Ethics Challenge: Two Mothers, Young Love and Deception

A good friend—call her Julia— with a teenage daughter (she’s 16) recently  asked me for help with an ethical dilemma.

Julia’s daughter is quiet, seemingly conservative, and socially restrained. She has never had a boyfriend, and has been on few dates, until now. She has been seeing a young man—call him Ishmael— her own age (well, he’s 17) who seems to match her to perfection in every respect. He’s sensitive, polite, and witty,  and on top of everything, he’s really cute, the object of every one of her friends’ and rivals’ awe.

Of course, there is a problem. Ishmael’s mother is fanatically protective: he is not supposed to date until he is 18, and has to check in with her every hour when he is out of the house. The relationship with my friend’s daughter only exists through an elaborate subterfuge, involving complicit friends and relayed phone messages. Once, in order to facilitate a special date to go to a concert, Julia allowed the boy to sleep overnight (in the guest room), when he was supposedly staying a male friend’s house.

My friend wanted to know if she should tell the boy’s mother about his web of lies. A parent has a right to have his or her own rules respected, and not undermined by other parents. The Golden Rule, applied to Ishmael’s mother, yields a demand that she be told; Julia would want to be told if her child was systematically defying her.

On the other hand, she firmly believes that the mother’s restriction on her son are excessive, and she has never known her daughter to be so happy.  She is worried that informing the mother will cause a serious rift with her daughter, and perhaps worse. “What is the ethical course?” she asked me. “What should I do?”

This is a complex problem.  I walked Julia through an ethical analysis process.

The first step in ethical analysis is to define the problem. We talked about it, and decided that the problem was whether preserving a relationship that was important to two teenagers justified allowing the deception of one of their parents to continue. This places the situation outside the realm of Golden Rule analysis, or even John Rawls’ “Veil of Ignorance,” because three individuals would be affected  significantly by my friend’s decision. The problem is one of balancing interests and duties, not just of three people, but Julia’s too.

The next step is to determine if any ethical principles will have to be violated by one choice or the other. In fact, ethical principles are at risk on either side. For my friend to tell the mother about Ishmael’s secret relationship is a breach of loyalty and trust against Julia’s daughter, who had confided the situation to her. But Julia cannot pretend that she isn’t passively complicit in her daughter’s boyfriend’s deception. Continuing the deception is a breach of respect and fairness, as well as honesty.

Who does Julia owe her primary duty to? Unless one believes that all parents must stick together against the rising young hoards, I think the answer is easy: her daughter. The boyfriend’s mother finishes dead last, in my view. The fact that Julia’s daughter cares so much for Ishmael elevates him to second place.

One thing that makes the decision difficult are powerful non-ethical considerations. Julia loves her daughter, and wants her to be happy. She likes Ishmael, and wants to believe him. Based only on what she has been told, she dislikes the mother, who reminds her of her own parents, who were similarly repressive. That’s a bias, pulling her away from the mother’s interests, and I told Julia that she needs to try to overcome it if she wants to make an ethical decision ethically.

What about consequences? As usual, they are uncertain:

•    Julia could keep her daughter’s and Ishmael’s secret, and something bad could happen as a result. They could be involved in an accident, or get pregnant, or run off and elope.
•    The mother could find out about the couple anyway, end the relationship, and be furious at Julia.
•    She could find out about the relationship and surprise everyone by being reasonable and supportive.
•    Maybe Ishmael is misrepresenting the mother, and manipulating everyone, including Julia.
•    The relationship could die a natural death without Julia lifting a finger.
•    If Julia sides with the mother, her daughter and she could be seriously estranged. Her daughter might rebel completely, even taking up risky behaviors to get back at her mother.
•    In the alternative, her daughter could sink into isolation and depression.

And these hardly exhaust the possibilities. Which is more likely? It is impossible to tell.

Finally, I asked Julia what she would like to do. She answered that immediately.

“I don’t want to lie to the mother, but I think her son and my daughter have the right to be happy,” she said. I’m not comfortable substituting my judgment for that of Ishmael’s mother, but I think he deserves to be free to have a relationship with someone he cares about, who happens to be someone I care about too.  I really don’t want to betray or hurt my daughter.”

“Then don’t,” I told her. “This is a close call, and the fact that your instincts as a mother and as someone who cares deeply about your daughter are pushing you to avoid disclosing to the mother is enough to tip the scales. It might blow up in everyone’s face, but yours is a choice that backs autonomy, loyalty, prudence, caring, empathy, justice, and, yes, young love. It also contains elements of dishonesty, as well as unfairness and disrespect toward the mother, but you don’t have an obligation to help her make her son miserable, particularly when your own daughter’s feelings and welfare are involved.

“I think you should talk to your daughter and Ishmael together, and tell them why you are choosing to keep their confidence. By all means, impress upon them that you’re not going to lie for them, and that you’re uncomfortable with the situation. Strongly suggest that they consider what they should do if Ishmael’s mother finds out, which is almost inevitable. And if the situation does become ugly, Julia, be prepared to accept responsibility for making this decision.”

                Did I give her the right advice?

11 thoughts on “Ethics Challenge: Two Mothers, Young Love and Deception

  1. The right advice. These two are almost at the age of their majority, and within, I take it, months, Ishmael’s mother won’t have too much to say about it.

    Advising Julia to call the two kids together and express her discomfort in being complicit in this subterfuge is a good idea. (I am in a similar situation, and this is something I and my husband should do.) Unclear, of course, what the result might be, but at least she’s expressed her feelings and concerns. I have a strong feeling that the two kids will find a way to see each other whether or not Julia or anyone else is complicit in their behaviors.

    Julia could also talk with them about sex, drinking, drugs, etc., and have done another duty.

    And, if Julia likes Ishmael, trusts him, and he really does make the daughter happy, should she be the one to ruin it? It also occurs to me that Ishmael’s mother isn’t exactly the most effective policewoman here, if this has been going on for a long time and there hasn’t been any fallout or confrontation from it. (Of course the age of cell phones makes this much easier for the kids involved…)

    This is an age-old problem, is it not? And who wants to be responsible for another Romeo and Juliet scenario?

    I admit it’s a very tough problem. But these kids are almost adults; it’s not as if they’re in their early teens. Julia has mixed responsibilities here, but her primary one is NOT to Ishmael’s mother…

  2. Leaving aside the question of whether it is possible to “elope” without “running off”, I agree with your advice, and I’m not sure it is quite as close a call as all that. Let the kids do what they want, keeping the normal close parental eye on everyone’s well-being. If Ishy’s mother finds out and blows up, the response is: YOUR son broke YOUR rules and lied to YOU. My daughter and I thought it a stupid rule to begin with, and felt no obligation to interfere in a problematic relationship with your son that was of your own devising. If you don’t like Ishy thinking for himself, next time just buy a boxer.

  3. It sounds to me as though the biggest decision factor here is that everyone is accepting the premise that Ishmael’s mother is being objectively unreasonable and thus a greater good can be achieved by subverting her rules than by obeying them. If you change that particular characterization, it colors the decision process completely differently.

    If her rules were less restrictive (either as a purely hypothetical or perhaps Ishmael’s description of the situation is . . . exaggerated) then it would seem that perhaps the greater good is achieved by having an honest mother-to-mother discussion about how to proceed with allowing them to have a relationship, but with proper (meaning mutually agreed-upon) parental supervision.

    Frankly, I find myself skeptical that “check in every hour” is really true: it’s highly impractical and disruptive, and in today’s cell phone age, both unnecessary and obsolete. You can call FROM ANYWHERE, so it’s not a restriction on movement, but at the same time the built-in GPS capabilities make parental tracking of location not require the call. (I suppose, then, that the hourly call proves that where IT is, HE is–but a random call from Mom would do the trick just as well.)

    So basically my advice is much like yours, but with the additional qualification that Julia should try to find out (and admittedly, this would be difficult) how accurate the description of Ishmael’s rules and restrictions are–because I think changing that particular part of the situation has the potential to change the decision.

    And let’s not forget: if he’s worth all the cloak-and-dagger now, he’s probably worth waiting another year for until he’s 18–what and how his rules/restrictions change then is another unknown. In the mean time, I doubt that Ishmael is not permitted to have female friends–just not permitted to be with them unsupervised.


    • I had a female friend in high school who had to check in every hour from landlines (for caller id). Events that were longer than an hour required supervising parent validation. All friends’ parents had to be met before that friend could be seen outside of school (even in a group setting). The only allowed dates were homecoming and prom.

      Insanely overprotective parents exist.

      Oh yea, when this friend got to college (at 17), she went through something like 5 guys in 2 weeks. I think a supervised relationship is probably good for the kid.

      • Not saying impossible, just that I’m skeptical. “Every hour” could easily be the teenager-speak translation that his mother wants him to call more often than he’d like to. And if he’s willing to lie and sneak to be with Julia’s daughter, it’s not hard to imagine that he’d be willing to exaggerate how oppressive his rules are to engender sympathy. Especially when, y’know, he’s a teenager and knows everything….

        In fact, I also wasn’t allowed to date until I was 18. I suppose it’s a moot point, however, since when I was younger than 18 no one really wanted to go out with me.


        P.S. And actually for a few years after that, too . . . .

  4. I think your advice is spot-on.

    I got engaged, at 19, to a guy that my parents weren’t crazy about — but although they gently voiced their concerns about the relationship, they were careful to let me know that they would respect and support whatever decision I made. My parents were wise enough to see that my trust in the long term was the most important thing — and when my engagement blessedly fell apart, that trust was intact.

    I think Julia’s lifelong relationship with her daughter trumps all other concerns here. The fact that preserving her daughter’s trust allows at least one responsible adult to keep an eye on the young lovers is icing on the cake.

  5. I like the advice … but because the horse has already left the barn far behind.

    I am actually pretty horrified that Julia’s mother is actively participating in and abbetting the subterfuge. Even if she doesn’t agree with Ishmael’s mother’s rules (and let’s note they could be his father’s rules too; and maybe his church’s rules, and his culture’s rules), that doesn’t mean she should be actively plotting to subvert them. In this instance were Julia my own daughter, I would NOT take the decisive action of contacting Ishmael’s mother, but NEITHER would I allow him to spend the night there, and help my daughter make up stories and situations to enable the relationship. She’s happy? Please. Teenage female happiness is tenuous and temporary at best. (Has anyone on here LIVED with a 16-year-old girl??) It’s one year, probably less, until Ishmael is 18. So much can (and will) change in that year! Until then, group get-togethers (movie dates and parties) should be fine.

    I knew a mother who disagreed with another mother’s “silly” rules and allowed teenage boyfriends & girlfriends unrelated to her to go into bedrooms in her home and shut the door, and remain in there for some periods of time. Sure, I’m sure everything was platonic, the kids were just looking for privacy for their deep, soul-searching conversations. But as the mother of a teenage girl (and a teenage boy), I have strong and solid reasons for my rules, and others may find them silly and counter-productive, but they’re still my rules, and I do not in any way appreciate another “smarter” mother helping my kids to get around them. And to make them happy? Guess I’m old fashioned, but that’s ridiculous. My kids’ happiness comes way, way after their health and safety and character and responsibilities.

    Parents need to back each other up, and waiting to date is nothing that can really hurt anybody.

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