Advice Column Ethics: The Case Of The Anxious Godmother

"look, I'll take your 8 kids if anything happens to you, but I really think you should stop juggling chainsaws..."

“Look, I’ll take your 8 kids if anything happens to you, but I really think you should stop juggling chainsaws…”

The best of all advice columnists, Carolyn Hax, found herself confronted with a tough question this weekend, and uncharacteristically flailed at an answer.

I’m going to try to help her out.

The question came from husband who was trying to decide how to deal with the anxiety of his wife, godmother to two teenagers being raised alone by her brother. The brother, it seems, has decided to take up race car driving as a new hobby, and sister, the wife of Hax’s correspondent, is terrified that this risky pursuit might eventually place the teens in her care. “The kids have been raised in a way that neither of us agrees with, and if they were to come under our care, it would be very difficult for everyone involved,” he writes. What should he do?

Maybe Hax’s reply helps the potential adoptive parent, but I sure found it stuttering, overly equivocal and confusing. It’s not surprising: the issues are difficult, full of ethical conflicts.

Here is my analysis:

1. If one agrees to be the designated guardian of a child or children, one is ethically obligated to be ready to accept the duties of the job. “I’ll take care of your kids happily as long as it’s not your fault that you can’t” just isn’t good enough. Too many people, perhaps most, accept this crucial responsibility as an honor rather than as a very serious commitment, and first and foremost, it is a commitment to the children. If a godmother (or, in a non-religious setting, a guardian) is terrified of the reality of fulfilling the duties of the job, she should give them up, so they can be accepted by someone who is not so reluctant. It shouldn’t matter if the parent is an amateur snake handler or a couch potato.

2. It is reckless, selfish and irresponsible for the sole parent of children to not take this fact into consideration regarding his lifestyle and other choices. Two children depend on him: he is duty bound to do what he can to stay alive, healthy, and capable of supporting them. Taking on unquestionably risky hobby like race car driving, or storm chasing, or being a volunteer human subject for the ebola vaccine, is irrational and wrong. It is right for the potential successor guadians to make this point to him, for the children, for a family intervention, for his friends, for anyone. And they should. He is not free to act as if he has complete autonomy, not with two children who depend on him.

3. If his thinking is “it’s OK to risk my life, because I have two foster parents on the hook,” that is similarly unethical, and he needs to be told that, too. But he should be told it by  guardians/godparents who are still committed to being loving parents should the worst occur, not by a couple that accepted the responsibility assuming they would never actually have to deliver.

The bottom line:

  • The inquirer and his wife should withdraw as guardians.
  • The father should grow up.
  • The next guardian couple should be informed of the father’s irresponsible proclivities, and make his promise to take reasonable efforts to remains capable of raising the children as a condition of their accepting the role.

And, of course, if the worst happens and the father ends up a victim of Dead Man’s Curve without having found a suitable guardian, the sister and her husband may be obligated to raise the orphaned teens anyway.

Because that’s what families are for.

Is that what Carolyn says? I’m not sure. If it is, it wasn’t clear enough.

2 thoughts on “Advice Column Ethics: The Case Of The Anxious Godmother

  1. Your comment about the brother needing to grow up and think about his responsibilities is probably a sorely needed admonition to many in this country. Think about how society encourages people to engage in things like motorcycle riding, hang gliding, rock climbing, skydiving, ocean crossing in small boats, etc without any thought to the risks. As far as I can tell, all the previous activities are as dangerous as amateur auto racing. When people die in such actives, it is treated as a horrible random tragedy that left their children without a parent or someone else is sued as they search for someone to blame.

  2. Jack
    I think the “risky hobby” is a red herring for the sister’s true reason for not wanting to accept the responsibility for becoming the guardian of the children. That real point is made in the first paragraph when it its stated that the sister and brother-in-law do not like the way the children were being raised. I think you quickly saw that but only obliquely called it out in your analysis. The prospective guardians rationally saw the potential conflict that will probably emerge when the children are required to adopt the beliefs and behaviors of the guardians that are at variance with the natural parent’s beliefs and behaviors; and now they want out of the commitment because of these differences. Because we have no knowledge of the child rearing philosophies of either the natural parent or the prospective guardians we cannot make any assessment regarding the capabilities or lack of responsibility of either.

    Godparents are chosen when the child is Christened and well before the godparents have knowledge about the way the children would be raised by the natural parents. Ideally, godparents should be chosen based not only on the financial capacity of the prospective guardians but also on an alignment of known social beliefs and behaviors. I for one would neither choose a prospective guardian that held anti-Semitic points of view or other bigoted perspectives, nor anyone who is so risk averse that my child would grow up thinking that taking any risk is an anathema to every day living.

    The only duty of the remaining parent is only to ensure that the children are provided and cared for in a loving and nurturing family environment. Financial stability without emotional/behavioral stability is merely an orphanage. It appears to me that the parent’s choice of guardians was made without much thought regarding the alignment of values, permissible behaviors, and other beliefs. Both sides are breaching their ethical duties to ensure such an alignment is in place.

    What no one is addressing is the ethics of the practice of intellectual dishonesty by the sister and the brother-in-law regarding why they have this issue in the first place. The hobby is a distraction and an excuse. Nothing more. They simply do not want to take on the obligation of rearing the children, irrespective of the causal factor that would precipitate them becoming guardians, because of the way the children had been reared up to now. Assuming the prospective guardians get the dad to give up the risky hobby nothing has changed in terms of the prospective life the children would be forced into in the event of the death of the father. The sister will still have major issues, the brother-in-law will now have to choose between siding with the wife and the needs of the children, and quite likely, the children will suffer.

    The only ethical choice is to have a frank discussion among the adult parties about how the children would be raised in the event of the remaining parent’s death. This would allow either side to bow out gracefully – period.

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