The Not-Quite-Secret Language

In the Sunday Times column Social Qs, an inquirer asked,

My adult family and I went to dinner at an Italian trattoria. When the owner led us to a table near a family with bouncy children, I asked, in Italian, if he could seat us someplace quieter. He did. After we were seated, the woman from the table with children came up to me and said: “Don’t worry. We’ll be leaving soon.” She had clearly heard and understood me. I think she crossed a social boundary. You?”

SHE crossed a boundary? The questioner says something within earshot of another party who might be offended by it, and doesn’t have the guts to be open and honest ,  or, in the alternative, to discuss the matter with the restaurant staff privately. Maybe the woman would have crossed a social boundary if she said,  ‘Guess what, dickwad, you’re not the only one who speaks Italian!” But she didn’t; she just behaved as if the request had been in English, and the Italian-as-secret-code user was embarrassed.

Good. Continue reading

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.

More Advice Column Incompetence: The Case of the Jealous Sister

"My wife is behaving irrationally. Is it me, or might she have a teeny problem of her own?"

Once again an advice columnist’s response has me considering whether there needs to be a standard of malpractice for the profession, especially when desperate, trusting people rely on them in times of crisis. I agree that anyone who is prepared to adopt the recommendations of a stranger that are based on a probably inadequate and incomplete description of a dilemma, especially when the columnist could well be a college intern, the janitor or a lunatic, is in desperate straits indeed.  Still,  if you are going to give advice, it had better meet some bare minimum of competence—even if you are just an intern.

A sad and remorseful man wrote “Annie,” the Boston Globe’s advice maven, about whether there was hope for his marriage, which recently and unexpectedly exploded. Continue reading