Slate's 'Dear Prudence': Presumptuous birthday girls, Christmas cards after a death in the family, out of control kids

Slate advice columnist Prudence counsels a woman whose family walks all over her during the holidays.
Emily Yoffe
Slate Advice Columnist
Monday, December 21, 2009; 1:00 PM

Need help getting along with partners, relatives, coworkers... and people in general? Ask Prudence! Emily Yoffe -- a.k.a. Slate's advice columnist Dear Prudence, was online Monday, Dec. 21 to take your questions on manners, morals and more.

A transcript follows.

You may also read previous Live Q&As with Prudie.

Emily Yoffe is also Slate's Human Guinea Pig, a contributor to the XX Factor blog, and the author of What the Dog Did: Tales From a Formerly Reluctant Dog Owner.


Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon everyone. I am loving being socked in by the snow, although my ardor was tamed when I took a header down the front stairs this morning -- but I'm still in shape for typing.


Birthday bad taste: Dear Prudence, Saturday got an email invitation from a friend (more of an acquaintance; I only hear from them for solicitations for their business and party invitations) inviting me to their 40th birthday celebration. It was a power point presentation inviting me to month-long events (all which cost money) where I can join her in celebrating her birthday. Yesterday I received an email from one of her friends (I do not know this person) listing gift ideas in case we (the invitees) are confused as to what to get her for a gift. The list was long, indication a preference for gift cards (listing about 20 stores and restaurants) clothing sizes and candle scents. I consider these types of "invitations" in bad taste (I do not plan to attend anything), however, this is one of several invitations that I have gotten in the past year (from various people). This is the first one I received with the gift list, but many of the others are invitations where the guests are expected to pay for the pleasure of attending a birthday celebration (which usually include chipping in for the honorees meal as well). I was taught that if you invite some one to a party that you paid (have something that you can afford). Am I too old school ( I am in my 40's) or is this the trend now and I need to get on board? I think I read somewhere Miss Manners said that this was in bad taste. Your thoughts?

Emily Yoffe: A month-long celebration of her birthday -- how exciting that the Queen of England is a friend of yours! Well, maybe not -- I guess the Queen is in her 80s, and although her subjects do pay taxes to support her, I doubt she would issue an invitation for a birthday party at which the guests were hit up to pay for the party and told what expensive present to bring. If it's old-school to find this distasteful, let's hope they're not building too many new schools. I'm sure you're right that the great Miss Manners found this all in lamentable taste, and I will second her opinion.


Reston, Va.: In the past I have sent Christmas cards to friends and family with a photo of my three growing up children. Last spring my youngest son died and I was not able to send out Christmas cards at all. This year I am better and want to send out the photo cards, but am really floundering for a good way to do this. Many friends but not all, know about his death. Many are friends I want to keep in touch with who would want to know about my son. I was just too devastated last year to do Christmas. Any suggestions? Thanks, Katie

Emily Yoffe: My deepest condolences for this devastating loss.

People mock Christmas letters, but I think they're wonderful, and in your case including a letter would be helpful both to the people who know of your loss, and those who don't. People would also be grateful to hear that a year later, you are doing better. You can simply explain the facts of your son's loss, what a hard year it's been, and how you've all been doing. If there is an organization or cause that was near to your son's heart, you could mention that contributions in his memory can be made it to. You can thank people for their love and support, and say how much people's memories of your son and tributes to him have meant.

I'm sure many people are feeling awkward towards you at this time of year, wondering if they should say something about your son, or if it would seem insensitive. So it would help them for you to say how much your son is in your thoughts, and how much it helps to remember him.


Philadelphia, Pa.: My husband and I have begun a friendship with a couple who moved into the neighborhood about the same time we did. They are very hospitable and social, and have invited us to their home on several occasions. We have reciprocated by having them to dinner at our home and dining out with them. Now it's our turn to host again, but here's my dilemma. They have two girls, ages 3 and 5, who have no boundaries. Even when stopping by to say hello, the girls will grab food off the counter and start eating it, run upstairs through our bedrooms, chase the cat, and pick up anything and everything. The parents make half-hearted attempts to control them, which the girls ignore. I dread an evening of cringing while our home is destroyed. Times are tough financially, and they can't afford to hire a sitter. We do enjoy conversing with the parents, and it's definitely our turn to host. In fact, they've already invited us for New Year's Eve, so we're going to be further behind in our hospitality. Help!

Emily Yoffe: Hospitality does not require that you sit back while your home is systematically destroyed. If the parents have no boundaries, you should, and if you're willing to have the whole family over, you should make some physical boundaries for the girls. Confine them to a single room. Ask the parents to bring over some of the girls favorite toys, and then you can have some crayons and paper and cardboard boxes, and then tell the girls this room is their playroom, and the rest of the house is off limits. If the parents won't speak up if they then proceed to chase the cat or jump on your beds, you should feel free to explain none of this is allowed in your house, and they need to go back to the playroom. If the parents don't like this, then you can consider yourself free from reciprocating their hospitality until the girls learn more self-control.


Brighton, Mich.: My husband passed away this past April after a terrible battle with cancer. Last week I received a Christmas card addressed to both of us from one of his former bosses and his wife. Now, I know this will happen from time to time, and I realize the wife probably just automatically sent the card out from last year's list. Should I send a little note thanking them for the lovely card, but with a gentle reminder to remove our name from the card list? I did not send out cards this year, and will not otherwise be having any contact with them. Thank you for your advice!

Emily Yoffe: I am sorry to hear of your loss. There is no good time of year for grief, but the holidays do amplify people's sense of loss. As was dealt with in the letter above, this is the time of year you hear from, or get in touch with, people you may not have communicated with all year. Thus a Christmas card to your late husband from a former boss. The kindest thing for you to do would be to send them a note saying it was lovely to get their card, and that sadly you need to tell them that your husband lost his valiant fight with cancer last spring. Please do not add that you now want to be struck from their card list. And if they continue to send you a card in years to come, let it be a reminder of the fond thoughts people will always carry of your husband.


Alexandria, Va.: Dear Prudie: When I moved away from my smalltown USA home years ago after college I didn't realize that I dropped off the globe for my family. I love my family and make every effort to keep in touch and visit. However, after 10 years I have come to realize all the action is on my part and I'm starting to wonder if I should take a step back. Most of my family didn't attend my wedding because they "didn't want to travel that far." I never get invites to birthday parties or holidays, so I have to invite myself if I want to be included. When I am visiting it doesn't seem like anyone is that interested in seeing me and they definitely do not care about hearing what is going on with me. None of my family has visited me in my new home even though I have invited them numerous times. I have put a lot of effort in my family relationship and I'm wanting to stop and just focus on my life with my husband. Is this normal? Can I move on and let them make the move if they want to see me. I'm exhausted.

Emily Yoffe: Maybe your family needs to hear about newfangled inventions: cars, airplanes, telephones, email. Someone needs to tell them you don't have to saddle up the horses and get a tenant to watch the farm just because you want to keep in touch with a faraway family member. However, there seems to be something pathological at work here. "Family" covers a lot of ground. It's one thing to lose touch with cousins, but have your parents also forgotten that you exist? If so, you need to have an explicit talk with them about how you feel, and how to go about fixing this. And if they all continue to act as if you've snubbed and insulted them by moving on, then go ahead and move on and concentrate on your new life.


re: Christmas Letters: I second your recommendation that the woman who lost her son send out a note with her annual photo. I absolutely love them, and don't understand the hate. Every year we get poignant updates like hers, beautiful photos of friends and family, and news from friends and family we don't keep in touch with. Also, for no cost to us, we receive hours and hours of self-indulgent, entertaining over-sharing from those who are simply out of touch with us and reality.

Emily Yoffe: Especially since we live in times in which people feel the need to share electronically such fascinating daily tidbits as being stuck in line at the airport, or what they had for lunch, what's the objection to a Christmas letter? These are an effort to actually craft a summary of the year, and as you mention, they can be heart-breaking, poignant, moving, funny, and even ridiculous. I love them.


WDC: Dear Prudence,

I normally have an extended break during the holidays, most of which I spend at home (out of state) with my family. This year for a variety of reasons (mostly due to the pressure and gloom I feel at home) I am choosing to stay for only two days. I feel guilty enough, but I know once I start telling people, they will all make me seem like a horrible person for not spending time with my family. Mind you, no one ever visits me and I am always expected to travel to see other friends and family who live in the tri-state area, but I don't even have a car. Do I just suck it up and stay a few more days, even though I will most likely be in a funk? If not, how do I explain to people that I want to have a stress-free holiday break and prefer to be by myself without seeming selfish?

-Holiday Blues

Emily Yoffe: Sometimes when you're in a gloomy state being with loved ones can be just the thing to comfort you; and sometimes it can be just the thing to send you over the edge. The way you stop feeling guilty for wanting to be alone is to realize as an adult you are entitled to do what's best with your free time. You're making a holiday appearance, so you don't owe them an accounting of the rest of your vacation. If it would help, you could say that you are really excited about the chance to soak in some culture -- there are a couple of museum shows and concerts you've been looking forward to. And if you're in a funk, treating yourself to something special might lift your holiday spirits.


San Francisco, CA: I recently moved back to the Bay Area for a wonderful job with great benefits. I have a 2 year old who is the apple of my eye. He is sweet, charming, handsome, and just an overall great kid. In moving back to this area we are now closer to my sister and her child who is 3. My nephew, on the other hand is extremely sweet but only once you are on his "buddy list". Also, my child's grasp on speech and language is superior to my nephew's.

Friends and our family comment frequently on how different the children are. They make comments like I like "Jack" better than I like "John". Why can't John be as sweet as Jack? I'll watch Jack but I can't watch John.

With the holidays approaching, I know I can expect to hear these comments at some point during the festivities. While I appreciate the compliments to my child, I can't help but feel defensive about the insults to my nephew. He was raised essentially by my parents because my sister works very long hours and goes to school. She has never disclosed who is his father, therefore he has never had a relationship with him. And because our mother doesn't have to work she keeps him all day and he has never really interacted with ANYONE outside of our household. I just don't think it is fair that they judge my nephew on circumstances that he can't control. Of course, I don't want to address all of this - I just want a quick comeback when someone makes a snide remark.

Thank you,

Trying to be a "great" aunt.

Emily Yoffe: Although you have your hands full with your son and your job, I hope you find the time to intervene on behalf of your nephew. The situation with your mother has to end. Sure, she's a free babysitter, but she is severely stunting his social development. No wonder he's difficult, he's essentially being kept as a prisoner with an old woman all day. A three-year-old needs to be socializing with other kids! Maybe you can pull together a family conference to try to come up with alternate arrangements for your nephew. And when people make invidious comparisons between the boys, call them on it. You can say, "Every child is different, and I agree with you that my Jack is wonderful, but John is a great kid, too, and it pains me to hear him put down."


Salt Lake, Utah: Dear Prudie: At the end of Oct. I found my boyfriend had been looking at online dating ads and porn, to make the problem worse it was men for men personals and gay porn. I found this by looking at the history on his computer. I confronted him a couple of weeks later (had to work up the courage), he was very calm and not defensive at all. He gave me a reason for this behavior that at the time I believed and promised not to do it anymore. The problem now is that I know he is still looking at the online personal ads, and I know this because of snooping. I love this man and don't want to lose him, but I also don't want to be with a liar/cheat. How do I confront him again?

Emily Yoffe: Your boyfriend came up with a good enough reason for looking at gay personal ads that you found it temporarily convincing? What was the reason? Cheaters everywhere want to know! You may love this guy, and you may not want to lose him (why?), but you don't trust him enough not to be snooping on his computer. Your lack of trust is more than justified since you find he's continuing to peruse gay porn and dating websites. I think the time for confrontations is over and the time for packing has begun.


Santa Barbara, Calif.: Dear Prudence, I have been aware all my life that my sister is different. My mother describes her rigid physical inability to receive or give affection as a baby and child. I am younger so I did not understand why learning seemed to be beyond her in school, why she did not show compassion for other people, and why she did not have close friends. She was a beautiful child and young woman, and attracted men easily, but those relationships did not develop into anything sustaining. Life has been hard for her without a career or a job, without a partner to share life with. I remember being frustrated with her for most of our lives. I excelled in every area that she found difficult and I felt guilty, and tried to pretend that I was not as capable as I am when around her.

Now that we are both in our early sixties I realize (having discussed this with a professional) that she has probably been undiagnosed autistic. This is not something that she would accept or could ever discuss with anyone. She is on permanent disability after psychological evaluations that she will not talk about. I feel awful that she has struggled her whole life, and that I was not more patient or understanding. How can I develop a relationship with her now? We live in different states, so the communication will have to be by phone or letter, she finds email difficult.

What do I do now?

Sorry Sister

Emily Yoffe: A few sentences into your letter I thought, "It sounds as if the sister has autism." And when you ended by saying you were both in your 60s, it was clear why back then no one knew. What a tragedy for people who went through their whole lives shunned for being different and no one understood why. Not that being autistic or having a autistic family member isn't a huge struggle today -- but what a comfort to know what this condition is, and have a community to share this struggle with. It's wonderful that you want to reach out to your sister. You might start by making a connection with the autism community through a support group such as Autism Speaks. Surely there are people who have been in your situation and can help guide you through the best way to make and maintain a connection with your sister.


Princeton, NJ: My uncle recently announced he will be divorcing his fourth wife, whom he married a year and a half ago. They made it a year longer than we all had predicted. He is family, yes, but this man can be very unpleasant, particularly when stressed (like getting divorced around the holidays), and likes to put his overly critical two cents in where it doesn't belong. For some reason, I, as the grown daughter of his older sister (I have a younger brother who is 19), usually spend the entire holiday receiving backhanded comments and having absurd orders barked at me that I often politely (or not so politely) refuse. The rest of the family is treated to his loud, "hilarious" stories and often don't know what has been going on all day until after he has left and I make them aware of it. I'm told to just ignore him, but it gets harder every holiday, and I know this particular one will be brutal. Any advice?

Emily Yoffe: Apparently you haven't heard that every family is required to have at least one crazy uncle. Yours sounds like he's doing a good job covering the crazy uncle bases: multiple marriages; loud, insulting behavior; monopolizing the gathering with "hilarious" stories. Relatives such as this were invented to make us all happy to get back to the office. And when you go back, at lunch you can tell your colleagues your own hilarious story about your uncle.


Seattle: Dear Prudie, Since I've moved out of my parents house for college for the most part my relationship with them has improved. The problem is though, I have no desire to be home for the holidays. My younger brother is entering his teen years and always comes up with ways to be rude, which my parents just laugh off. We always celebrate on Christmas Eve and my mom wanted everyone to be a part of the celebration. Unfortunately, everyone includes a couple of cousins I had problems with as a kid. Even though I told my mom about their inappropriate behavior when I was younger she said they were still family and she still wanted a relationship with them. I'd honestly rather be getting ahead in my readings for next quarter than putting up with my brother and these other family members just for the sake of tradition. My boyfriend and I even talked about doing something special with just the two of us for Christmas Eve, but his parents said they really wanted him home during that time. So now I'm stuck in my hometown with people I don't want a relationship with on what's supposed to be a happy occasion. What can I do to fix it? -blue Christmas

Emily Yoffe: I hope you keep a journal. Please put this letter in there and take a look at it in about 25 years when you are dealing with your own obnoxious teenagers. It's one thing to find you have to stay away from your family because they were abusive and are psychologically destructive to you. However, if relatives being hard-to-take was enough to get us to abandon our families, we would not have survived as a species. Your parents sound as if they have a good humorous attitude about the vicissitudes of family life. So spend the holidays with them -- eventually you will appreciate their wisdom.


Baltimore: A friend is getting married in the summer of 2010. I have planned a small gathering of her friends, but that's all -- it's not intended to be a shower, just a "girls" get-together. My friend and her fiance are both 40ish and have their own homes with all they need -- I am loathe to host a shower since they don't need anything. Should I say something explicit about not having a shower so she won't expect it? I don't think our mutual friends will want to throw a shower either.

Emily Yoffe: This is something you should discuss with the bride. If she's expecting a shower, she'll be rather baffled to show up and find there are no presents. It's one thing for older people who are getting married and have everything they need to demand cash from their friends and loved ones. But when two people are getting married, friends and loved ones do have a natural impulse to want to buy something to celebrate. Perhaps you can make it a "wine" shower and tell the guests since the couple has all their household goods, you would like to put together a case or two of wine to celebrate their nuptials.


Washington DC: Dear Prudence, Because of the big snowstorm over the weekend I have today off from school. Since I am an only child, and my friends are busy I thought I could have fun with my mom, who works at home. Instead she told me that she has to spend all day working. This always happens to me! Whenever I have time off from school, my mom says, "Lets do something fun together." And then she ends up spending all day on her computer! What should I do to get her to spend a little time with me?


Stuck in the attic

Emily Yoffe: Dear Stuck in the Attic,

Number one, come down from the attic and let Sasha out because she's about to pee on the bathmat again.

Number two, you're right, we need to have more fun together! Let's go downtown after the chat. Want to get a burger at Five Guys?



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