Our advice columnists have heard it all over the years. Each Sunday, we dive into the Dear Prudie archives and share a selection of classic letters with our readers. Join Slate Plus for even more advice columns—your first month is only $1.
My husband and I live near a man in his 70s who is mean, complains about every little thing, and calls the police any time there is loud music in the neighborhood or if there are “suspicious-looking” kids hanging out too close to his house. He once tried to sue a neighbor over tree branches falling into his yard. My problem is that a couple of weeks ago I accidently ran over his cat while pulling into my driveway, killing him. It was well after midnight and I didn’t see him until it was too late. When I told my husband, he quickly scooped up the body, disposed of it a couple of miles away, and made me promise not to tell what happened, saying it was an honest mistake and that the cat shouldn’t have been out roaming in the first place. Now our neighbor has been going door to door, including ours, asking about his kitty. He has put up posters offering a reward. I feel awful and want to tell our neighbor what happened, but my husband is adamant that we keep our mouths shut, fearing the old man will make life a living hell for us. My husband says the man will get over it and has proposed buying him a new cat. Is this an acceptable solution?
Your husband has pulled off the ultimate bag job, and now he wants to show up with a kitten, which is tantamount to announcing, “We’re the ones who killed your widdle puddy tat!” I am a cat lover, but if you let your cat roam free, you implicitly accept the risk that it could have a lethal encounter with a dog, a fox, or a car. If your neighbor were a normal person, you’d immediately have told him what happened, and you all would have commiserated over this terrible accident. But you are in the grindingly unpleasant situation of living near a lunatic. So I understand your husband’s quick, if nefarious, decision to ditch the evidence. This action may put him on the wrong side of the law. But I’m more concerned about the mental-health necessity of avoiding endless misery meted out by a vindictive and potentially litigious neighbor. (For the record, Slate’s legal team disavows my advice.)Of course it’s awful to see missing-kitty posters dot the neighborhood while knowing you dispatched the cat, feeling trapped in a feline version of Without a Trace. But you’ve probably seen enough crime shows to know that the perpetrators get caught when cracks form in their united front, so don’t go wobbly now. That means no sitting down with the neighbor for a discussion about the physics paradox Schrödinger’s cat. (“The thought experiment presents a cat that might be alive or dead, depending on an earlier random event.”) No blabbing to others on your block about your guilty conscience. No purchasing of kittens. Just continue to shake your head and sigh sadly when your neighbor asks about the cat, and say you’re sorry you can’t help. —Emily Yoffe
From: “Help! Dear Prudence: I’m a Cat Killer.” (July 21, 2011)
The godmother of my kids occasionally babysits them—she gets paid, she eats quite a lot of our food, and makes herself at home as if she is family. I admit to being inconsistent and overly generous about her use of our resources. I’ve been becoming increasingly cheesed at her behavior in my house and with my kids: She seems to think she has a strong say in how they are raised. She was an OK sitter when they were younger, but now they have different needs that she can’t accommodate, and I have been finding alternative care for the kids. On Saturday, I told my younger child that her godmother was coming to babysit. My daughter, who has a communication disorder, blew up, and started screaming and crying that her family was four people, not five; that she was 10 years old; that she hated being cuddled; that she was terrified I would die and she would have to live with her godmother. She just went berserk. It was too late to back out of my plans, so I went, but now I’m more ready than ever to cut this woman out of our lives. Unfortunately, I feel guilty because she is really down and out, and my kids are the only thing she really has in her life.
There are so many different issues here, many of which don’t seem to align—you seem equally frustrated that your babysitter eats from your fridge when she takes care of your children as you do that your daughter panics when she’s about to come over. The former barely merits your notice (it’s hardly “overly generous” to pay a babysitter and to let an old family friend—someone you asked to stand as godmother to your children—fix herself something to eat when she’s at your house); the latter is incredibly serious. Talk to your daughter and ask how often she finds herself worrying about your impending death. If she’s subject to numerous anxious, obsessive thoughts throughout the day, she may need more mental health care than she’s currently receiving. As for cutting this woman out of your life, you can certainly let her go as a babysitter without removing her as a friend. Tell her that your children have particular needs that require specialized care and that you won’t be able to hire her as a babysitter any longer. Surely she’s at least somewhat aware things are no longer working out; if your daughter becomes distraught at the thought of spending time with her, it can’t have escaped her notice entirely. But unless this woman has done something deliberately wrong to you or your children (rather than simply being ill-equipped to work with your daughter’s communication disorder), consider letting her go as a nanny while keeping her on as a family friend. —Danny M. Lavery
From: “Help! My Daughter Can’t Stand Her Smothering Godmother.” (Aug. 2, 2016)
My husband and I were not able to save for our kids’ college educations. My older son went to community college and most of it was paid for with grants and scholarships. Now my younger son is a senior in high school and has his heart set on an expensive private school. Call us naive, but to say we have sticker shock would be an understatement. Even though he was given a very generous package and is pursuing scholarships, it will still cost $30,000 a year, $120,000 over the four years. If he were to borrow this money it would leave him with crippling debt. We are not in the position to pay this or take on the loans ourselves. We want him to live at home, go for two years to a public university satellite campus, then move to the main campus as a junior for a total cost of about $50,000. Our state university is one of the top public universities in the country. My husband’s family thinks we are doing him a great disservice by not co-signing for his loans or taking them ourselves. Are we short-changing our son?
I promise you all of you will feel short-changed and sold a bill of goods if your son’s college degree means that you and your husband spend the rest of lives sweating to pay it off, or that your son starts his adult life with a staggering financial burden. Now is decision time for students weighing college options. It used to be people thought a college degree (especially an elite one) was a ticket to a financially secure life, and that going into debt to obtain one was a good investment. There is no doubt college graduates fare better in the marketplace, but today people are far more aware of the potential dream-crushing effect of college debt, and that it can carry lifetime consequences, including the fact it can virtually never be discharged. Some interesting research has shown that the value of a “prestige” degree, at least as far as future income is concerned, is vastly overrated. Read this essay on the outstanding educations and opportunities to be found at schools ranked below the most celebrated, including many of our public universities, which about 80 percent of students attend. You say your state school is one of the country’s best, while the private school your son has his heart set on you describe merely as “expensive.” Good for your son to have identified and been accepted to a dream school. That shows he has drive and ambition, which are two crucial qualities he will need in the real world. For him right now, reality looks like it means making the most of the opportunities at his state school. If your husband’s family thinks the private school is worth it, they are free to step up and make it possible. In the absence of their largesse, you should stick with your plan of getting your son the best education you can afford. I recommend that you thoroughly research your aid options—start with this government website. Before you put down a deposit, talk to both the private and state school and make sure you’re getting every (debt-free) dollar available. If the dream school doesn’t offer substantially more cash, everyone should be delighted with the public alternative. But since he is surely ready to give up his boyhood bedroom, it would be a great gift if you found there was grant money available to make it possible for him to start college life on the main campus this fall. —E.Y.
From: “Help! We Can’t Afford Our Son’s Private College. Should We Go Into Debt for His Sake?” (April 17, 2014)
My wife and I were elated to find out we are going to have a daughter! We decided to discuss names last week and gave ourselves three days to prepare our ideas. I spent a ton of time on this and even put together a presentation with each name and the reasons I liked them. I chose some important family names and some special names from literature and the arts—all of which I think would be beautiful. My wife showed up with a few names scribbled on the back of a grocery list as if she hardly even cared! Also her ideas were trashy misspelled names like Lauryn and Bethonie and 18th-century presidents’ names like Madison, Taylor, and Polk. I was so disappointed in my wife for not taking this seriously, as I feel it is very important. Honestly, this episode has me questioning the foundation of our relationship, let alone raising a child together. Obviously, I can’t just leave now because I am committed to the child, but how can my wife and I get past this major red flag in our relationship? I have tried to discuss it with her and she doesn’t even think she has done anything wrong, so we are at a major impasse.
I have good news for you, which is that your wife’s behavior is not anywhere near the neighborhood of red-flaggery, and after you’ve recovered from the initial shock conveyed in your letter, I hope you’ll agree. It’s not even in yellow-flag territory. You don’t mention that your wife seems indifferent at the prospect of having a daughter, or that she’s talked about child-rearing techniques that strike you as negligent or unsafe. Most parents-to-be don’t develop PowerPoints for possible baby names, and the fact that your wife didn’t write an essay for each of her ideas is not an indication that she’s going to make a lousy parent or that she’s less excited than you about having a child. For my own well-being, I’ll assume you were joking or exaggerating about having contemplated, even for a minute, ending an otherwise loving marriage because your wife thinks “Bethonie” is a cute name.
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As for what makes a good name, more broadly, “trashy” and “misspelled” are highly subjective categories. “Lauren” used to be a boy’s name; that doesn’t mean naming a girl Lauren today is somehow “less correct,” and “Lauryn” is a plausible variation on the standard spelling of the name. If you don’t like her suggestions, you can say, “I don’t like the name Taylor” without resorting to, “How disgusting for our child to share her name with someone who only made it a year into his term before dying from drinking too much iced milk.” I guarantee you that there is at least someone out there who considers your “special literary names” to be affected and not nearly as unique as you think they are. “This is our daughter, Bartleby the Scrivener” may have a nice ring to you but won’t to everyone. “This is our daughter, Fragonard’s The Swing,” or “This is our daughter, Enfield Tennis Academy,” is not inherently better than “This is our daughter, Lauryn.”
The takeaway here is not to get attached to the delusion that your taste is objectively good and your wife’s taste is objectively bad, about names or anything. Apologize to your wife profusely for your unkind overreaction, then have another brainstorming session—have several—and try to bring a great deal more generosity of spirit and open-mindedness to the process. —D.L.
From: “Help! My Wife Has Really Dumb Ideas for Naming Our Daughter.” (April 13, 2017)
More from Dear Prudence
Years ago I was pressured by one of my superiors into having an affair with him in exchange for a promotion and substantial raise. I was very young at the time, and didn’t know how to stand up for myself. I’ve always felt terrible for what I allowed to happen to me, and that I just let the man get away with it. I had been considering reporting him to his superiors (I’ve heard through the grapevine that he’s put several new hires and interns in the same position to date) but he left the company to run for a prominent office in our city. I’m now faced with the difficult decision of whether or not to expose him publicly for what he really is. I feel it would be the right thing to do, but part of me is afraid of the scandal that would surely follow, and I’m not sure I want to be in the middle of it. Should I take the plunge?