The magazine’s Ethicist columnist on intervening in another family’s child-rearing.
I live in the Boston area, and my neighbor has three small children. For more than a year, I’ve heard the oldest, a boy who is about 4, desperately sobbing and screaming at least once every day, often for up to 45 minutes at a time. I can see him from my home-office window, alone outside his house, calling “Mama!” or “Papa!” over and over. Sometimes he’s out in very cold or rainy weather with no coat.
I don’t know the family at all, and they’re not chatty. But what I’m seeing is heartbreaking. I’ve thought of leaving an anonymous note with a list of helpful resources for new families and for parents of children with special needs, and at times I just want to call the Department of Children and Families. What to do? — Name Withheld
From the Ethicist:
There are many subcultures in our society, and they don’t all agree about child-rearing. Not all these disagreements, however, can be treated as variations among acceptable options. And you have strong evidence that something has gone wrong in this child’s life.
One subcultural variation, of course, is in the degree to which people think that the rearing of their children might be anybody else’s business. As I’ve mentioned in previous columns, I grew up in a place where the adults in our neighborhood (not least the many older women honored as “aunties”) accepted some responsibility for any children they encountered. Against that West African background, telling parents they’re being too hard on their children is an acceptable form of neighborly communication. I doubt the family next door will share this view. It’s possible that an anonymous note of the kind you’re contemplating will obliquely signal to them that they’ve violated the social norms of their community. But so much of child rearing takes place in private that it’s hard to be sanguine about this.
Calling social services isn’t something to be done lightly, but if what you describe is indeed occurring regularly, a child is being seriously mistreated. Even if the social-services experts look into the matter and decide not to do anything, the family might gain some instruction, and you will have done your duty.
A Bonus Question
I have been asked by a major economic-development institution to participate in a mission to improve the labor-market information in an undemocratic country with a poor human rights record. I believe that a better-functioning labor market will be beneficial for the country’s citizens and perhaps help hasten democracy there. I cannot be sure, however, that the data that I would recommend them to collect would only be used for the public good and be immune from manipulation. I would certainly strongly advise the use of measures to protect survey respondents and ensure that they can respond accurately. But the country lacks the democratic institutions that would enforce these protections. What’s more, improvements for the populace could strengthen the current regime’s power, instead of hastening democracy.
Should I refuse to participate in this project, or do I participate and do what I can to help the lives of the people living in this country? — Name Withheld
From the Ethicist:
The project is going ahead with or without you, and your participation could mitigate some of its possible downsides. So, from a consequentialist perspective, participating is the better choice. Consequences aren’t all that matters, to be sure. It’s perfectly reasonable to decide that you’re not the kind of person who would participate in a vile project, even if your participation would make the outcome slightly better. (The philosopher Bernard Williams, in an influential discussion of integrity, posed the example of a chemist who was reluctant to take a job involved with chemical and biological weapons, even if he, unlike an alternate candidate, might be able to slow down the weapons program a bit.) I don’t see this as being an issue here, however. The project may lead to some bad effects, but it’s being done with good intentions. It sounds as if the development institution and the people of the nation in question will be lucky to have you on the job.
The previous column’s question was from a couple frustrated with a grandchild’s lack of gratitude for their financial assistance and birthday presents. They support all their grandchildren equally, and wrote: “All have been appreciative, except for the youngest, who is 17 and a senior in high school. … At family get-togethers, she is openly effusive in greeting her aunts, uncle and cousins, but ignores us unless we approach her. Can we discuss this with our granddaughter despite her mother’s admonition and recommendation to ‘leave it alone’?”
In his response, the Ethicist suggested a tactful conversation with the granddaughter: “Even if she senses she is not treating you properly, making this explicit could easily backfire: People often respond with resentment when the person they have wronged points out the wrongdoing. If there’s a conversation to be had, it shouldn’t be accusatory or aggrieved; you can ask if you’ve done anything to make her feel distant from you, while emphasizing how much you care about her. … Precisely because your financial generosity to your granddaughter is an expression of familial love, it shouldn’t be part of this discussion.” (Reread the full question and answer here.)
The Ethicist’s response was good, but the young woman’s objection could be to a concern that the larger family does not recognize, like something religious, political or cultural. Or she may equate their gifts with family control. Avoiding the grandparents might be a clumsy attempt to avoid a conflict she doesn’t know how to handle — or knows she can’t overcome. — Karen
It is unwise to give a gift hoping to get something in return. We give equivalent gifts to each of our grandchildren because we want to. We are delighted when one grandson sends a handwritten thank-you note and let it pass when the others don’t. — Pamela
Perhaps there’s something else going on? Have the grandparents inadvertently expressed an opinion (for example about L.G.B.T.Q. issues or religious matters) that makes her afraid to get close to them? A nonthreatening conversation might help to clarify, if she’s willing to share at all. — Linda
I agree wholeheartedly that conversations are the best way to address problems. The grandparents should approach their granddaughter but not bring up any financial concerns. She might benefit from hearing directly that they love her and know how now is a difficult time to be a teenager. Frankness, when done skillfully, is both ethical and polite. — Russell
I gravitate to what seems the bigger issue: Is the grandparents’ generosity a true gift — that is, a gift with no strings attached? Or is it really a “transactional” gift that requires some kind of reciprocity? If it’s a true gift, let it be so, and be grateful in the giving. If it really is a transaction, be upfront and let the family know there are expectations for the financial assistance. Be clear about the rules of engagement. If the grandparents expect something in return, I think it’s only fair that the granddaughter knows this. — Vincent
Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.” To submit a query: Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.