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:

Dear Prudence,
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.

—Paranoid D-I-L

Here’s how Prudence responded:

Dear Paranoid,
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.

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

16 thoughts on “Dear Imprudence: How Not To Give Advice

  1. My mom would take empty wrappers (candy, granola bars) to the cash register. She’d let us eat the food in the store, but always made sure the checker rang up the empty wrapper of the eaten candy. Maybe this D-I-L should have shopped with my mom when little, to find a simple solution to a non-problem.

    I’m having a hard time checking my ableist language when it comes to “paranoid,” “crazy”, “insane,” etc. I’m working on it, though! But it amazes me how much those words have become common in our slang, and how little thought most people (me included, until it was pointed out to me on Twitter). Doesn’t excuse it, just shows how much work needs to be done…
    .-= Criss´s last blog ..Dear Biblethumpers: You’re doing it wrong. And making the rest of us look bad. =-.

  2. The second, very serious, problem is with Prudie’s solution: Threaten the mother in law with being housebound.

    Yes. This was what most bothered me about the column. I often need assistance to get places, and it is very easy for the assistant to deny access to something important to you, even if they don’t consciously realize they’re doing it. As a teenager, when I was less able to navigate stores alone, my mother would do all her shopping first and then take me to the CD or video game section or whatever. It was annoying rather than harmful, but a sign of how easy it is for caregivers to control PWD’s access to things.

    I was like: Prudence, you do realize that your telling someone to deny a woman food, right?
    .-= Tera´s last blog ..Sweetie =-.

  3. I suspect the MIL would be strongly opposed to an aide or assistant, since that right there suggests a loss of independence and indicates that DIL doesn’t believe MIL can take care of herself (as she obviously doesn’t). Often people are willing to accept help from family that they don’t want from someone who’s getting paid.

    That sounds very similar to my dad’s Alzheimer’s-enhanced food behavior (although his wasn’t as dramatic), so I’d go for the weigh-and-write-down-food approach in the near-term and the neurological exam to find out if there is anything else going on, but be very cautious about trying to get an aide involved right off the bat before knowing what’s really happening. And if the MIL is developing dementia, an aide is not a substitute for family involvement.

    Arguing and threats–worst approach whether she has something neurological going on or not, neither respectful nor effective.

  4. “Paranoid” is ablist language? I really had no idea. I just looked it up and saw that indeed it is a mental illness. I literally thought it was an emotional state. As a feminist I am familiar that it is my job to educate myself on these issues, but just the same, I’m constantly running into words that I had no idea are being misused. For this reason, perhaps there should be a list of Commonly Misused Words for our common reference? I would very much appreciate it!

  5. Mel, really good point in re:aides not necessarily being a good solution to this issue, and thank you for bringing that up.

    Also, I wanted to note that my stress on the word “burden” was not meant to imply that the MIL is a burden, but rather to play on the disabled-family-member-as-burden trope which seems to dominate many discussions about family caregivers. (Which is, in and of itself, a complicated discussion which will probably crop up here at FWD at some point.)

  6. Also, The Nerd, that’s sort of the point of the Ableist Word Profile, is identifying ableist words and discussing their origins. “Paranoid” is in the queue of words to be done, so one could view the Ableist Word Profile archives as a sort of slowly growing list of Commonly Misused Words.

  7. Honestly, my advice to her would have been to myob. I agree that what MIL is doing is stealing (if the grocery store doesn’t allow it, of course), but it doesn’t really seem like that big a deal, and I don’t think it’s DIL’s job to police that. And frankly it seemed to me that her concern about MIL getting caught was kind of a pretense, and mostly all about DIL–as in, DIL would be really embarrassed, I doubt she cares that much about MIL’s embarrassment.

    On the other hand, if there is some reason that getting caught might result in a dangerous situation for MIL, like being taken to jail or something, it might be worth it to do what’s possible to help MIL not steal. But there’s only so much one should or can do, and trying to control the MIL by threatening to “shrink her world” is really wrong.

    I found Prudie’s attitude to be quite condescending and infantalizing.

  8. Prudie’s advice bothered me recently – it was about a man who was going to marry a woman who wanted separate bedrooms. The whole thing was about how the woman still lived at home and wanted some privacy finally.

    No one considered why someone would live at home until marriage, except for immaturity. (I first was mad for cultural reasons, but now I’m mad for ableism reasons – I lived on my own, everyone should!)
    .-= Kaitlyn´s last blog ..Spoon Theory and Me (It’s all about me) =-.

  9. I’m so horrified at the suggestion that one should refuse to take one’s MIL to the grocery store.

    This is why I’m rather adamant that certain types of care should not be performed by me. Don has a homecare worker that comes by once a week to help with things like shaving and making sure his hair gets a thorough wash and all that. The idea that those sorts of important body-related tasks should be something that I could punish him by refusing to do, or something that could end up waiting until I have spare time to do them is, is horrifying to me. (And if you think I’m hardly on line, you should see how rarely I’m home.)

    And yet, people suggest it all the time.
    .-= Anna´s last blog ..A random collection of things =-.

  10. Use her disability to get what you want!

    That’s what this boils down to. The mother in law needs help because of her disability/ her age (there is so much intersection between ableism and ageism!), and this dependency is the perfect tool to shape the mil’s behaviour as the daughter in law sees fit, so she can enjoy the shopping.

    That’s undue duress, if not extortion. Prudie is telling the dil to hold the mil’s ability to provide lives neccesseties for herself hostage until the mil changes into the person her dil wants her to be.

  11. The idea that those sorts of important body-related tasks should be something that I could punish him by refusing to do, or something that could end up waiting until I have spare time to do them is, is horrifying to me.

    No kidding! The fact that Prudie suggests this and *doesn’t* ever suggest that someone else might be better at taking the woman grocery shopping is just awful. She doesn’t even ask if there are other family members who might be more comfortable with the job, let alone aides they could hire. If someone needs assistance with activities of daily living and you’re not able to provide that assistance, the only ethical thing to do is to find someone else who can. (The fact that this can be profoundly difficult due to systemic cultural ableism doesn’t change the obligation to treat PWD ethically.)
    .-= Sweet Machine´s last blog ..Fluffcation: Holiday =-.

  12. I know this is just an anecdote, but my father used to do this ALL the time when I was growing up. He was an “older” father who had his first child in his 50s, but he was cognitively very sharp. After his neurological issue (a severe stroke that left him mostly hemiplegic) he was no longer able to steal from the bins.

    Being able to steal candy from bulk bins (and embarrass people at the store who are related to you and shop with you) has nothing to do with neurological impairment or the need for a work up. Or the need to threaten someone with being housebound.
    .-= MomTFH´s last blog ..I’m so stoked! =-.

  13. There’s another problem with this column; the pseudonym used by the writer. “Paranoid” is ableist language.

    Sorry to be incredibly out of date replying to this, I’ve found myself chewing over this sentence rather a lot, and I’m really conflicted about it.

    I’ll say up front, I struggle daily with paranoia. In the clinical description of the word. It goes hand in hand with my depression and anxiety issues and plays a big part in exacerbating both of those.

    And while on the one hand I roll my eyes a little when people use the word incorrectly, I’m also incredibly concerned about feeling like I need to “out” myself and/or defend my word usage when talking about my own condition. I want to be able to talk about a situation or action that is triggering that constantly underlying conviction that everyone secretly hates me without having to explicitly justify my right to use the word.

    The writer of this letter signs themself as “Paranoid”, and I’m not sure how we can judge just based on this description of one small segment of their life whether or not they have the “right” to do so. I could totally see the described situation feeding into my own paranoia and depression, which is not in any way meant to justify either the writer’s actions toward their MIL or Prudie’s frankly appalling advice just that I feel like paranoid is one of those words where it’s really hard to tell from the outside how genuinely accurate a description it is when looking at only one data point. Paranoid as a description of someone else, particularly when used as a way to dismiss, mock or belittle their opinions, yeah, ableist as hell. Paranoid as a description of self? How am I, as an outsider to that person’s head and life, to know?

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