bad accident that happened - they saw someone get hit on a bike by a car. The kid saw the whole thing and was afraid to get in the car with the father and was also afraid of his bike.

Carolyn Hax: This is why I tried to underscore the part about not jumping to any conclusions. Thanks for such a clear example.

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USA: My 24-year-old son is fighting overseas and I am upside-down with worry. I cannot think about anything but him and I shake whenever I answer the phone, check the mail or open the front door. My work is suffering and I know I am being a terrible parent to my other child. How do other military moms deal with this? I am not part of the military family community and don't know where to turn for support.

Carolyn Hax: Please get some counseling of some sort, be it through the military (you say "other military moms," so I'm assuming your son is military; if so, you might have access you don't realize) or through a private provider. If your job offers an EAP, you can start there, with just a phone call. You wouldn't leave a persistent fever untreated, so don't leave your persistent anxiety untreated either.

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202: I have been dating someone for just about a year. We are very close and 95 percent of the time have just a wonderful relationship, lots of fun, lots of cooking, lots of joint 'projects' and plans and we both get along very very well with each others families. For the most part it actually seems like we're right along the path to getting married. We have a couple problems - one is that he loves politics and especially liberal American ones and I am a bit more conservative and interested in different kinds of politics. He is a debator and can get really agressive with me when discussing them. Second - he is new to the area and only has about three friends so he doesn't really have anyone else near by to talk to about those things or to confide in. He wants to move in and I want that too, but I really am scared that if he does not make more friends that the political arguments will strain our relationship too much. How do you know when someone is the one or when the tides are just pulling you together?

Carolyn Hax: Wrong question.

Right question: How do you know when it's a bad idea to move in with someone:

Answer: When you have a significant unsolved problem.

The 5 percent of your relationship that is not wonderful may feel small, but it doesn't if you phrase it differently:

Let's say, for purposes of argument, a weekend is 48 hours, and you sleep for 16 of those. Take 5 percent of the 32 waking hours, and you spend 1.6 hours of your weekend with your boyfriend aggressively arguing against you on issues you don't even want to talk about.

You need to make clear to him that you regard this as a problem--you and he don't agree on politics and, more important, you don't enjoy the way you and he talk about them. Air this out so you and he can try to find a solution.

To answer your question anyway: When you think it's possible the tides are pulling you together, then you have to assume that's true unless and until you are confident it isnt.

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Re: Not feeling the holiday spirit: Me again. Yes, it is a mystery. I actually had a thought last night- what if I don't decorate this year? (I know, livin' life on the wild side.)Will I regret it? Maybe it would be oddly thrilling. But very odd because I, too, usually love this time of year. I used to love nothing more than turning off all the lights and looking at my illuminated Christmas tree. Sigh...

Carolyn Hax: Don't decorate! Maybe if you wait the urge will come to you, and you'll enjoy it. I say this not having much of a choice myself--my kids love Christmas too much. I must tree, tree I must.

Some people are saying it's the weather, but it seems typical of here ... others say the economy, and that makes sense, since to feel lucky for what one has is not necessarily the same as feeling celebratory.

But I have to think we'll have much to celebrate (or much incentive to hit the celebratory open bar) after you all read this:

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Carolyn Hax: Pops's Night Before Christmas

2009

("Est. 1972, and There's Still No Excuse for It")

'Twas the night before Christmas

And all through the nation,

We're having a dose of

Economic stagnation.

The stockings were hung

By the chimney with care.

Expecting an iPod?

You're getting a pear.

The children were nestled

All snug in their beds;

Their blankets, alas,

Were missing some threads.

So Ma's in her kerchief,

And I'm in my bonnet.

I'd just set my book aside

With my chewing gum on it.

When out on the lawn

I heard some shouting--

Like when the democrats

Are having their outing.

Away to the window

I flew in a hurry,

I stepped in slippers--

They were soft and furry.

The moon on the breast

Of the new-fallen snow ...

Many lines for this one,

Most of them no-no.

When what to my wondering

Eyes should appear--

I suppose you're expecting

Eight tiny reindeer.

But no, not this time--

Twenty elves instead.

The reindeer were expensive

And these guys need the bread.

Slower than turtles,

The little guys lugged.

But there was no complaining

(The harnesses were bugged).

"On Shorty! On Peewee!

On Stumpy and Lumpy!

Get a move on, guys!

You're making me grumpy!"

To the top of the porch,

Then over the trellis.

Did I mention the elf,

Whose first name was Alice?

As dry leaves before

The wild leafblower fly,

And get to the street,

As the leaf truck goes by ...

So up to the housetop

The twenty elves hauled.

Six of them walked,

The rest of them crawled.

And then in a twinkling

I saw something grand:

The sleigh was on final,

Preparing to land.

As I took a step back

And was turning my head

Down the flue came a fat guy

"Dropping in?" I said.

He was dressed all in fur

From his head to his toes

The fur was not real, of course

Everyone knows.

A bundle of toys

He'd pulled off the sled:

A ray gun for Sally,

A Barbie for Fred.

His eyes how they twinkled

His dimples how merry;

His cellulite, of course,

Was cause to be wary.

His droll little mouth

Was drawn up like a bow.

His diet was greasy,

Causing pimples to grow.

The stump of a pipe

He held tight in his jaws.

(He whined about headaches;

This might be the cause.)

He had a broad face

And his belly was round.

His daily nutrition

Was whatever he found.

He laughed and he laughed--

Twas more like a bray.

If we laughed like that,

They'd take us away.

With a twitch in his lids

And an odd grin, he said

"I'm too old to do this,

I'm feeling half-dead."

Then he forgot me

And set to his task.

Why does he do it?

Well, why don't you ask?

He then placed the Barbie

Under a truck,

Squirmed up the chimney,

And nearly got stuck.

He crawled to his sleigh

And slumped in his seat.

He wiggled his bottom,

Then wiggled his feet.

But I heard him exclaim

As he drove out of view,

"Pull harder this time,

Or it's pink slips for you!"

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Bring 'em on!: I can't believe anything will top last year's story of the mother who threatened to kill the father, "the same as I did my first husband," where the kids had no idea the first husband even existed -- but I am willing to be persuaded!

Carolyn Hax: There you have it, like the wonder of a child before a roomful of wrapped goodies.

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For the Holiday Drama Shindig: This is the holiday drama chat, isn't it? If so, I'm submitting early because I'll be at work. If not, well, hope you're amused anyway. =) This is a bit second-hand, but that may help protect the guilty.

So my brother decides to host a big holiday party and goes through the effort of preparing food for all of his friends. Problem is, they brought their own chicken wings and cooked them in the microwave in the game room. So not only are they not eating the food he went through all the trouble to make, the game room stinks of chicken.

The clincher is one friend is allergic to chicken. No problem, eh? Bro has non-chicken food he can eat. HA. Allergic Friend eats the chicken, knowing he's allergic, and knowing he will be sick from it. AF then spends the next TWO HOURS in the bathroom throwing up, so now the game room smells of chicken and vomit.

Finally, Dad comes by and asks if AF is okay driving home. "Oh, he didn't drive," Bro says, "his brother brought him."

"SO WHY THE HELL ISN'T HIS BROTHER TAKING HIM HOME?!?!"

My question indeed.

(Yes, AF is banned from the house now.)

Carolyn Hax: I'll start with this, to transfer the warm glow of anticipation to those who are hosting parties tonight. (This does seem to be opening weekend ...)

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Christmas Town, North Pole: Carolyn: Happy Holidays! I submitted this question a couple of weeks ago and didn't get an answer, but hoping it'll be more topical for today's chat. So:

My husband and I are expecting our first baby in February (yay!). As the holidays approach, I have discovered that my husband thinks it's wrong to "lie" to children and tell them there's a Santa. He's very forthright and honest --- it's one of the things I most admire about him, and something he feels is basic to his character. He also had issues with dishonesty and secrecy from his own parents (on a way different level --- hidden former marriages and step-siblings, etc.), and is resolved not to repeat that. So, I get it.

On the other hand, I have wonderful magical memories of my Dad playing out the Santa fantasy with us, leaving out cookies the night before, coming out on Christmas morning to find the cookies half eaten and presents with tags from Santa. I don't recall any feelings of betrayal finding out the truth, as I got older, just warm feelings of protecting my Dad from knowing I knew, so we could still have the tradition. I want my child to have that.

But I'm not sure it's possible, if Mom is leaving out cookies, and Dad is saying "mmm, I'm sure going to enjoy eating those cookies after you go to bed."

Any suggestions from you or the peanuts on how to handle this one?

Carolyn Hax: I was going to answer this as a light question, but it's really not--your husband is operating from a position of post-damage resolve, which I get, too. But there's a problem with approaching childrearing as a matter of righting past wrongs: Not everything is going to fit the narrow parameters of a mission like that. The Santa thing might be the one you've hit upon, but there are bound to be similar conflicts of greater consequence.

Mainly, there's the issue of how much truth he plans to tell. Kids aren't ready for the whole load at once. They don't have the language right away, they don't have the cognitive capacity, they don't have the emotional resources. So even answering a child's direct question puts even the truth-tellingest of parents in the position to do some fast and furious calculations on how much honesty is necessary to qualify as an "honest" answer.

Yours is an issue of his forthrightness, but a similar clash happens with just about anyone who says, "I'm never going to do X with my kids," no matter what the X is. We got a pile of them this week in Hax-Philes--X can be "feed my daughter princess myths" or "get a divorce" or "let them eat junk" or whatever. There's no end to wrongs we can perceive in our upbringings. But letting these wrongs backhandedly drive the parenting bus is often to miss other significant concerns that have an equal claim for time at the wheel.

Which is all to say, ho ho ho.

Kidding. I was all set to be punchy.

Which is all to say, your best approach on the Santa collision course might just be to 1. get some formal, maybe group counseling/instruction on parenting, before the baby comes, and 2. accept that your kids probably won't get the Santa story. I.e., skip the little battle to focus on the bigger one.

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30 years and counting (for Hootenanny of Holiday Horrors): As a kid I always felt like a second-class member of the family when the stockings were put out at my paternal Grandma's house. My sister had her own, personalized stocking, whereas my stocking had been re-purposed by taping paper over my cousin's name and writing my name on it (she had moved away so no longer came for the holidays). Same side of the family, imagine a 9 year old's surprise when she opened aunt's present and found a box of soup mix. Mom taught me well, for I smiled and said thank you without showing my disappointment before I found out it was a recycled box with something else in it.

Now I'm fixated on making sure I find a matching stocking for our second child before he's old enough to notice a difference, and wondering how I start teaching the kids about graceful politeness.

Carolyn Hax: Why wonder? You have the recipe right there--masking tape, someone else's stocking and an old box of soup mix.

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Our 2009 Family Holiday Quote: So there's my husband, cleaning out the fridge in a bit of a dudgeon; I'm on the computer; visiting daughter, busy with grandson. Husband blurts out something in an urgent tone; I catch "butt" and "turkey" (turkey was thawing in the fridge) and I think 'Yeah, and -- ?' Daughter wonders, "'But' -what about?] 'the turkey!'" Neither of us takes any action -- doing what?

Husband comes stumbling towards me, cradling the turkey in one arm with his other arm resting oddly on top of it. "Hurry! It's heavy!"

Daughter and I are still bewildered -- "hurry" to do what, exactly?

"I'M BUTTONED TO THE TURKEY!"

And then we catch on that the shirt cuff button on the sleeve of that oddly-resting upper arm is caught in the mesh outer bag of the turkey.

We almost wet ourselves before we got him free.

Carolyn Hax: I initially read it as "dungeon," which almost made the real thing anticlimactic.

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Busted by my 3-year-old: He came home from preschool and asked what had happened to the roof of the gingerbread house we assembled together....

Carolyn Hax: You said, I hope, "Mmm? Mmmf mmf mmf ..." and looked all over the house for it.

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Hank Stuever's Christmas Survey: Take Hank Stuever's Red-Nosy Christmas survey here!

Carolyn Hax: Hank would know why I don't have a tree yet.

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Midwest: Regarding kids being taught to express gratitude for a gift, whatever it may be and however they may feel about it, here is a legendary phrase in our family, spoken by my four-year-old daughter:

"Just what I ever always wanted! What is it?"

Carolyn Hax: Genius, thanks.

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For Ms. Santa Fantasy: Congrats on baby. Here's an idea: Why not have the kids help put Dad into a Santa costume and play along in your own family play. Pretend to put on pajamas and go to bed. "Secretly" watch Santa put gifts under the tree and take the cookies. Even little kids can get into play-acting; think it's funny; get to enjoy the theater, or fantasy aspect. Without there being any dishonesty involved.

Carolyn Hax: I think some dads just collectively uttered something unprintable ... so, here it is!

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Accept that your kids probably won't get the Santa story: Ohhhh, HELL no. No. This guy needs to get over it -- meaning his past and whatever happened to him, like, what?, 20 years ago.

I'm honestly not playing it down - I know we've all had something happen in our past that has transformed us. BUT, there comes a time to curb that when it comes to children. Namely, letting them believe in something fantastic. Whether it be faires or Harry Potter or whatever -- their little imaginations thrive on it, and I really can't imagine a worse thing than taking away the innocence (maybe too strong a word) of getting to believe in Santa.

I say it's time to nip this problem in the bud NOW, and starting with this.

Carolyn Hax: We're agreeing on nipping it in the bud, but i'm not sure about the "starting with this." (Not sure to the contrary, either.) Thanks for weighing in.

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Christmas story - three old ladies and a fake tattoo: I have 3 elderly female relatives that we affectionately call "Charlie's Angels". A couple of years ago, one of them found a fake tattoo that said "Ho, Ho, Ho", and they thought it would be cute to cut it up and each wear one of the "Hos" on their arm. Cue 3 old ladies with HO tattoos. They even wore them to a neighbor's open house and showed them off to everyone. Of course they had no idea why everyone was cracking up. It was awesome. (they were great sports about it when we finally told them - I hope to be as cool as they are when I'm that age).

Carolyn Hax: Nicely done, Angels.

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Grampa's breasts: One memorable holiday, we all traveled down to be with my grandfather who was hosting (and wanted to) on his own after my grandmother died.

Grampa was discussing his plans for the meal, the chicken, the vegetables, etc., with my parents shortly after we got there, and his hands started talking along with him. So he demonstrated the package size as he said "I got a package of 6 breasts" and held out his hands in a manner that looked as if he were ready to grab his own (if he'd had any). Mom tried really really hard, but she lost it.

Fortunately Gramps had a great sense of humor with a wicked bawdy tint to it and for the rest of the weekend, it was all about Grampa's breasts.

Carolyn Hax: As it should be.

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Holiday jealousy: My husband and I are both only children and our parents compete unabashedly for our time at holidays. We have tried everything from splitting the day in half to alternating Thanksgiving with Christmas and nothing makes them happy. Both our mothers have wound up crying on the phone about this on more than one occasion. The problem has gotten 10,000 times worse since we had our baby. This year we saw my in-laws for Thanksgiving because the travel arrangements were just easier. But before we went, my MIL called to say she would rather have us for Christmas and that if we were to choose, we should skip Thanksgiving and come then instead. We stuck to our original plan and she reminded us several times over the visit that she had already "put in a request" for Christmas. But my mother is expecting to see us since we didn't come for Thanksgiving. What should we do? We can't keep doing this indefinitely and we're this close to just staying home from now on.

Carolyn Hax: Maybe we should vote at the end to see who is most in need of having a standing Christmas date with a cruise ship.

The only alternative is that you get much (much) firmer in your approach ... or, I suppose: Have you considered hosting Christmas and having both sets of parents come?

I think I just heard another collective utterance of something unprintable.

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703: An acquaintance of mine forwarded me a coupon for laser hair removal this morning.

I just thought you might find that amusing.

Carolyn Hax: As long as you did.

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My husband wanted total honesty about Santa, too!: What finally persuaded him to play along in the end was reminding him that we didn't want our kids to be the ones spilling the beans at school and ruining it for the other families. We don't get super elaborate with the half eaten cookies and other "evidence" but Santa leaves a gift.

Carolyn Hax: Right, forgot the part about raising human spoiler alerts. That's a good bit of leverage. Not that one should think in such terms in one's marriage or anything.

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my husband thinks it's wrong to "lie" to children and tell them there's a Santa. : Tell him Santa Claus is a fairy tale. He doesn't think it's wrong for children to enjoy fairy tales, does he? Is he going to sit at the ballet and tell them, "That Nutcracker isn't really a handsome prince, it's just a person pretending to be one" -- might help to frame the discussion that way.

Carolyn Hax: The barrel-of-laughs implications of absolute truth-telling are endless, aren't they. "That's 'Elmo,' but really just some fuzz being moved around by hands and wires." Thanks.

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Ms. Scrooge: I used to love the holidays. But in the last few years, I feel overwhelmed and depressed by the holiday season because it highlights how bad our relationships are with some of our siblings. I don't know what to buy one family because we don't get along. They barely speak to us when we are at big family gatherings, other than the brother ordering everyone around. An email I sent asking for suggestions was not even responded to. My own sibling and I used to be close but the spouse doesn't like me and that has caused problems. For most of the year, I can accept that this is how things are, but I feel like it's hard to put it out of my mind when I'm spending so much time thinking about them or dealing with them by shopping for them, navigating which family to visit for which holiday, etc. My mom in particular makes things difficult because she wants our family to be close, and we're not anymore. Any suggestions for how to keep this from getting me down from mid-November through New Year's?

Carolyn Hax: So far you get my vote for the cruise date.

To help you through it, it might make sense to start thinking in terms of what's possible to change, and what you're stuck with. E.g., you're stuck (so far) with the spouse notliking you, but you can commit, starting now, to make a careful and consistent effort to improve your relationship with your sister. You're stuck with a splintered family, but you can choose not to go to these painful gatherings, and you can invite your mom to come see you. You're stuck with relatives who don't answer your request for gift ideas, but you can find a huge selection of perishable gifts and shop for them that way, since people are pretty easy to please with fruit or chocolate or wine.

You're stuck with holidays that no longer resemble what you loved about them, but it's in your power to start making them into something else.

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Stockings: I totally have that with the stockings, too! My older sister's stocking was fancy and wonderful and mine was practically an old sock, an afterthought. My now 40-year old sister still loves stockings and I feel, meh. What was wrong with my parents? For what it's worth, the value of the items in the stockings were always equivalent, just the quality of the receptacle itself differed. I think they probably always meant to update mine but since they got put out the night before they always forgot, and I never thought to complain.

Carolyn Hax: I never realized Post Traumatic Stocking Disorder was so prevalent.

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"Just what I wanted.": My favorite kid at Christmas story ever:

When my nephew was three, he was (actually, still is) one of the most polite and well- mannered children I've ever met.

On Christmas morning, he opened all of the cheap little knick-knacks and tiny toys in his stocking with complete glee, although none of it was on his wish list and half of it wasn't even toys. With every item he pulled out, he'd cry "Thank you! It's just what I wanted!" "Wow! It's just what I wanted!"

He finally reached the bottom of the stocking, where my family has always placed an orange to weigh down the stocking and help its shape. He pulled out the orange, stared at it for a moment, and then looked around with a solemn expression and said quietly, "I didn't ask for this."

Carolyn Hax: "But you'll eat it and like it."

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Re; Holiday Jealousy: Since the two sets of parents "compete unabashedly" for their attention, I think having both sets visit would merely set up an Olympic venue for the competition to play out - not that there aren't certain possibilities there. In fact, wasn't that the subject of one of those Focker movies with Ben Stiller?

Carolyn Hax: Nothing -but- possibilities. In fact, when I typed that, I was secretly thinking of the "pretend you're an anthropologist" advice a reader offered before Thanksgiving.

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Should I bring him or not?: I'm from a family that LOVES Christmas and am dating, for the first time, an agnostic, anti-establishment Jew. I plan on visiting my parents for the holiday. They asked if I will be bringing the boyfriend and I can't decide. Wouldn't bringing him along on a semi-religious, intensely festive weeklong trip be disrespectful to him, or to the holiday, or both? If he plays along with all our traditions, I imagine he'll be doing it with his typical internal smirk. If he doesn't, I imagine we'll both be a little miserable.

Carolyn Hax: Maybe you can't decide because you haven't yet tried including him in the decision ...?

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Carolyn Hax: I don't know if I can advise on holidays anymore, given my clear conflict of interest.

"Absolutely, bring your boyfriend, yes!" = next year's story about last year, when someone brought the agnostic, anti-establishment Jew along on their semi-religious, intensely festive week-long Christmas trip.

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Should I bring him or not, cont'd: Oh. Well...I in fact did mention that he was invited, figuring his response would help me with the decision. His exact words were "Cool. Let me know if you want me to come." He has met my parents before, so this visit wouldn't hold much significance for him at all and doesn't seem like a big deal to him. Which is exactly why I'm having a tough time envisioning it.

Carolyn Hax: okay, I'll bite. Do you want him to come?

I can give some reasons to bring him/not to bring him if that helps. But I'd rather see you admit what you dont' want to admit.

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More stocking trauma: My new sister-in-law needlepointed beautiful, elegant stockings with antique Santas and angels and ornaments for everybody in our family--except me. I got a stocking with an ugly stuffed caroler on it--the face was made of nylon stocking material with embroidered features, including what might have been freckles, but looked like cystic acne. She also gave it buck teeth and red hair. And glasses. In short, it looked like me. Complete with my name. As soon as she and my brother got divorced, I went out and bought a nice imported needlepoint stocking with an angel on it. It doesn't have my name, but no acne either.

Carolyn Hax: I believe we've hit a vein. Thank you, I can't say enough.

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Leesburg, Va.: Another Christmas horror tale...

I was about 9 or 10 and had just gotten the Barbie Townhouse for Christmas. It had a really bright orange roof.

That same year, an elderly Aunt had asked for a self-defense compressed gas key chain fob for her gift, and someone was insane enough to buy it for her.

Picture the family gathered in the living room after dinner. Kid playing, cat chasing ribbon, adults chatting, elderly aunt messing around with key fob... and PPPPSSSSSSTTTT!

Room fills with bluish haze. Several people are yelling. People begin rushing about flinging open windows (in Philly, the usual just-above-freezing Christmas rain). Kid in hysterics because orange roof now covered in blue spots. And a terrified, asthmatic cat hiding under a table wheezing.

Ah, Christmas memories! (And those stupid blue spots never did come off my dollhouse.)

Carolyn Hax: For anyone looking for ideas to stuff their hideous stockings.

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Present fake-out: When I was in fifth grade I desperately wanted the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever. It was a double album, super easy to identify when it appeared wrapped up under the tree. I saved it for last! I ripped off the paper and it was...Barry Manilow's Greatest Hits.

Carolyn Hax: I believe that can emerge decades later as a mysterious lack of interest in putting up a Christmas tree.

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Boston: My mom hand sewed stocking for all of us, with a holiday themed design (santa, angels, etc.)and our names embrodered across the top. As the last child, my name was written in marker, and I got white pom poms with red sequins on top that would look exactly like parts of female anatomy if they were side by side. I've always hated that stocking and even said as I child I wished someone would die so I could switch.

Carolyn Hax: please tell me it's now a treasured keepsake.

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Suburbs, New York: Hi! I love this holiday chat, and I just had to share. I was also not feeling the Christmas spirit this year. We're trying to plan a wonderful first Christmas for our son at our house, which is also his first birthday. My mom is complaining about opening presents in front of other people (my in-laws), my father-in-law is complaining because we're not serving liquor at our son's first birthday party, my father is complaining that we don't want to spend Christmas at his house with my stepmother's family (when my stepmother openly can't stand me), and I'm complaining about all the complaining. I just wrapped two presents - one for our little boy, and one for my best friend in the whole world, who lives in DC and reads your chat religiously. And I got warm fuzzies inside. Sometimes, wrapping up a present and imagining the face of the person who will get it really helps. Hope the spirit catches you soon.

Carolyn Hax: Aw. Thank you.

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Holidays: Carolyn, It really seems like almost everyone can be guaranteed a bad time on holidays. I keep thinking "I like the holidays," but then when they roll around, I think, "this isn't what I had in mind!" I think I like the "holiday fantasy" that never happens except in movies.

Carolyn Hax: I think you can be guaranteed a bad time if you have a set bar that the holiday needs to clear. That's why I like the lights so much. They're just pretty, and they're just for this time of the year. Even when it's overkill, it's good--it either becomes dazzling or laugh-out-loud tasteless.

Okay, I'm starting to warm to the idea here.

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Santa Spoiler, USA: I was the official Santa Spoiler... I'm Jewish, and I once not only told my friend that there was no Santa, I also told her, "My parents said that your parents are lying to you!" Then my mom got really mad at me, which I totally didn't get at the time.

But I actually think the Elmo example is the good one. We celebrate Christmas with our kids, and I think my older child (4 years old) thinks of Santa the exact same way she does of Elmo. You seem both of them all over the place, first of all -- of course the Santa in each mall can't be the real one, nor is each child's stuffed Elmo somehow the real one. But she's entralled by both of them, and at some level believes they have real personalities, as expressed in books, on TV, etc. I don't plan on telling her that Santa isn't real anymore than I plan on telling her that Elmo isn't real -- I think she's figuring out both of those things already. But we're also not doing elaborate games with eaten cookies or anything -- neither of us was raised that way. So I guess it's sort of a middle ground between harsh truth-telling and a strong effort to make the kids really, truly believe in Santa.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks, especially for your dispatch of wanton kindergarten cruelty.

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San Diego: My parents always gush over their gifts from my sister. Unfortunately, the gifts in question were always from me, not her, mailed from 3000 miles from her location, accompanied by a card and label. I've given up saying, "Oh, but that one was from me."

Carolyn Hax: Start buying them really awful gifts and see what happens.

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Siblings, USA: I am one of four and all of us are in our 30s. My brother is the only one who is married and he has three of the the MOST adorable kids. The rest of us are single and without serious significant others.

Every year, we have a Christmas planning issue- my brother tries to balance all of the families (divorced in-laws, wife's siblings) and I wish he would just invite all of us to his house and call it a day. We just want to be with the kids. I hope anyone else in this situation would just do the same thing.

In the meantime, we're going to go through all of this nonsense and someone is going to be disappointed. I am hoping it's not me - otherwise, it's my parents and my two sisters sitting and drinking too much on Christmas.

Carolyn Hax: haven't any of you talked to him about this? Like, "We all want to see the kids, so can we all come over if we come at a set time, LEAVE at a set time, bring all the food and do all the clean-up?"

I suppose if you haven't said something that direct yet, then there's not mcuh chance he'd also feel comfortable saying, "That sounds like more than we could handle right now, but I'll keep it in mind for next year"--but an advice columnist can dream.

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Fake, OUT: Umm... not seeing the big diff between Barry Manilow and the BeeGees. Maybe it's just me.

Carolyn Hax: No argument here. You have to have been there, I guess.

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More Christmas stuff--weird pets: I was about 15, and I had been BEGGGINGGG for a kitten since my beloved cat had past away a year before. My mothers take was "over my dead body" so imagine my surprise when I found a wrapped cage under the tree and could hear my new pet rustling around. I tore open the paper to shove my face into my new kitten...and found a white albino hedgehog. With all its quills up, prickly as all hell.

Ended up being a great pet, but what was my mother thinking???

Carolyn Hax: Taught you not to beg though, right?

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Re: Stockings: The first year we were married, my husband & I bought stockings for ourselves and our dog and glue-glittered our names on them. My husband spelled my name wrong. I still torture him about it.

Carolyn Hax: As you should.

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Candles for Christmas: Bro, Mom doesn't want any more Yankee Candles accoutrements this year. They're ugly, and you know she hates to dust! But she will never, ever tell you, so here's your PSA.

Carolyn Hax: I fear setting a precedent, but here it is.

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I think I deserve the cruise: I've actually written in before, but with the holidays approaching, now its a real issue. My (white) family once frowned on my (black) boyfriend for racial reasons. They realized they were being idiots and have apologized...but he refuses to be in the same state as them! I get his hurt and frustration, but I don't want to just never see my family again either. His family is very broken (i.e. no holiday gathering) and I wanted to be able to spend this Christmas with him and my family. WE've been dating for two years, just moved in together, and this issue has never been resolved.

Carolyn Hax: Needs to be. Would he agree to counseling?

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Carolyn Hax: A little more business to tend to ...

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Minneapolis: For the worried military mom...there is an online support group that does wonders...www.militarymoms.net. From ex-military wife (still the wife, he's the ex military).

Carolyn Hax: Thanks. (This is un-vetted, so if anyone uses this, pls check it out first.)

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Agnostic Jewish boyfriend: It's nice that he's agreeable/unstressed about this, but it seems like a little -more- communication with the boyfriend might be in order. Like, "This will be a semi-religious, festive, fairly intense affair. Do you think that might make you uncomfortable at all?" And: "On the other hand, would you feel left out if I went without you?" If the bf is confident that he won't feel uncomfortable, even having been given full, fair warning about what the trip is likely to be like, then maybe she should stop worrying about it!

Carolyn Hax: I second the, "No, we mean really talk about it," nomination.

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My favorite ornament: One Christmas, my brother's teacher gave each student in the class a ornament-sized stocking with their name embroidered on it. He, of course, loved it. My sister (a year younger than him and a textbook example of a middle child) was incredibly jealous. So one day when no one was looking, she took the stocking off the tree, used a permanent marker to cross out his name, wrote her own (in 5-year-old scrawl), and put it back on the tree. It's still my favorite ornament.

Carolyn Hax: How did you end up with it--outright theft?

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Holiday Family Quote: Sister shops frugally. Big on hand me downs, Goodwill and Salvation Army.

Four year old gets a new dress from Grandma for Christmas. She's awestruck, patting the fabric, in love with the dress. "Oh, Mommy, it's beautiful! Whose was it?"

Carolyn Hax: And the next Carrie Bradshaw is born.

Anyway, it's 3:19 and my eyes hurt. If I find more stories in the outtakes, I'll post em next week, because there's just so much more season ahead ...

Thanks everybody, and may all your hedgehogs be albino.

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Saturday Night Fever vs. Manilow: I was expecting Disco Inferno and ended up with Can't Smile Without You. Totally traumatic.

Carolyn Hax: Word.

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Silver Spring, Md.: While reading the Hootenanny at work, I've been obsessing on the dysfunction I'll be witnessing at my parent's house, where we're going because my grandmother turns 100 that day. And about having to listen to my spouse complain about it.

But I just got an email authorizing me to hire for an open position we have. Our top candidate was laid off a month or so ago, her husband is also unemployed, and they have kids. So I'm going to be able to give someone a job for Christmas! I'm so excited i feel like running down the street like Jimmy Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life. And maybe I'll go visit Grandma the weekend before her birthday and give my spouse a break. Ho ho ho!

Carolyn Hax: I know it's late, but this made my day. Thanks.

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In her daily column in The Washington Post Style section, Carolyn Hax offers readers advice based on the experiences of someone who's been there. Hax is an ex-repatriated New Englander with a liberal arts degree and a lot of opinions and that's about it, really, when you get right down to it. Oh, and the shoes. A lot of shoes.

E-mail Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com.

Got more to say? Check out Carolyn's discussion group, Hax-Philes. Comments submitted to the chat may be used in the discussion group.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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