How Do We Tell Our Kids Why Their Uncle Is in Prison?

How Do We Tell Our Kids Why Their Uncle Is in Prison?


My brother-in-law, who lives out of state, was recently convicted of a serious violent crime and sentenced to life in prison. My wife and her parents have been understandably distraught about this. They have frequent video calls with him, and they often talk about “when he comes home.” My issue: We have two young children, ages 7 and 9. They occasionally see their uncle on these calls, but they know nothing of his crime. They just think he’s away. I know they’re too young to hear the graphic details of his situation, but I think we should tell them something before they hear about it from someone else. My wife disagrees. What do you think?

DAD

Children are often more perceptive than we imagine. I would be surprised, for instance, if yours haven’t already picked up on their mother’s and grandparents’ distress. This ambient discomfort, along with the common impulse of children to (mistakenly) feel responsible for family problems, may be worse than an age-appropriate discussion of the facts.

I commend you for trying to get in front of this. As you suggest, it would probably be more upsetting for your children to hear about their uncle on the playground than from you. I also empathize with your wife, who wants to protect your children and is likely grappling with anger, shame and sadness for her brother and his victim.

Propose a child-friendly conversation to her: “Your uncle hurt someone very badly, and his punishment is to stay in prison for a long time.” Your children will surely have questions, and you and your wife should answer them truthfully, while avoiding graphic details and highlighting their safety.

If you have the resources, consult a therapist together to talk about your wife’s reluctance to speak to your children and, hopefully, rehearse a helpful conversation with them when you both agree the time is right.

My father was an artist; he died 30 years ago. My stepmother remarried a year later, but the marriage didn’t last long. Eventually, she moved across the country. We speak infrequently. Recently, the son of her ex-husband told me he had a few of my father’s paintings, and he asked me if I wanted them. I am pretty excited about this! I didn’t get many personal effects when my father died. But now my stepmother wants the paintings too. I’m curious why she didn’t take them 30 years ago. When I get the paintings back, what should I do? If you say to return them to my stepmother, who should pay for shipping? We’re both on fixed incomes.

DAUGHTER

After decades, it’s probably safe to assume that any applicable state law would find that your stepmother had abandoned the paintings — unless her ex-husband agreed to store them for her indefinitely. But since there are a few of them, wouldn’t it be simpler (and more generous) to keep a couple of paintings and offer one or two to your stepmother? And if she wants one, she should pay for shipment.

A group of a dozen friends has remained close since high school. We are now in our 30s. One of us is getting married this year, and the bride-to-be plans to invite all but one of the group members to the wedding. I’m confident she isn’t being malicious. She and the uninvited person have simply drifted over time. The trouble is that the non-invitee expects an invitation, given the general closeness of the group. Should someone say something to him before the invitations go out?

ANXIOUS FRIEND

Forgive me, but I’m having a hard time picturing a group of 12 as close-knit. It’s been over a decade since you graduated from high school. Do you have all of them over for dinner? Did none of you move away? I would stay out of this. Bridal couples decide whom to invite to their (often costly) weddings.

And decisions about invitations are generally made by virtue of closeness with individual invitees — not by membership in larger affinity groups. It’s unfortunate that only one of the old gang didn’t make the cut. Still, the kindest thing is to say nothing to your friend about the invitation or the wedding and sympathize with him if he expresses hurt at his exclusion. Sadly, we can’t all be invited to everything.

At least once a week, when I pick up my second-grade daughter from school, a woman I barely know comes up to tell me how brilliantly her own child is doing in school: She’s acing her classes; her teachers love her; she scored the winning goal in soccer! Her daughter is in the same class as mine. I find her behavior bizarre. Do you?

LILY

Actually, I feel sorry for her. I’m sure these encounters are annoying for you, but in my experience, people with healthy self-esteem do not bombard near strangers with the achievements of their children. I would try to avoid her. But if you can’t, just tell her you’re happy for her and move along. It doesn’t sound as if you’re close enough to have an honest conversation (and suffer the possible fallout).


For help with your awkward situation, send a question to SocialQ@nytimes.com, to Philip Galanes on Facebook or @SocialQPhilip on Twitter.





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