Help! A Fellow Mom Asked Me to Fill Out a Recommendation Form for Her Child’s Preschool. She Won’t Like What I Have to Say.

It’s Advice Week! In On Second Thought, we’ll revisit questions from the archives and dig into how much has changed since Slate began giving advice in 1997—and how much hasn’t. Read all stories here.

For today’s edition, we dug through Slate’s archives and unearthed questions sent to Prudie from the 2000s. We’ve asked today’s columnists to weigh in with modern-day sensibilities.

Dear Prudie,

I belong to a small group of women who are mothers with children all within a few months of each other. Most of our children will be entering preschool in the fall. One friend has asked me to fill out a recommendation form for her child. I looked over the form and realized that if I were to fill it out honestly and she were to see it, she would be less than thrilled. Most of the behavior I would be called to comment on is not entirely age-appropriate. Is there any graceful way I can tell her to ask someone else to fill it out for her? Should I fill it out honestly and send it directly to the school, hoping she’ll never see what I wrote?

—Perplexed

Original Response:

Dear Perplexed,

At an age when many of the students are still pooping in their pants, how age-inappropriate could this child be? It doesn’t sound as if you think he has some serious disorders that aren’t being addressed, it’s just that he’s, well, immature. That happens when you’re 3 years old. Surely you can write something pleasant about his “energy” or “curiosity” or his “ability to turn a peanut butter and jelly sandwich into an inexpensive way to redecorate the home” or whatever it is that makes this little guy unique.

—Prudie
From: Dear Prudence (March 23, 2006).

Advice From the Future:

I’d say Prudie’s advice was spot-on, but I am honor-bound to note two bits of it that today read as anachronisms. First, to judge from the contents of the Care and Feeding inbox, parents of children who are still pooping in their pants when they are soon to start preschool are extremely worried about it. (I confess that this drives me crazy. The reason I’m not the one who answers questions about this “problem” is that I would answer all of them same way, with one non-witty sentence about how, eventually, every child without a disability that prevents it will learn how to use the toilet, and what’s the damn rush?) I am aware that these days (unfortunately, to my mind) many preschools require children to be toilet-trained or they cannot be enrolled, and I’m grateful that back in the old(ish) days of this Q and A, this rule was less common (though not unheard-of). I do fear that in 2024, disclosing that a soon-to-be-preschooler does not use the toilet would indeed be a dealbreaker.

Second, we do not reflexively use he/him pronouns or invoke the word “guy” when the gender of the child in an advice-seeking letter isn’t mentioned. (Some things have changed for the better, no?)

Dear Prudie,

Mine is only a potential problem, and I don’t want to overreact. Our 13-year-old daughter is only interested in her horse. We live on a large enough property to accommodate a smallish stable, and the horse was a birthday gift to her when she was 9. We like the idea that she has learned to care for an animal and has become an expert rider, but everything else is going by the boards. Riding interests her much more than friends, parties, school, anything. We are somewhat worried that she will never have wider interests than mucking out stalls and distributing hay. What should we do, if anything?

—Mom

Original Response:

Dear Mom,

Hang loose. Your daughter is one of those who’s obviously to the manure born. Prudie herself, as a girl, took a trot or two. Love of horses is not uncommon with adolescent and preadolescent girls. Most of them outgrow it—though some do not. The ones whose interest never wanes go on to the show circuit, they run stables, or stay connected in some way, and have perfectly satisfying lives. There is no need for you to wean her from her interest, but you may insist that her schoolwork not suffer. Prudie is betting that sooner or later the horse will be replaced by a boy as the focus of interest.

—Prudie, relaxingly
From: Dear Prudence (Oct. 12, 2009).

Advice From the Future:

Previous Prudie’s last suggestion made me recoil when I first read it: the confident, blasé assumption (as I suppose was even more common a quarter of a century ago than horsiness among girls was) that girls all grow up to be straight, and that horses are early stand-ins for boyfriends.

I know for a fact that not every straight person in 2000 thought that way: I have a crystal clear recollection of a bedtime conversation with my then-7-year-old, when she asked me if she was going to grow up to like boys or girls. I knew what had inspired the question: A then-friend of mine had been married to a man and left him for a woman, and although this had happened years before, lately it had been on my daughter’s mind. She’d asked me: “Did ‘Katie’ like boys and then stop liking them and started liking girls? But how does that happen?” I’d told her that people figure out things about themselves at all different times and in different ways, that some people know they’re gay when they’re very young, some people realize it much later, and other people like boys and girls, depending on who the particular person is, and sometimes they don’t know that until they meet one person they really like.” So when she asked about herself, I wasn’t terribly surprised. I said, “Who knows? You’ll know when you know. It’s kind of wonderful that we find out things about ourselves our whole lives long, that not everything can be planned for or decided on.”

(That is not to say I don’t have plenty of regrets about mistakes I made when my now 30-year-old was a child—I don’t know any good parent who doesn’t.)

Obviously, I wish Prudence (like a lot of people, then and now) hadn’t closed her answer in that casually homophobic way. But I also wish there’d been some recognition that kids that age (of any gender) often get obsessed with things to the temporary exclusion of everything else, especially “friends [and] parties”—which at that age can be fraught experiences, not just fun—and that this can be a way for them to cope with the confusion of approaching adolescence or adolescence itself. There are much more worrisome coping methods than a fixation on horses (or theater, basketball, music, fashion design, K-pop, anime, etc.). Prudence might have suggested that the mom pause to be relieved and grateful, and that she chill out not because this horsey phase would likely pass—and if it didn’t, there were career options for the kid to consider—but because her child was safe and happy, absorbed by something that gave her joy (and—bonus—connected her to the natural world and had her spending time outdoors).

Dear Prudie,

My wife and I are expecting our first child in October. She plans to continue working after we have our baby, and she is being bombarded by people who make her feel as if she’s an unfit mother for wanting to work outside the home. For example, a lady at our church told her she would NEVER let anyone else raise her baby. Others just ask how she could possibly leave her baby with someone else. Many just give her a condescending look. Most of these comments come from people she does not even know! My advice to her was to look at them and respond that she would NEVER make anyone feel uncomfortable that she hardly knew. How would you recommend that she deal with this? She is nonconfrontational by nature, but someone needs to let these people know how they are making her feel.

—Concerned Husband

Original Response:

Dear Con,

The ladylike response to these clods would probably be something along the lines of, “What a surprising thing to hear from someone I don’t know well.” A tougher response would be more along the lines of, “I do not recall asking your opinion.” Or … your wife might like to pass on these stats from the U.S. Department of Labor: As of 1998, 76.3 percent of women ages 25-34 worked. Out of women ages 35-44, 77.1 percent worked. (Both sets of figures would cover pretty much everyone able to belt out a baby.) Prudie has long felt that the reflexive, polite demur is not necessary when people are impertinently out of line, either with their advice or their questions.

—Prudie, straightforwardly
From: Dear Prudence (July 8, 2004).

Advice From the Future:

Hmm. Concerned Husband sets my spidey sense tingling.

Prudence offered some possible responses to the busybodies she called “clods” as well as stats from the U.S. Department of Labor as of 1998. Pru pointed out that more than three-quarters of women (of what Prudence declared to be childbearing age—or, as described it, “pretty much everyone able to belt out a baby”) worked. I bristled, first, at the jarring (to me, always) reference to “work”—by both letter-writer and advice columnist—as something that is not done by those who stay at home with their children full-time (and this hasn’t much changed, has it?). Then there are the ways the Department of Labor’s data is being made use of: Women younger than 25 and older than 44 can be excluded in a tally of possible mothers? The percentage of women, overall, who hold jobs is a reasonable stand-in for the percentage of women who hold jobs in addition to the work of parenting (which suggests that Prudence assumes that most women between the ages of 25 and 44 are parents)?

What I’m more puzzled by is Pru’s failure to respond to the letter writer’s remark that most of the disapproval of his wife’s plans “come from people she does not even know!” Why is Concerned Husband’s wife telling people she doesn’t even know anything about her child-rearing or career plans? Are strangers coming up to her in the grocery store and asking: “Do you have a job? Are you planning to quit it?” or even, “What are your plans for raising that child you appear to be incubating?” Are people at work whom she’s never spoken to before and doesn’t know by name (I’m picturing a giant cubicle-filled room, where strangers bump into each other at the water cooler) and, seeing that she’s pregnant, ask her if she’s going to keep working—and then lecturing her when she says yes?

The fastest way for Mom-to-be to deal with prying questions is to refuse to engage. My go-to is a raised eyebrow, a furrowed brow, and a murmured, “Excuse me?”

But why do I get the feeling that this father-to-be is the one who thinks there’s something not quite right about his future co-parent’s plan? “Someone needs to let these people know how they are making her feel”? Even 20 years ago, people knew about projection.

Dear Prudie,

I am at a loss. My husband and I are currently expecting our first child, due in January. While we are very excited about the arrival of our little girl, we are beginning to fear the delivery room for a different reason than the usual worries about pain, safety, etc. What concerns us is the guest list. Seeing the event as a very private one, and being perhaps shy about my body in this personal context, we prefer to have those present limited to my husband, myself, and necessary medical personnel. Lately, however, friends and family have been talking about the day as if they plan to be in the delivery room with us. We have other friends who have invited people to their children’s births, but we never invited anyone. Suddenly people are clearing their schedules and making plans to get there on time! While we are happy that everyone is so excited to meet our child, we are a bit unsure how to say that we are keeping this moment to ourselves. Please help!

—Private Parent

Original Response:

Dear Prive,

THE GUEST LIST? People are inviting themselves to the delivery room? Prudie is stunned—and, you will be interested to know, she has never heard of this before. Giving birth is neither a party nor a social occasion, and while there are instances where a mother or mother-in-law or sibling have been asked to be present, that is entirely at the discretion of the parents-to-be. Prudie does not wish to impugn your friends, but they sound out of their minds. Do not be put on the defensive for one minute. Just tell anyone and everyone that you will not be entertaining on the day the baby is born. In fact, it would probably be a good idea to leave word with the nurse on the floor that no one is to be granted entry to the delivery room.

—Prudie, aghastly
From: Dear Prudence (Jan. 6 2005).

Advice From the Future:

One thing that strikes me, as I read aughts-Prudence’s responses to questions about parenting in those dark pre-Care-and-Feeding ages, is that the Prudence of this early era—Margo Howard, the only child of legendary advice-giver “Ann Landers” (Eppie Lederer, who was herself, of course, the twin sister of Pauline Phillips, who wrote the “Dear Abby” column)—often slides into a Miss Manners mode, shedding her chummy, homespun, Abbylike tone (in one column, this Prudence invokes the phrase lower than a snake’s tail in a wagon rut) and instead speaking of herself in the third person, adopting an ironic version of the style employed by the person I consider the Queen of Advice. She does so here:

Prudie does not wish to impugn your friends, but they sound out of their minds. Do not be put on the defensive for one minute. Just tell anyone and everyone that you will not be entertaining on the day the baby is born.

That’s fine advice, as far as it goes. But even better (taking a leaf out of the direct—and almost always terse—advice style of her own mother) would be to suggest that Private Parent simply not tell anyone when she goes into labor, reminding her that if no one knows she’s at the hospital, no one will show up. Friends and family can all be called after the baby is born. (Prudence might have attempted one of her Aunt Pauline’s famous Abby style, witty one-liners—something I’ve dared to do only rarely.)

I will add that when I went into labor, I did call my then-best friend, and I stayed in touch with her throughout that long day; when my doctor finally said, 14 hours later, that my contractions were coming close enough for me to head for the hospital, I let “Katie” know. I wanted her to be with my husband and me right up to the minutes before delivery (I remember one of them on each side of me as the worst contractions hit, and how I squeezed both their hands so hard I bruised their fingers): When I was moved to the delivery room, Katie sat on the floor right outside it. I wanted her to be the first person, after my husband and me, to see my daughter.

Did she mind being present for the birth itself? I don’t know. But Prudie was right: Good friends don’t ask to be. Nobody but the parents have the “right” to be there. If the birthing parents want anyone else in the room, that’s another matter altogether.

Dear Pru,

When is it inappropriate for people to bring kids to an event, and what can you do about it? Recently I went to a very non-kid-friendly movie—the plot was pretty much sex, sex, sex, which was obvious from every review and preview—and there were two different entire families there. Each group of people contained at least four kids, ranging in ages down from about 8 to babies. The kids were running up and down the aisles and talking and yelling and crying and climbing over and under the seats and spilling soda on people all through the movie. No one, including management, said anything about it because the families were of a specific minority group, and I think people were afraid of seeming racist at the arty liberal movie theater. This is the only “art-house” movie theater in town, they serve wine and beer, and they don’t show child-appropriate movies. What’s the deal? Is it a crime to hire a babysitter anymore?

—Annoyed

Original Response:

Dear Ann,

It’s not a crime, but for some families it’s impossible or unaffordable. Like you, Prudie is of the old school, believing if an occasion is for grown-ups, people should stay home if no sitter is available. Lots of people disagree with Prudie, however … hence little kids in wildly inappropriate settings. As to what you can do about it at the movies—at least because of content suitability—nothing. You CAN, however, complain to the theater management about kids who are running, yelling, talking, crying, climbing, and spilling soda. You could even report adults for the same behavior. Ignore the minority business, by the way; you are not making a complaint because of the person’s ethnicity. There is an outside chance that, according to statute where you live, minors may not be where alcohol is served. If so, you could alert the liquor license people. And regarding movies where children do not belong, there’s an outside chance that the parents read no reviews but simply went because of the title alone. Years ago Prudie’s dear girlfriend was deeply embarrassed when she took her pre-adolescent son to what she believed to be a movie about farmers. It was Day of the Locust.

—Prudie, age-appropriately
From: Dear Prudence (Jan. 16, 2003).

Advice From the Future:

Pru told Annoyed, reasonably enough, that no, it’s not a crime, but noted that “for some families it’s impossible or unaffordable.” Ultimately, though, her advice was to complain to the theater management about kids who were running, yelling, talking, crying, climbing, and spilling soda.

I’m afraid that white privilege seeps through both the question and the answer here. It seems not to cross Pru’s mind that “I think people were afraid of seeming racist” is code for “None of us is racist! We’re arty liberals! We can’t possibly be racist—but we might seem to be if we said anything!” and that this way of thinking betrays the perniciousness of the framing of this question. Pru’s advice to ignore the “minority business” (a phrase that truly rankled me, as did her soothing certainty that no one would be complaining “because of the person’s ethnicity”) fails to take the real question—hidden, even from the asker, beneath the surface of the question of etiquette—into account.

White audience, white management, nonwhite folks with bad manners? Horrors.

Listen, I hate it when adults let children watch things that are violent or otherwise likely to be upsetting and frightening. But this letter-writer doesn’t seem in the least concerned for the children (though passing lip-service is paid to that), and the truth is that we can’t tell other people how to parent their kids, as much as we might like to (I have to remind myself quite often in the grocery store or on a plane). This letter-writer is annoyed by the raucous behavior of children who aren’t white, and by their parents not reining them in. Telling Annoyed to complain to the manager is terrible advice, then and now. That it doesn’t occur to Prudence that race is relevant in this situation may not surprise most white people (not in either decade). That breaks my heart. It would’ve then, and it does now.—Michelle

More Prudie From the 2000s

My wife and I are heading toward a bit of a showdown with her parents and need your advice. We’ve bought a house and established ourselves in an area that we really like and where we plan to stay for a long time. The problem is my wife’s parents, who we’ve always enjoyed seeing on visits several times a year, are now looking for a house near where we live.