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advice

Time for the monthly tradition where we answer the things people typed into search engines as if they are questions.

Before we get to it, it’s Pledge Drive Time! Twice a year, winter and summer, I interrupt our usual programming to remind folks that fun stuff like the Search Terms posts and the Friday short answers are funded by my kind and generous patrons and readers who support the site via PayPal and other ways. These donations allow me to keep the blog ad-free, invest substantial time in maintaining the community, reading the mailbox, and moderating comments, devote time to answering questions and writing new content, pay guest writers, and keep us functioning as an independent site. This year I’m trying to pull back on teaching and be a full-time writer, and your support is necessary and much appreciated for the care and feeding of me & my family. Please make a donation or become a patron if you can. Every little bit helps. (If you can’t afford to, don’t worry ’bout a thing, I’m glad you are here and reading.)

As is traditional, let’s begin with a song to set the mood. Lyrics here :

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Parenting in these Interesting Times is pretty awful sometimes.

It’s also incredible and brings me more hope than nearly anything else has in the last 3 years, though.

My husband and I have three kids. They’re 12, 9, and 8 years old and we’ve been open and honest with them since they were born. We’re both white, and we have worked to raise them with knowledge of their privilege as well as helping them understand anti-racism (instead of “colorblindness”), sexism, and homophobia since a very young age. White families especially need to teach our kids about these things because the wider culture isn’t going to do it for us. We’re “the norm” and it’s unacceptable for us to just let our kids grow up assuming that’s fine.

Our parenting goals have been to respect our kids as autonomous human beings while balancing that with their safety and others’ autonomy. In practice, this means that my kids don’t have to hug people they don’t want to hug, but they had to sit in carseats even if they threw a tantrum. They can choose when to use their screens or read or play outside, but they do have limits that they have to respect.

We aren’t perfect parents by any means. I struggled with undiagnosed, unmedicated postpartum anxiety when they were young and yelled more than I should have. We get frustrated because kids are frustrated and kids are FRUSTRATING! But our parenting priority is treating all kids like the autonomous human beings with fundamental rights that they are.

Which brings me to… today. The Interesting Times I mentioned above. The creeping tide of fascism. Our subculture of xenophobia and jingoism that got put into power by a long process of undemocratic and treasonous gerrymandering and the subjugation of democratic rights.

This is a toughie when you’re talking to sweet, innocent toddlers and preschoolers and idealistic elementary students and sarcastic but still idealistic middle schoolers and high schoolers who just realized their education was false and the democracy (and teachers and pastors and authority figures) they believed were wrong at best, or much worse – liars.


However, there are a few ways to make these discussions a bit more fruitful as a parent, aunt/uncle, or any other loving caregiver.

The first, and the most important for every single age group:

Welcome kids’ emotions and feelings and hold them together with the kids in a safe space. Kids who feel like strong emotions that are coded as negative are “bad” or otherwise unwelcome won’t be open with you. Tears and yelling and anger and hurt and grief are all completely normal and okay – and feeling them with you there for support will mean the kids will learn they don’t have to repress themselves.

For toddlers and preschoolers:

Use the Mr. Rogers method of looking for the helpers. Children at this age desperately need to feel safe with their caretakers. It’s incredibly easy to talk to kids this age about stuff like sex (make it simple, use the correct words for body parts, talk about consent, and discuss it pretty clinically), but discussing death and state-sanctioned kidnapping is REALLY SCARY.

A toddler or preschooler needs to know that they are safe and their parents have the power to keep them safe. Even if it’s not technically true these days (especially if you’re a person of color or an immigrant!), and even if it feels incredibly unfair to get to say “we’re citizens so we are safe” – keep kids’ hearts safe while you’re talking to them about the news. “The government is doing some things that harm these families and the kids and parents are being kept apart right now. This isn’t something that’s going to happen to you, and we and all the other adults we know are working hard to make this better for all the people in trouble. We’re giving money and we’re protesting and we’re making sure new people are put into the government. But it IS terrible, and we’re angry and sad about it. We love you, and we want these kids to have their parents back with them as soon as possible because they love their kids just as much as we love you.” 

For elementary students:

These kids can understand a lot more about the difficulty of pushing back against the government than younger kids can. My kids started learning about the Civil Rights Era in school, and by 2nd grade they were learning about Ruby Bridges being screamed at by white adults and MLK getting assassinated. This varies based on school system. My kids are in Chicago Public Schools where they don’t whitewash it as much as many places do, but I still had to do some “homework” with them about the way people teach this history and how it whitewashes MLK and erases the contributions of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers.

Speaking to kids about how we are working hard to improve the people in charge of our country by protesting, voting, donating, etc. is crucial, as is bringing kids to protests and letting them see you living out your ideals. Stand up to family members who are saying hurtful things, “Uncle John, I don’t feel comfortable with you saying that, especially in front of kids. Please be respectful of us.”

Make yourself available to questions the kids have even if they’re scary or upsetting to you. If you can’t answer questions because of your own anxiety or similar mental health struggles, find a trusted adult who can help them. (In my family, my anxiety acts up severely about school shootings, so I refer the kids to my husband when they want to have those discussions.)  Ensure the kids feel like their concerns are important.

Helping kids have something to do to help will help them feel secure AND help them learn activism. Kids can:

  • Make protest signs
  • Help look up charities for your donations
  • Write letters to elected officials
  • Help you call elected officials (call your favorite “family values” politician and tell them your 5th grader has something to say and enjoy the guilt trip!)
  • Look up youtube videos about stepping in when people are being bullied. Non-violent conflict resolution is a great keyword here.

For middle and high school students:

These kids are learning sarcasm and humor and often need reminding that empathy and love and friendship is not uncool. They can do everything the elementary kids can, and they need the same reassurance that little kids need, but they can also start to make their own choices about when to step in. They need to practice how to stand up for people with marginalized identities, how and when to go to an authority figure, and how to stand up to their friends.

You’re not going to be able to teach all of these things but you’re going to be their soft place to land while they practice living out their values. You’ll give them ideas, support them, sometimes maybe march angrily into the principal’s office if they’re treated poorly by authority figures – and you’ll answer their tough questions. Practicing telling the truth when they’re little is so crucial because 1) you’ll have more practice and will feel less awkward and 2) they’ll trust you to tell them the truth and they’ll know you won’t laugh at them for whatever they ask.


The big takeaway to all of this? Teaching kids about difficult topics doesn’t have to be a miserable slog. Kids are smart, interesting, invested human beings who want to make their world a better place. Help them figure out how to do it by giving them ways to take ownership of the world they live in, and help them understand that parents all over the world want nothing more than to protect their babies and children. We can all help, but pretending nothing is going on is going to do kids a major disservice in the long run.

 

Leah Chibe is originally from northern Michigan but has been living on the south side of Chicago for 15 years with her husband and, eventually, kids/dogs/a biergarten in the backyard. She is currently in seminary working to become a Lutheran chaplain. She can be reached at @LeahChibe on Twitter.

Moderator Note from Captain Awkward: 

Could we keep the discussion on this thread for parents of kids under 18, by parents of kids under 18 today? If you don’t have the problem of trying to explain world events to kids right now, cool! This is not your catch-all drive-by politics-feelings-thread. Thank you.

Good morning! Submit your questions on Patreon or on Twitter (@CAwkward, #AwkwardFriday) before noon Chicago time today.

From 12-1 I’ll answer as many as I can and update as I go. Comments open once everything is posted.

These have been fun so far. I’m looking forward to questions.

Ok, it’s on!

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Dear Captain,

Context: J and I are both part of an online circle of friends who have known each other for years. Although several of us have never met in person, we consider each other close friends. Since we’re geographically scattered and many are dealing with our own issues of mental health, stress, strained finances, etc., we have limited bandwidth for socializing, making the main group chat an important point of contact, and alternatives to it hard to construct.

J has issues I’m not going to try to diagnose here, but they result in periodic outbursts of self-loathing. When this happens, it generally takes over the entire group chat for hours. We used to try to help, but never seemed to get anywhere. Over time things have gotten worse, to the point the rest of us agree they should be talking to a professional, but they’re highly resistant to seeking any help. Now we commonly say nothing because it’ll at best not help and at worst result in their self-loathing becoming anger directed at us, and usually this results in them complaining that no one listens or cares.

I fear this will reach a point where others start leaving the chat entirely to avoid them, and/or J getting kicked for exhausting the admin’s patience, resulting in people I care about dropping out of contact and losing important supports. While this isn’t exactly my responsibility to deal with, I’m generally one of the people with the most metaphorical spoons available within the group, and I don’t want to push the problem onto those with less.

On the one hand, we can just plan for the eventuality of having to kick J entirely and the fallout from that, but I’m hoping there are strategies we can try before it gets to that point to keep their outbursts from poisoning a communal space, while also encouraging them to get help (especially if it doesn’t involve in-person counseling or therapy, to which they’re particularly resistant) in a way they’re more likely to actually listen to. Other than the admin muting them, everyone refusing to engage at all, or broken-recording with “seek professional help” when J gets started, I’m at a loss.

– Not a Doctor

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Submit your questions on Patreon or on Twitter (@CAwkward, #AwkwardFriday) before noon Chicago time today and I will answer as many as I can. Comments get turned on after everything’s posted on my end.

Great questions this week! Transcript below, updating sloooooooooooowly. 

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School/life has been kicking my ass this semester and I am really behind on search terms posts, friends. Let’s make up for lost time!

1 “I feel like I have said too much”

You are in the right place!

2 “Boyfriend won’t take showers”

Try bluntness. “Please take a shower, babe, you don’t smell so great.” 

3 “My new partner has a filthy toilet”

Try bluntness, again. “Hey, this is awkward, but can you clean the toilet at your place?” 

The longer you let stuff like no showering or a sketchy toilet go, the longer it bothers you, and the more awkward the eventual conversation gets.

4 “Guy doesn’t want a relationship because of depression”

Guy doesn’t want a relationship. Hope he gets some help for the depression and transfer your time and attention to a different guy or (better yet!) your badass self.

5 “Boyfriend is a MRA/My husband is a men’s rights activist”

(+ many more variations of this)

I hate saying “he is lost to you” but HE IS. Get yourself safe and far away as soon as you can.

6 “How to get the girl from long distance”

Ask the girl if she wants to be with you.

7 “My husband tells me I’m socially inept”

You might have a social awkwardness problem. You definitely have a mean husband problem.

8 “My bf makes fun of mental disorders”

Try bluntness: “Stop making gross ‘jokes’ about mental illness.” If he won’t, make him your ex-boyfriend.

9 “What effect on a new relationship does ‘getting intimate too fast’ have.”

If you’re asking about “when is it ok to have sex” my answer is “Whenever it seems like a good idea to both you and the prospective other person.”

One reason I advise going slow in getting to know someone and watching out for people who escalate relationships very quickly is that sometimes unsuitable people do this deliberately so you’ll be too high on orgasms and love notes to stop and evaluate a) whether they are really a good fit for you and b) whether the idealized picture they present in early dating is congruent with who they really are. The Dirty John podcast & article series (which gets allllllllll the warnings for stalking, violence) is a good cautionary tale about ignoring a lot of warning signals and outright lies because the feeling of being in love with someone who is so focused on you is so powerful.

10 “Boyfriend wants a love triangle with ex”

Hope boyfriend enjoys that love segment that he and ex are about to be in, minus you.

11 “How to respond to “you’re not my dad” from a 30 year old roommate”

“No, I’m not your dad and I don’t want to be, which is why reminding you to [do household chore][pay the cable bill][keep your mess in your room] is equally annoying to me! Can you just do the thing please? We’ll both be happier.”

12 “46 years old and my mom gives me the silent treatment”

The silent treatment is cruel and abusive. The only way to really fight it is to take the silence of an abusive person as a gift they are giving you. Your mom wants you to bow and scrape and ask her what you did wrong and chase her approval and attention. What if you didn’t do any of that, and just decided, hey, that’s her problem? If you’ve never worked with a therapist, this is a good time/issue.

13 “My family hates my bf because he hit me”

I mean…yeah? Do you get that this is a pretty reasonable position on your family’s part? Instead of trying to change your family’s mind about this guy, I hope you can work on getting yourself free of him.

Here’s a short film by a father and a daughter about her high school relationship with a boy who abused her. It is painful to watch (again, all the content warnings apply) but they made it to help people who have been there, or prevent others from going there.

14 “Coworker wears tons of makeup”

That’s your coworker’s face, not your face, ergo you are not the boss of it ergo nunya beeswax.

15 “How to reject short notice invites”

You can just say “Sorry, can’t make it” on a case by case basis, but if it’s a recurring thing with a person you really like, maybe try “I’d love to, but with my schedule I need more lead time to plan. Can we plan something for [future date] instead?” 

16 “Do I have to extend an invite every fucking time Captain Awkward”

Apparently you do? If you’re always the person who does the inviting, it’s okay to pull back if you don’t have the energy for it, and tell the other person “Hey, can you make the plans next time? I’m a little burnt out on doing the inviting, but I do like seeing you.” 

17 “Is it a disservice to give someone else your junk”

Most of the time, probably!

18 “Thank you for letting me know the decision and good lick to you”

Good lick to you!

19 “How to react if boyfriend wants to fix you”

“If I want a life coach I’ll hire one.”

20 “11 reasons why you should be bummed about missing big guava”

I’m guava-neutral, but, tell me more?

21 “He’s still on the dating app after a month/I know he loves me but he’s still online/Why is he still on the dating site/Why is his dating profile still active”

There is one person in the world who knows the answer to each of these questions, and that is the “he” in the equation. Could be he forgot to delete it. Could be he’s keeping his options open. Only one way to find out!

Step 1: You’ll need the head of a creepy doll, a bundle of hot chili peppers, any piece of political campaign literature stolen from a recycling bin, the grossest leftovers from the back of the fridge (something green is best), and glass of a refreshing beverage of your choice.

Step 2: Gather these items and bury them at the crossroads during the dark of the moon. Or, don’t gather any of these things – they don’t really matter, except for the beverage.

Step 3: Drink the beverage so your throat isn’t scratchy. Then ask the dude what’s up and tell him where your head and heart are at with this whole thing. For a new relationship, try “Hey, I’m thinking about taking my dating profile down – I’m really happy with how things are going with us and I want to see where this goes without the distraction of dating other people. What do you think about that?” For a more committed relationship, it gets a bit more awkward & blunt, right? “Hey, I thought we were in a committed relationship – is there a reason you’re on dating sites that I should know about?” See what he says. See if it washes. Talk about what you want from a relationship and see if y’all want the same things. See if you’re on the same timeline for figuring all that out. And if you haven’t already, please make sure you have those awkward, important talks about safer sex practices and STI testing if that’s something that affects you & this relationship. Sometimes you gotta be awkward in the name of protecting yourself!

 

 

 

Dear Captain,

I just bought a new house (yay me!) and am still unpacking/deciding where things go. After living with family for about a year while I saved up to be able to afford a down payment, you can imagine how excited I am to be able to put my own decorating touch on my own space!

I invited my oldest friend over to see it over the weekend. While it’s nowhere near company-ready, and she knew it, she made many, many comments about “you should move the couch there”; “that picture I sent you on your phone would look good on your wall”; “did you know your floor sloped?”; “is this the couch that needed more stuffing? I can help you with that” etc., etc., etc. (I know, some of these sound nice but these are just the comments I remembered. The one that “got” me was the one about moving the couch. I actually had the couch specifically where I wanted. Oh, and she made a comment about one of my end tables being too big for the space. Well, I am downsizing so I can’t actually replace everything all at once).

I believe she comes from a good place, but this is how she is with everyone – constantly offering her opinions and advice when not asked for. It’s a non-stop verbal diarrhea and it’s like she can’t help herself. The onslaught was such that I couldn’t get a word in.

I’ve tried limiting my contact with her over the years for this very reason – I don’t like being told “you should…” anything. But I am a wimp at saying “You know, I didn’t ask you over here for advice, I just wanted you to see my new place.” When she left, she did say she was really, really happy for me, and I know she is. She’s just not one to keep her opinions to herself.

So, if I can’t change my friend, how can I change me? How can I get my internal “ugh, don’t tell me what to do” to become more external?

Because she really harshed my mellow.

Thank you in advance!

Hi there, congrats on the new house!

I think it is 100% okay to tell a friend “Oh, thanks, but I’m not looking for advice” when they reflexively offer advice. Your script of “Hey, I didn’t ask you over here for decorating stuff, I just wanted to show you the place” is totally fine.

See also:

  • Thanks for the offers of help – I’ll let you know if I need to take you up on any of that. Right now I am so happy to have my own space where I can put everything just as I like it.
  • “Cool, but the couch is exactly where I want it for now!” (Sometimes it’s easier to be assertive with positive statements).
  • “That photo you sent was really great, thanks.” (Make no commitments about hanging it)
  • I’m really going to take my time with any home improvements or decorating. This is a ‘showing off my new house’ visit, not a ‘hardware store list-making visit.
  • Huh, thanks, I’ll think about it.

Get ready for an aggrieved “Well, I was just trying to help” response, to which you can say: “I know you are excited and looking for ways to help but hang back a sec and let me enjoy the moment, will ya? I promise to seek your wise counsel if I need it.

Give her a few chances and some time to let her reset things. Her personality won’t change, but eventually, she’ll learn not to do this so much around you.

If you’re the reflexive advice-giver in this situation (um, hello, 1043 questions, I’m not just the Captain I’m also a member), here’s your reminder to ask first. Unsolicited advice is exhausting. Some examples:

If someone says they are enjoying a particular show, maybe try asking “What else are you watching?“or “Are you interested in some recommendations of things to watch next?” before you jump in with “You have to watch [fave]!.” Enthusiasm is great, but remind yourself that people don’t “have to” do shit.

If someone vents about a problem, ask “Are you looking for suggestions on how to handle that or just venting?” before you launch in with how they “should” have handled things. A “hey, this thing sucks right now” post is not an automatic cry for solutions. This goes a thousandfold for anything medical or related to eating. Are you the person’s doctor or nutritionist? Do you literally share a body with that person? Did they ask you for suggestions because they know you’re an expert on said topic? No? Great. Then stop with the “Have you tried _____?

And for the love of all that is holy and unholy, if someone complains about their iPhone or their Android device or their Mac vs. their PC or their Avid vs. Premiere or any technology problem, STFU about what they “should” have bought instead, forever and always, amen. I literally saw someone say “Well, this wouldn’t happen if you were running Ubuntu!” on one of my feeds yesterday in response to a question about Windows and it’s probably really good that I don’t have any telekinetic fire-starting powers.

I love helping! You love helping! We love helping! And yet? Unsolicited advice is exhausting and helpful intentions don’t make it less exhausting.

Letter Writer, I know you dread it, but the world won’t swallow you if you acknowledge your friend’s kind intentions while shutting down the behavior.