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Miss Conduct

Advice on dealing with parents who have strict rules about what their kids eat

Plus, whether or not to cover up a scar in public.

Illustration by Nathalie Dion

> We have a friend who, when entertaining, puts out sweets and forbids her kids from touching them. Other parents then do the same, so sometimes there is an entire plate of brownies left at the end of the party. I have tried to address it jokingly along the lines of “What’s the point of making them if no one can eat them?” and she says, “I just don’t want my kids getting fat.” Of course, her kids sneak them when they think no one is looking. It is awkward all around. Any advice?

A.M. / Boston

Talk to your friend, and tell her how uncomfortable it makes everyone when she serves her special Back Off Brownies. No halfhearted joking – this is one of those “If your friends won’t tell you, who will” moments. Focus on the feelings of the guests and how utterly impossible it is for a decent adult to eat a sweet in front of a child who has been forbidden one. (Whatever you do, don’t rat out the kids.) 

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 Your letter was enough to make me lose my appetite, but, unfortunately, parents have the right to do their job badly. There isn’t much you can do about the warped attitudes toward food that your friend is passing on to her children. You can, though, ask her in the strongest terms possible not to put her guests in the position of behaving rudely no matter what they do rejecting their host’s offering of food or eating in front of a crestfallen child.

 

> My recent thyroidectomy left me with a bright scar that looks like someone tried to cut my head off. In public, I feel I am forcing people to look at this unexplained thing on my neck under circumstances where they cannot ask me about it. While I know I don’t have to cover it up, it feels like a nice thing to do. (Home, work, and all are fine because I’ve told everyone I know about my surgery.) What’s your take? Was my splurge on new scarves a waste?  

D.A. / Cambridge

Splurging on new scarves is never a waste, darling! I hope you look fabulous in them long after your scar has faded into oblivion. I hear that the “I Was Married to Henry VIII and All I Got Was This Lousy Cicatrix” look doesn’t last forever.

Sans scarf, you’ll be an object of curiosity, for those observant enough to notice your scar in the first place. But that could be fewer people than you’d imagine. A psychological experiment has shown that folks who are even mildly distracted can be astonishingly oblivious to all sorts of things, up to and including a chest-pounding woman in a gorilla suit. (Another experiment has shown that political conservatives notice and fixate on unpleasant stimuli, like a surgical scar, more than liberals do. Try to notice whether any peek-sneakers are wearing GOP campaign buttons!) Once attention has been captured, however, we want to know what other people are up to, particularly if it’s leading to them getting their throats slit. One needn’t be an evolutionary psychologist like Steven Pinker nor a teller of just-so stories like Rudyard Kipling to hypothesize that those who failed to learn from the slashed throats of others may have failed to pass on their genetic material as well.

If covering up saves you self-consciousness, go ahead and do so. Otherwise, the unsatisfied curiosity of others is not your responsibility. Urban life is full of mysteries and our fellow human has always been essentially unknowable. Should you be uncovered and catch the eye of a looky-loo, you can smile and say “thyroid operation” or ignore him and return to Angry Birds. Unlike our ancestors, we have Google, and if someone is still thinking about that person with the scar by the time they get to the office, it’s fairly easy to look it up.

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

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a Cambridge-based writer with a PhD in psychology.GOT A QUESTION OR A COMMENT? Write to missconduct@globe.com. BLOG Read more of Miss Conduct’s wit and wisdom at boston.com/missconduct. CHAT Get advice live this Wednesday, noon to 1 p.m., at boston.com.
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