Dear Imprudence: How Not To Give Advice
Welcome to our newest intermittent series, “Dear Imprudence,” in which FWD/Forward contributors (and guest bloggers) deconstruct advice columns which offer monumentally bad advice about disability issues. Do you have an advice column you’d like us to deconstruct? Shoot us a link in the comments or via admin at disabledfeminists dot com.
Our inaugural entry in “Dear Imprudence” comes, appropriately enough, from the popular Slate columnist Emily Yoffe, known as “Prudence” or “Prudie.” The column for 22 October featured several instances of bad advice which made it hard to pick just one, but I went with this letter:
I take my 80-year-old mother-in-law to the store for her weekly shopping since it has become dangerous for her to drive. She believes she can simply eat all the candies, bulk items, and fruits she likes before paying for them. I am finding it really hard to convince her that she is stealing from the stores. I want her to stop doing it before she embarrasses herself one day, passing security with a mouthful of goodies. It causes me great stress on what otherwise should be a pleasant day for us. She thinks it’s fun and that I should stop being the moral police to her.
Here’s how Prudence responded:
If she doesn’t understand that munching her way through the aisles is theft and instead thinks it’s fun, perhaps she needs a complete neurological workup because she may be losing touch with reality. If it turns out she’s fine and just believes the grocery store is an all-you-can-eat-and-you-don’t-have-to-pay buffet, then you need to disabuse her of this notion. I know you’ve been having this discussion with her, but instead of fighting when you’re at the grocery store, reiterate your view while sitting down at her home or yours. Explain that you enjoy her company and are happy to be able to go shopping with her, but your worry that security is going to grab her one day for stealing—and eating food without paying is stealing—is making these trips to the store miserable for you. Tell her if she can’t stop, then you’ll have to. Say that unless she curbs her appetite until the groceries are bagged, you will take her list and do her shopping for her. Then stick to it. Maybe realizing how much her world is going to shrink will prompt her to give up her sticky-fingers routine.
There are a couple of problems with this response. The first is in the very first sentence, which contains a nugget of good advice hidden in a storm of judgment. Sudden behavioural changes in older adults can be a sign that a neurological issue is emerging, and it may be a good idea to see a neurologist in that case, although it sounds like this is not a sudden change at all, but simply an older woman who may be feeling lonely and isolated who likes to have a little fun now and then. But Prudence says that the writer’s mother in law is “losing touch with reality,” which is a really scathing way of addressing a potentially serious issue.
The second, very serious, problem is with Prudie’s solution: Threaten the mother in law with being housebound. This is not ever appropriate advice to give when dealing with anyone, let alone a person with disabilities. People with disabilities already are housebound by social circumstances they can’t control, like lacking access to a mobility device/having a mobility device stolen, being trapped inside inaccessible homes, not being able to access public transit, and, yes, being trapped by supposed caregivers who do not provide them with the support that they need. Suggesting that someone threaten another human being with shrinking her world is unconscionable, and Prudie should be ashamed of herself.
The column also doesn’t address the extent of the behaviour, probably because Prudie doesn’t know the details. I personally “snack” in the bulk section all the time, and my grocery store actively encourages it. They have sample cups out so that people can try bulk foods before buying to decide if they want them. My grocery store also allows people to eat in the store; they just ask that you weigh your items before eating so that the clerk knows how much to ring up at the register.
It’s a bit unclear whether the writer is complaining because her mother in law grabs a few snacks (perhaps she’s hungry? Maybe she wants to try something before buying?) or because her mother in law really does treat the bulk bins as a free buffet. It sounds like the real problem is that the writer views the mother in law as a burden, and wants Prudence to give her a free pass on this attitude.
What would have been better advice?
Well, Prudence could have suggested that the writer do what our grocery store asks people to do: Weigh a bag of goodies, note down the weight, snack through the store, and alert the clerk to the consumption at the register so that the clerk can charge for it. Prudence also could have suggested that maybe the writer should check to see if the mother in law is hungry before they go to the store; perhaps having a snack before shopping would resolve the issue. Prudence might also have recommended hiring an aide or assistant to help the mother in law with her weekly shopping, since daughter in law apparently finds it such a burden.
There’s another problem with this column; the pseudonym used by the writer. “Paranoid” is ableist language. I’m assuming that the writer invented the pseudonym, not Prudence, but in either case, it was not appropriate.