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My Son, 100 Pounds, and Me

When excess weight gets in the way, plus asking for prompt service and forgiveness.

Miss Conduct
(Illustration / Nathalie Dion)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Miss Conduct
April 13, 2008

My 20-year-old son has gained close to 100 pounds in the last four years; the problem can be traced to when he started dating his girlfriend, who is also obese. I'm worried about his health, but no amount of talking has helped. I've been told that they both like the way they look, that society discriminates against them, that they are losing weight, etc. She has told him that his parents are too controlling. Our relationship with our son has really suffered, although he has slowly started to repair it. I see this as a very dangerous situation for my son but feel helpless. Any suggestions?

J.M. in Wrentham

You're not helpless, but you aren't clear what exactly it is you have control over. It's this: You can either have a fat son who loves and trusts you, or a fat son who sees you as the enemy. Your choice.

A hundred pounds in four years is a precipitous gain, and I can see why you'd be worried. However, your letter raises a few red flags. For one thing, your son didn't just gain 100 pounds when he met his girlfriend - he gained it between the ages of 16 and 20, when young men normally go through a growth spurt. Has he also gotten a few inches taller during that time? For another, you say that he has started to repair your relationship. That's not how relationships work: They're a two-way street. If he'd done something that was deliberately hurtful to you - lied, stolen, abused you - then the responsibility would be on him to start the reconciliation process. But all he did was gain weight. That's hardly the kind of attack on you that requires him to make the first move.

I think you need to accept that your son is an adult who will make his own romantic and gastronomic choices in life, choices that you may not always approve of. By making his love life and his weight the grounds for a power struggle, you are harming your own relationship with him. And if indeed his romantic relationship and eating habits are unhealthy, your attempts to control him are also increasing the chance that he will feel that he must continue with them, in order to assert his autonomy and adulthood.

This might not be high on most people's list of pet peeves, but here is one of mine. Often when I am waiting for service at a counter I am asked "Are you all set?" This could mean "Have you already been waited on?" or "Do you need help?" When I have assumed the employee meant the latter, I have said yes, only to have him/her walk off. Shouldn't the proper question be "May I help you?" or "Have you been helped?"

R.C. in Marshfield

Perhaps it should be, but English is a notoriously colloquial, illogical, and multifaceted language, with dozens if not hundreds of ways to express any possible meaning, and there doesn't seem to be much point in blaming people making low wages at your local drugstore for that fact. Now that you know how salesclerks typically use "Are you all set?" you can avoid confusion in the future. To be extra clear, you needn't respond "yes" or "no" to the query: You can say "I need some (don't need any) help, please (thank you)."

We have a summer cottage that my sister and her husband helped renovate. We paid them in cash and multiple dinners, concerts, etc., and allowed them to use the cottage at no charge. However, my sister has pets, and we don't allow pets at the cottage. We expressed this to them nicely, but she and her husband got upset. After we learned how hurt they were, we left another phone message saying we would make an exception, because we did not want to lose family over this. We still haven't heard back from them. What should we do?

R.B. in Brighton

According to Jewish tradition, when you have wronged another person, you ask him or her for forgiveness three times. After that, it's on his or her head. Like bagels and klezmer music, this advice isn't just good for the Jews. There's nothing magic about the number three - it could be two or 22 - it's the idea of closure (that much-maligned cliche) that's important. So call or write your sister again. Tell her that you're sorry for hurting her feelings, repeat your thanks for the renovation help, and reiterate your offer to let her pets stay at the cottage. Close by asking her to get back to you in her time, and letting her know that you won't initiate any further contact. At that point, the ball's in her court. She can process the issue and not worry about - or secretly enjoy - the fact that you're twisting in the wind.

(For the record, I think she's being unreasonable; pets aren't welcome everywhere, nor should their owners expect them to be. But generous and mature people, like yourself, put up with occasional unreasonableness in those we love and hope that they will forgive our peccadilloes in return.)

My Word!

"Nearly all the fault or mistakes in conversation are caused by not thinking," according to Emily Post's 1942 book Etiquette: The Blue Book of Social Usage. I went through a phase, as a teacher, of not making students raise their hands before they spoke. Big mistake. Making them raise their hands gave them a few crucial seconds to consider what they were saying - and made discussions noticeably better.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a Cambridge-based writer with a PhD in psychology.

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