Ethical Wisdom

The examined life.

Other People's Children

There's a fine line between kindness and betrayal.

It’s hard to know when to open your mouth when it comes to other people’s children.

Take my friend Felicia. I’ve changed her name to protect the paranoid. Felicia didn’t mean to spy on Trevor. At least, that’s what she told herself. Fifteen-year-old Trevor was the son of Felicia’s friend, T. Felicia discovered Trevor’s Facebook page accidentally, while vetting the page of her daughter, Tiffany, who was Facebook friends with Trevor.

Trevor’s Facebook page shocked Felicia. It was a billboard of sex-crazed, dope-addled pranks; disgusting innuendo; and advertisements of apathy for all the Internet world to see. In one photo, Trevor had his mouth around the stem of an enormous bong, his eyes narrowed to glassy slits. In a webcast labeled Mountain Dew+ Trevor was contorting himself on a bed, eyes popped out, high on a lot more than grapefruit soda. In another photo, Trevor was bent over, holding the back of his pants, on the verge of mooning a pretty girl wearing only a towel. Felicia was taken aback by the filthy language and overcome by maternal protectiveness for this boy whom Felicia had known since birth. Something had to be done.

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When Tiffany came home from school that day, Felicia—not wanting to give herself away—asked her moody, unpopular daughter how Trevor seemed to be doing at school. “He’s gnarly,” Tiffany told her between handfuls of Lucky Charms.

“Translate.”

“Mad, bad, dangerous to know.” Tiffany was obsessed with Romantic poetry and loved this description of Lord Byron, which captured exactly what Tiffany’s elusive boyfriend would be like. “You know, Mom. Too cool for school.”

“Popular?”

“Notorious.”

This confirmed Felicia’s worst fears, but she did not know how to tell T. T idolized her only child and believed that Trevor was a “pure soul.” She attributed much of this purity to her own enlightened approach to rearing kids. As the daughter of conservative, Protestant parents, T embarked on single motherhood, following a one-night stand at an ashram, as an exercise in consciousness and “soul freedom.” She followed the spiritual conviction that children should be adored, not disciplined, having chosen their parents before birth and come into the world as their guides and teachers. T thought of Trevor as her guru, which is why the boy told her what to do instead of the other way around. Trevor was never forced to sleep in a crib or wear clothes unless he was in the mood. He was allowed to run free like a feral child, to contradict his elders (T called this “finding his voice”), and play hooky from school whenever he wanted (“his energy is very fluid”). Enlightened parenting required that T trust her son even when he was lying and defend him even when he was wrong. Such terrible character-building lessons, combined with T’s head-in-the-sand inattention, had resulted in Trevor’s Facebook page, whose contents were driving Felicia crazy.

She suspected that T would never forgive her spying, but Felicia could not stop herself. Since T was such an ostrich, however, Felicia also felt justified in keeping an eye out for the boy. Then one day, Trevor went overboard. He was bragging about all the drugs he was taking. “Generation X, my babies. Poppin’ and choppin’. Two pills,” Felicia read, knowing that X stood for Ecstasy. Pot was one thing—Schedule II drugs were another. Doing this in plain sight could damage Trevor long term, thought Felicia, with companies scouring employees’ online profiles during background checks. Or what if Trevor overdosed? How would Felicia live with herself? She had to speak to T or to Trevor, but which one would be worse? She stood at an ethical crossroads in friendship that had not occurred to Felicia before.

The matter of other people’s children requires us to understand the supremacy of the parental bond. Friendship counts for very little compared to the loyalty we feel for our kids. That is why insights about our friends’ children are almost always best kept to ourselves. The exception to the rule is a case like Felicia’s. When friends’ children are in danger, loyalty requires that we intervene. There’s no fixed protocol for doing this, though, and how we navigate these testy waters can spell the difference between deepened trust and breaking up, as Felicia would soon find out.

When a friend’s child offended me badly, I learned this risky lesson myself. Her daughter was a spoiled though talented girl who had asked me for professional connections. I was happy to hook her up with an employer who happened to owe me a favor. This good man agreed to meet the daughter for lunch, in spite of his overcrowded schedule, then waited in the restaurant for half an hour before admitting that he had been stood up. Embarrassed, angry, and anxious to give this careless girl a sharp piece of my mind, I sent her a stern e-mail. Rather than apologize for her daughter’s behavior, this friend accused me of breaching some primordial law of parent-child-friend etiquette. My e-mail should have gone through her, she insisted. What business did I have bullying a child? I accused her of spoiling her daughter rotten and preparing her poorly for the real world. She informed me that I didn’t know what I was talking about, being a childless person. Since then, we hardly speak to each other. I regret this because we used to have fun. Now, she seems to think I’m a bully. I had broken a biological law—thou shalt never admonish a friend’s kid—whose strictness I knew nothing about.

Human parents and their young share an intimacy unmatched anywhere else in the animal kingdom. This lifelong connection has fascinating roots in our species’ evolution. When humans finally, permanently, stood up on our hind legs, moving from tree life to flat savannah ground, Homo sapiens developed much narrower hips in order to walk upright. With the woman’s pelvis narrowed for walking, human babies needed to be born prematurely in order to squeeze their already enormous heads through the narrower passage. Whereas other mammals are born only when their brains are more or less ready to control their bodies, human babies can do nothing for themselves. Once out of womb, these giant brains attached to helpless baby bodies need constant care, and this parental relationship—with its manipulations, give-and-take, and demands for justice, respect, and loyalty—becomes our ethical kindergarten. As parents, we are blinded by early dependency. Our children are forever babies to us, powerless, vulnerable, bobbleheads in need of our ferocious protection. This is not a relationship based on reason; nowhere are people less rational than on questions involving their precious brood. When friends complain about their children, it is tempting but dangerous to jump in with opinions they will likely hold against us later (just as we’re wise to keep quiet when a friend bad-mouths a partner or spouse, even if we agree with them). In rare cases when friends request an honest opinion about their children, remember that less is always more and that your opinion will be taken personally. Rational as your parent-friend may seem, you will not be heard objectively, and the primitive feelings related to kin loyalty may be stronger than you anticipated.

Jeremy learned this when his friend Judd,was having trouble with his teenage son. Judd’s son, Zack, had entered that hellish adolescent corridor between puberty and emancipation—the zone known to many boys as teenager hell. Angry, aggressive, demonically disobedient—Zack had taken to covering his bedroom walls with graffiti and pornographic posters that Judd and his wife found highly offensive. When Judd tried talking “man-to-man” to Zack, his son refused to speak to him. Now Judd was at his wit’s end with a marriage that was beginning to suffer. He wanted to talk to Jeremy about the situation at home and laid out the details, without holding back, one evening after work. “That kid is psycho,” Judd said. “I was never crazy like that.”

“That is one psycho boy you got!” said Jeremy with a laugh.

Judd stared at him and said, “He’s not psycho.”

“I just mean, he is kind of different.”

Judd was becoming furious. Although Jeremy had done nothing but repeat his words back to him, Judd’s rage was now directed at Jeremy. All the anger he’d been feeling toward Zack came rushing to the surface. Judd excused himself quickly and gave himself a quick talking to, and cold-water face splash, in the bathroom. His rage had taken him by surprise. By the time Judd returned to the table, he had cooled down enough to hear Jeremy’s voice as he apologized for speaking out of turn, and assured Judd that he was a great dad with a great kid that he should be proud of. In turn, Judd felt comfort in hearing his friend say this because he did not feel that way at the moment.

When Felicia finally told T what she knew, T was utterly devastated. Not because of the Ecstasy but because Felicia had spied on her son. T touched Felicia’s hand with tears in her eyes, and whispered something about spying being a sin, and that she’d been spied on by her own mother, and that friends did not behave this way. Felicia offered her apologies for delivering the news so abruptly, but repeated her concerns that Trevor was jeopardizing his future with all this online information. T informed Felicia that she knew about Trevor’s drug use and had told him do “what felt right to him.” At that moment, Felicia realized that T’s moral universe was so different from hers that Felicia’s rules did not apply there. She realized, too, that she no longer respected Tree. How could they be friends, Felicia wondered, without a foundation stone of respect? For her part, T understood that Felicia meant no harm, but knew that, now, she could never trust her. How could T be a friend to such a busybody? T rose to her feet and turned to Felicia with a small bow, her palms together in the prayer sign, before walking mindfully toward her car. In her heart, Felicia knew that she’d done the right thing in a world where parents protected their children. In a world where parents worshipped them, maybe not.

Visit me at markmatousek.com.  

 

Mark Matousek is the award-winning author of two memoirs, Sex Death Enlightenment (an international bestseller) and The Boy He Left Behind. more...

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