By PHILIP GALANES
Last week, a woman I barely know came up to me reluctantly to tell me that, according to her teenage daughter, my teenage son is pretty much friendless and is being bullied at school for being a “freak.” I had no idea, but I can see that he is anxious and socially awkward. The woman made me promise that I would not ascribe any information to her daughter. Should I speak to my son? If so, how do I broach the subject without her story?
ANONYMOUS MOM, NEW YORK
If I had a mountain of cash, I would buy a theater ticket for every kid in America — every parent, too — to see “Dear Evan Hansen,” a moving and eye-opening new musical on Broadway. Things have changed so much since we were kids, Mom. No matter how badly we were bullied, we generally only had to make it to 3 p.m. (and that perilous bus ride home). Then we got a reprieve until the next morning. Now, thanks to the 24/7 nature of Snapchat, Facebook and the rest, our children can be tormented (or feel isolated) around the clock.
Don’t confront your son with what you heard. He may not be confiding in you because he is ashamed of his predicament. (I was.) Assume that it’s true enough. One of the greatest kindnesses my dad showed me, when I was your son’s age, was sharing in detail his own story of schoolboy misery at the hands of a classmate. It made me feel less alone, and we were able to build on that conversation. He told me his story rather than shaming me with mine. Can you initiate a talk like that? If not, enlist his father or cousin or aunt. (You won’t have to look far.)
Also, make an appointment with his school principal or guidance counselor to share your concern. They may not be aware of the problem, so putting it on their radar is an important start. Ask how they intend to tackle and monitor the situation. And stay on top of it. They may also be able to recommend affinity groups or students who will be more accepting of your son.
Finally, thanks for writing. This is a big deal and can leave lasting marks on anyone. I can still name the boys who were horrible to me 35 years later. Be vigilant about making home a safe space. (And never blame the victim: “What did you do to annoy them?”) Encourage him to log off his devices once the sun goes down. And think about taking him to “Dear Evan Hansen.” It may be just the conversation-starter you’re looking for.
I am annoyed when I am asked if I have grandchildren. It feels competitive to me. Women without grandchildren never feel the need to ask. And I am only asked by other women; my husband never is. Our friends know the circumstances of our family life; others should wait to be told. I’d like to cut off these questioners. Can you suggest a response?
I agree that questions about family composition — coming out of the blue — are inappropriate. Inquiries about fertility and reproduction can trigger all kinds of feelings: anger and resentment (which are evident in your letter), but also deep pain and slaps to self-esteem (which I have noted in many others, especially from couples struggling to conceive). Steer clear of this terrain.
Say: “Why do you ask?” It’s my go-to for nosy questions. It says, nicely: Why do you think you have the right to ask me this? Many people will come to their senses and redirect the conversation. Others will say, “Just curious,” and you can turn the page. But if their answer is, “Because we’ve been talking about your adult children for the last 15 minutes,” then I think asking about grandchildren, while still delicate, is more understandable. In that case, you may want to explore your own feelings on the subject instead of projecting swaggering superiority onto others.
After attending the wedding of friends, I sent them a check as a gift. Within two weeks, I received a thank-you note in the mail. But two months later, the check remains uncashed. Is there a grace period here? How can I let them know they should deposit the check?
Assuming the newlyweds are not on a 24-week tour of Her Majesty’s territories (like Queen Elizabeth II in “The Crown,” which is delicious), your concern is reasonable. After a month or so, offer a friendly reminder by phone or email: “Before you start luxuriating in no-more-wedding-arrangements, don’t forget to cash my check!”
My office mate, who is overweight, has started wearing a puffy down vest around the office in place of the cardigan she used to wear. Is there a friendly way to tell her that the vest isn’t flattering? (It makes her look huge.)
Back off, Jack! Unless your office mate asks, spare her your opinions on her wardrobe. Would you even think of saying this to a male colleague?