“The Ethicist” On Allowing Your Kids To Associate With The Children Of Crooks [Corrected]

One of the downsides of only getting the digital version of the New York Times (because I no longer could justify sending such an unethical and nation-damaging publication almost a hundred bucks a month) is that I don’t keep up with “The Ethicist,” aka , as well as I did when the Times Magazine was always available in our bathroom. A recent catch-up session revealed a lot of interesting topics posed by “The Ethicist’s” readers, as well as some that shouldn’t require an ethicist to figure out ( “Is It OK to Let My Relatives Think Their Dead Sister Is Still Alive?”).

At the end of January, a mother asked whether she should have let her children go to a sleepover at a new classmate’s home after she discovered that the parents  “are now infamous for their unscrupulous and callous illegal business dealings that ultimately led to a multimillion-dollar settlement with our city government.” The mother was concerned about punishing the couple’s children for their parents’ misdeeds. “Should we let the children hang out?” she asks. “How much do we share with our own child, who is old enough to understand why their behavior is unacceptable?”

As usual the ethics teacher goes into great detail examining all pros and cons, writing things like, “Your duties to your own child do take precedence over your concerns for the children of others. In the philosophical literature on “partiality” — the special concern we have toward those with whom we have special relationships — some have argued that it’s morally permissible to give your own children priority. In my view, it isn’t merely permissible; it’s morally obligatory. What you owe to your child is not the same as what you owe to just any child.”

Again, I would hope a parent would not require professional help to reach that conclusion. I don’t see this situation as posing particularly difficult ethical issues. Family and community relations issues are another matter.

Do you let your children go to the home of a couple you know is prone to fraudulent, criminal or otherwise unethical conduct? No. Of course not. 1. You can’t trust them; 2. The home is an unethical culture, and 3. You want your children exposed to unethical people as little as possible. [Notice of Correction of  Stupid Typo: I originally wrote “much” rather than “little.”]

Should you feel guilty for shunning the children because of their parents? No! Would you feel guilty avoiding the children if their home was the site of a breakout of a pernicious and contagious disease? There’s little difference: a parent’s obligation is the same. You do not let your kids “hang out” with the junior scamsters. Maybe the kids are fine, maybe they aren’t. You don’t risk your children’s character development on a hunch.

As for explaining the embargo to your children, I disagree with “The Ethicist,” who says to keep them in the dark:

“[Y]ou don’t want your child to be the one to spread the news. So you shouldn’t burden your child with information that’s not to be repeated. Don’t say much more than that you’ve read stuff that makes you want to steer clear of these parents. This isn’t the time to inventory and assess their misdeeds.”

What is the time? If they are really old enough to understand what’s wrong with the parents’ behavior, they are old enough to start teaching them about the importance of culture, and how one’s  unethical actions have collateral damage.

12 thoughts on ““The Ethicist” On Allowing Your Kids To Associate With The Children Of Crooks [Corrected]

  1. In a prior life, I taught seventh grade at a Catholic parochial school in North Miami Beach. It was Myer Lansky/Hyman Roth territory. One family owned an Italian restaurant that was probably a mob hang out in the open city. One of the parents was one of Murph the Surf”s Beach Bums. Their tow-headed little son pointed to Biscayne Bay as I gave him a lift home one day saying, “That’s where they blew up our boat. They shot at our house once, but now we have bullet proof glass.” I didn’t drive off the road and into the Bay. His mother was a former B-girl who was partners in a fencing operation in Tampa. But the most remarkable father was a “land developer” member of a well-known New Jersey mafia family who was under indictment for various things, mostly gambling related.

    One day in the fall, one of the kids in the class brought in his pet hamster in a cage. We put the hamster and the cage in the science room down the hall. Halfway through the morning, the scion of the New Jersey family asked to go to the bathroom. Permission was granted. Franky, not his real name, proceeded to the science room, scooped up the hamster, headed to the principal’s office, called his dad and had his dad drive the hamster to the family compound. His father was the wheel man on the caper! Tree, meet apple. It’s funny: the other kids generally kept their distance from Franky. I think they knew he was nuts.

    But a bunch of the kids were pretty wild. I do think the corruption of the parents bled down to their children.

  2. Jack,
    What if the situation were reversed and the kids of the questionable character were being considered for a sleepover at your house. Is there a benefit to exposing those kids to ethical conduct or is the risk of association with children too great?

    I grew up in Baltimore City in the 60’s and it was well known that Black parents called kids that were crime prone “the element”. Most of the black kids parents I knew did not want their children having any association with “the element”. By segregating kids by virtue of behaviors do we ensure that those deemed to be “the element” are reinforced behaviorally by like minded kids and adults in the community? This might be something to consider. It may also be an extension of a duty to confront. What I mean is do we as “ethical” people have a duty to model and instill ethical behavior in other people’s children when the opportunity arises?

    • Chris, I don’t think good kids have a beneficial effect on bad kids. The bad kids are dealing with too many problems and the good kids are probably not that firm in their self-belief at that stage in their lives.

      • OB
        I agree that good kids have little beneficial on bad kids. I was referring to quality adult influences during such a sleepover. I understood the initial premise was that having good kids exposed to bad adults was good enough a reason to punish the kids of the bad adults by denying the sleepover opportunity.

        • You’re right. I was just assuming from your point that the bad parents have bad kids, with which I pretty much agree. I think good parents of other kids can have a positive effect on other people’s good kids, but bad kids and bad parents are just beyond influence by much of anybody.

  3. My personal experience: one of my oldest friends was in this situation.

    In 9th grade, it was discovered that my friend’s dad had embezzled lots of money from the Catholic high school we were attending. Apparently, it fed a gambling problem he had. His mother was also a teacher at the school.

    The revelation was all very public. His dad went to prison for several years. His mother was guiltless (as far as anyone knows).

    I was never prevented from associating with him. He is a productive member of society and a father and husband.

    Maybe it was because his dad’s criminal behavior was pretty much hidden that my friend turned out okay. Also, with his dad in prison, his dad could not have a detrimental impact on us.


      • No.

        Hate to pull out the old saw, but his dad was a good guy.

        For what it is worth, he admitted his culpability and his fallibility. Though he had a gambling problem, he never used it as an excuse, just an explanation.

        I think it was a real instance where State Sanctioned Violence did help reform him.


        • Ah, yes. The old, “But he’s a good guy.” That should probably be added to the rationalization list. Not that it’s being used as such in the present case. It’s most annoying in politics. Bill Clinton and Joe Biden are “good guys.” Trump’s not. Drives me crazy.

  4. I’m…. torn.

    See, I don’t think that adults with the kinds of problems that get them sued/fined municipally have the kind of interactions with kids this age that are material to that in this context. I’m open to being wrong here… What does that even look like?

    Barring a good answer to that question, in my mind there is this really minimal, perhaps immaterial, level of interaction that the kids might have with the adults (I don’t know about you, but when I hung out with my friends at that age, I only saw the adults when they brought the snacks) juxtaposed with the reality that these kids are probably friendly enough to make this offer to begin with, and you’re setting yourself between them, for reasons that they probably aren’t equipped to understand. This is like the setting for every preteen drama ever, and think about what that says about how you’re being cast.

    Everyone’s risk appetite is different, and I’m not going to tell you how to raise your kids, but barring some very obvious harm (and I don’t think that exists, or the parents wouldn’t be as torn as they seem to be) this seems kind of cruel, and I have opinions.

    • I’d totally host the kids of the criminal family at my house for a sleepover, but not the other way around.

      The idea we run our kids with is they aren’t prepared to be ministers lifting people up. The bare minimum obligation of all members of any community is that all interactions should be geared towards improving the moral or ethical worldview of the person you are interacting with. This comes about mostly through subtleties but more and more openly the deeper a relationship gets.

      But we also know that not everyone, such as the criminal parents of this family, live with that mindset. And we also know, that until any individual is well disciplined in their particular ethical worldview, that the tendency of human interactions is that it is easier for a degraded person to bring an uplifted person down than it is for an uplifted person to bring a degraded person up.

      Children, of all people, do not have the discipline to resist being pulled down and certainly haven’t developed the relationships to effectively bring people up. Top it off with the likelihood that whatever worldview the criminal parents run with – that worldview condones whatever level of criminality they engaged in and it’s the same worldview they are intentionally or accidently filling their own kids with. Even without directly teaching crime – there could be any number of other concerning habits and activities the family permits in the home that I wouldn’t want my kids exposed to at a sleepover.

      • “I’d totally host the kids of the criminal family at my house for a sleepover, but not the other way around.”

        See, I considered this as a reasonable compromise, and it is a huge step back from the ledge of not letting the kids hang out, but I’m not completely sold.

        What you’re doing is still making a relationship really awkward and difficult because of a very nebulous set of rhetoricals. Again…. It’s all well and good to say that there are any number of concerning habits that might rub off on your kids, I’d love an example of what that actually looks like.

        And I need you to juxtapose that with the reality that parents don’t generally look at interactions with adults like this. Can you think of a situation, as an example, where a child wasn’t allowed to go to the home of another child because the parents of the second child smoked tobacco? I’m just saying… Never mind the normalization of tobacco use, secondhand smoke is physically harmful.

        1) What does that harm really look like? And
        2) Why is *this* the line?

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