You know how parenting is mostly telling people stuff you would have thought was just common sense, and then repeating yourself until you think you sound crazy, right?

There’s the early parenthood version of this phenomenon, where you focus mostly on safety issues:

“No, we don’t put (toy/bodily appendage/instrument of destruction) (in your mouth/up your nose/on your brother/down the heat register).”

… or social mores:

“It’s not polite to (stare at/comment on/make an arghh sound like a pirate at)(random strangers/that guy at Applebee’s wearing an eye patch).”

Parents of older kids still get to hear themselves saying stuff they probably think shouldn’t have to be said. It’s just that there’s a little more nuance involved as kids age.

There’s stuff like:

“No, you can’t keep a pet (scorpion/lemur/tarantula), because it’s (dangerous/illegal/icky).”

… And:

“There is to be absolutely no (beer brewing/distilling/any project requiring a grow light in your closet) because it’s (smelly/dangerous/smelly and dangerous).”

Our kids are older now, and I guess I thought we were wrapping up the this-stuff-shouldn’t-have-to-be-said shtick, so I was a little astonished last week when I heard one thing in particular coming out of my mouth.

It’s coming up on prom season. I don’t think either of our boys is getting excited about prom any time soon, but our exchange student is definitely getting into the prom groove.

If you’ve been around here for a while, you know we regularly host foreign exchange students. Doing so gives us a fair amount of insight on the American high school experience as compared to the high school experience pretty much everywhere else. Because the American experience is what it is, we get a lot of opportunity to explain stuff that can be difficult to explain. Things like lockers, and marching bands, and school sports aren’t part of the high school experience anywhere but here.

And then there’s prom.

Back in my day, prom was a lot more straight forward … but probably still would have needed explanation, with all the tulle, taffeta and Aqua-Net, the matching of corsages to cummerbunds, photos and dinner, and maybe a disco ball and some spiked punch.

Although this was back in the olden days, I don’t remember anyone doing anything more elaborate to get a prom date than just asking – maybe having a friend ask for you if that sort of activity made you anxious. Either way, the ask wasn’t a thing.

Today the way you ask for a date seems to be about as important as the date itself. Scavenger hunts, flash mobs, cars stuffed with balloons, a pizza with a big question mark spelled out in pepperoni delivered by gorilla-suited singing telegram. I don’t know the stats, whether any of this effort increases the likelihood of a positive response, or just serves as good social media fodder.

But who am I to look askance at a pizza bearing gorilla?

Our whole conversation reminded me of a story from a few years ago:

One night, we had just put the boys to bed when we noticed something outside. People were darting from behind a tree to the street and back again in the dark, lining up candles in front of our neighbor’s house and trying to keep them all lit at once. Some guy waited by the door, whisper-yelling instructions and trying to be inconspicuous.

The candles kept blowing out. People ran back and forth relighting them. Sometimes the candle-lighters bumped into each other. A couple of times someone ran over the candles, and then everybody scurried to realign them and then light them again.

If the Three Stooges had helped each other get dates, it might have looked something like this.

Mike and I huddled on our porch in the dark, watching everything play out. Finally, all the candles were in place and lit and the guy by the door rang the doorbell and waited.

We all waited.

One candle blew out. Then another.

Our neighbor’s dad came out and took in the whole scene without saying anything. He went back in. There was another round of frantic candle relighting. Shadowy figures tripped over each other and cursed in the dark and shushed each other and then ran back behind a tree.

The intended finally came out. She was wearing a fluffy bathrobe and a towel on her head. I couldn’t see her expression in the dark. But there was no sound. There was no delighted squeal. There was no gasp of surprise.

There was silence.

Two flames disappeared. Then two more. No one ran out to relight the candles.

Mike and I backed into the house in the dark. Shadows slunk from behind trees and disappeared into parked cars. Our neighbor and her would-be prom date sat on her front porch while the rest of the candles blew out, one and two at a time.

“We don’t know what they talked about or what happened to that poor guy,” I said.

“Whaaaat?” our exchange student stared at me.

“What what?”

“Why couldn’t she just say yes?”

Ahem, well … Okay, so here’s where we get to the things that I’m kind of surprised I have to say.

First, we didn’t know the couple. We didn’t know if they were a couple. We didn’t know if he was some random guy she even recognized. We didn’t know if they’d recently broken up and the guy was trying to rekindle the relationship.

Here’s the bottom line, nobody ever owes anyone a date.

It doesn’t matter how one is asked. I don’t care how elaborate the request. I don’t care if there are roses or a singing telegram. I don’t care if there is a hallelujah chorus and someone skywriting with a damn airplane. I don’t care if there’s yodeling from the top of the Matterhorn.

I mean, say yes if you’re at all inclined to do so. That’s great. And don’t be rude if you’re not. You don’t have to do anything other than politely decline.

It doesn’t matter why you’re declining either. Maybe an explanation would be polite, but you didn’t ask for the invitation, you don’t need to justify why you’re declining. Maybe you have a perfectly legit reason for saying no. Maybe you’re going out with a group of friends or someone else in particular, or had your heart set on a good Netflix binge for that evening. Maybe you don’t date. I don’t know. Maybe the person asking is someone who has been creeping on you for a while and you’re completely freaked out by all the attention.

Maybe you don’t have any reason at all. You don’t need one. It’s okay. Don’t apologize. Be kind, direct, and honest. That’s it.

For now, I mean. Until the next time I have to say something I’m pretty sure you already know but need to hear said out loud.

That’s what we’re here for.

This post originally appeared on Midlife Sentence.


Beth Markley is a writer, runner, consultant, and mom to two teenagers. She might be staring down the barrel of 50 if she could find her reading glasses, and is known for incessantly asking people their opinion on whether she should get a nose ring. She’s married to a very patient man who doesn’t care either way, and blogs about that and other drivel at Midlife Sentence. You can find her on Facebookand Twitter.


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  1. There’s this guy (Guy A) at my school that I’m pretty sure has a crush on me. He always does stupid things in front of me and then looks at me. I’ve only had one class with him and since I’m in yearbook, I see him at some club meetings. I’ve been trying to avoid and ignore him but it’s not working. My friend said maybe I could give him a chance but he’s not my type. He’s a goofster who doesn’t try in class. I’m an ambitious student whose applying to the Ivies. I don’t even know his name. I’m just scared he’ll ask me out in front of others and I don’t know how to put him down.

    I am interested in dating, but just not him. I don’t want my rejection to come off as I’m not interested in dating since there is a guy that I have interest in (Guy B) that will most likely be there. How do I turn down Guy A when Guy B is around?

    I know it’s early but Guy A has really been trying to get close to me. At a club meeting, he kept on following me and wanted me to join his friends in a game.

    • Oh honey…you have your hands full with this one. I would say you ar doing a good job by not encouraging him at all. Any chance you have a friend how could spread the word to him that you are not interested? Otherwise, if it comes down to it, you just need to be honest and say No. You don’t need to go into reasons/excuses either. A simple No should be enough.

    • Bell,
      Remember you have no obligation to ‘give him a chance.’ You are in control. A polite no is all he needs but if you can avoid the ask, to begin with, that would be easier on you. Having a friend talk to him, or talking to him yourself would save you both the embarrassment. If he still insists on asking you in public, “I’m flattered, but I am not interested in you,” is more than he needs and indicates you are still on the market. Good luck.

    • In the event that he does ask you publicly and you don’t want to embarrass him, pull him aside to break the news, like “Can we talk about this out of earshot?” and go a little further down the hall just out of range. (Not necessarily into another room or out of sight in case he’s creepy, just out of immediate earshot – other side of the cafeteria, down the hall a short way, down the sidewalk, wherever it happens if it does.)

      Or, you could kill two birds with one stone and say that you’re flattered but you’re already interested in someone else. (With or without an inconspicuous glance toward Guy B.)

      Or, if you’d like to head things off entirely, have a conversation with your friend(s) within Guy A’s earshot about how much you’re interested in Guy B. He might just give up entirely if he knows about it – it won’t be worth the risk to ask you if he knows you’re into someone else. (I’d be wary of just leaving it as you’re interested in someone without mentioning Guy B specifically, because Guy A could interpret it as being him, instead.)

      Or, ask a friend to talk to Guy A and say, “Hey, I’ve noticed you hanging around Bell more and more and I see the way you look at her, but I don’t want you to get hurt – she’s really interested in someone else.” so it comes from a place of niceness and concern, and it saves him the potential embarrassment and/or awkwardness if he is planning to ask you out at some point.

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