Unstinting etiquette advice from Catherine Newman
My brother-in-law is really into drawing comics and superheroes. He’s been trying to bond with our toddler by giving us prints of his drawings on mounted canvas. Though it’s sweet he wants to connect with our son, the canvases are enormous and plentiful, and we have no interest in hanging them in our home. Can I ask him to stop, or do we keep storing the art in our garage?
This situation is unconventional but working just fine. Your brother-in-law enjoys making the art, you’ve got space to stash it, and everybody’s happy. If he asks after it, explain that you love the gifts but have no room for them in the house. And consider inviting him to make comics with your toddler: Your son could narrate scenes or they could draw together, and the collaborative creativity would be more meaningful for both of them. If that’s not compelling to him, then he may well be more interested in his own talent than your son’s experience, which I suspect might be what’s bothering you to begin with.
My widowed father-in-law lives with us and has health issues. He always joins us for dinner, even though he uses a feeding tube and doesn’t eat. I love that our 2-year-old sees his grandpa every day, but I’d like us to have moments just as a family. How do I ask him to give us some dinners alone without making him feel unwelcome?
You’ve done a lovely thing, bringing your father-in-law into your home. Now that he’s there, you can’t ask for a break from his company without sowing terrible seeds of doubt about how welcome he is. Whether or not he eats, chances are good that dinner is a highlight of his day; your request for him to stay in his room would feel dreadful to both of you. Can you create special family moments elsewhere? Bathing your son, say, or putting him to bed? Or could you take him out for a slice of pizza while your husband spends some quality time with his dad? These are imperfect solutions, but—as you’re probably painfully aware—you hold the fragile bubble of a family in your hands.
I love dogs, and I’ve owned big breeds. I recently bought a home with two huge dogs next door. The owner never picks up after them, and her yard is covered in poop. I can’t open my windows without the stench drifting in. How do I approach my new neighbor about this?
Try framing the issue not as a judgment but as a dilemma: “Your dogs are so lovely,” you can say. “I love living next door to them. But I’m increasingly sensitive to the smell of dog poop, which comes into my house. Would you be willing to problem-solve with me about it?” Ultimately, unless your town has ordinances (and I would hope never to call the authorities on my next-door neighbor), she can do what she likes in her own space. Your best bet is mentioning how it affects you and hoping for courtesy. You could even offer to help her blitz through the yard with a scooper and bag, to get things started. Otherwise, consider cleverly placed window fans and scented candles.
I’ve been married to a wonderful man for 21 years. Every holiday and birthday (our birthdays are two days apart), my in-laws send us each a check. My husband’s check is always for five times as much money as mine. I think this is incredibly rude and hurtful. Why don’t they total the amount and give us both half? Do I dare mention it to them? I don’t want to seem ungrateful.
Here’s my advice: Be grateful, be annoyed, let it go (in that order). Is the asymmetry weird? Totally! Are parentsin-law often weird? They are. As are parents, for that matter. By the time you came along, these folks were probably in the habit of gifting their son generously. Maybe they tacked you onto some lesser girlfriend list—and then never adjusted. Or they like to imagine that you don’t pool resources. Or the smaller amount is meant to suggest, irritatingly, that you’re still not quite family. If there are other spouses you can gossip with, have at it. In any case, write a thank-you note and remind yourself to do better if you’re ever the one writing checks.
We purchased a beach house as a second home for ourselves and our five kids. Now we’re constantly fielding questions from family and friends about using it when we’re not there. We don’t want to open it to guests. We explain that we don’t have maid service or rental liability insurance. How do we deal with these requests without sounding uncharitable?
The liability issue is your easiest out here: “We don’t actually have the right insurance for that.” Done. And nobody needs to take it personally. But! What if you stretched toward expansiveness? You could ask guests to contribute to the insurance, request that they hire and pay for a cleaning service, and leave a list (as many Airbnb hosts do) of housekeeping tasks. If all this serves as a deterrent, well, perfect. But if someone— someone you trust—is still desperate for an affordable vacation that you could help provide? You totally don’t have to, but maybe it would be worth it.
The author of How to Be a Person: 65 Hugely Useful, Super-Important Skills to Learn Before You’re Grown Up, Catherine Newman gets advice from her husband and two opinionated, largely grown children in Amherst, Massachusetts.