Here’s a common moral dilemma for you: If you found out a friend’s partner was doing something wrong, would you let them know, or keep your mouth shut?
You’ve probably already figured that one out. But what if it wasn’t your friend’s partner who was misbehaving, but their teenage son or daughter? Would you do then?
It’s a tough one. I’ve recently been faced with that very dilemma, and I struggled. On the one hand, I thought my friend had a right to know what her kid was getting up to. I would certainly want to know! On the other hand, I had no idea how she’d react to my interference. Would she be grateful to me, or angry and defensive about her perfect child?
I was once contacted by a mother to discuss one of my kids, and – as hard as it was – I feel I handled it well. I knew this particular child could be difficult company, and sympathised with the child who had been upset by their behaviour.
But when a different mother raised an issue involving another of my kids, I became defensive. I didn’t think my child was at fault, and I argued with the parent, and she and I had a frosty relationship for quite some time.
To this day, I believe I was right and she was wrong. I can see, however, that her perception was very different, and valid and real to her. There is the potential for hurt and resentment in any interaction about kids, so how do we know whether to proceed?
Adolescent psychologist Dani Klein says this dilemma is quite common, and that many parents are confused about their ethical and legal responsibilities when it comes to other people’s kids. Is it our place to intervene? And how will the information be received?
“There is a hierarchy of if, and when, you should let a parent know,” Dani explains. “At the top of the list is when a child is at risk.”
If there is a chance the teenager is at risk of self-harm, or may hurt someone else, then it’s vital that a responsible parent intervenes.
In all other cases, Dani says, it’s less clear. It’s important to consider your relationship with the bearer of the information – usually, your own teen. You also need to consider that teen’s relationship with the other person, and how sharing the information with a parent will impact on that.
And you should also evaluate the reliability of the information. Teens exaggerate, and it’s possible the behaviour isn’t as extreme or dangerous as first thought.
So, do parents want to know what’s going on with their kids? And how do most parents react when presented with bad news?
According to Dani, three things impact on parents’ openness to feedback about their children.
Firstly, for many parents, their offspring are narcissistic extensions of themselves. We see this all the time on social media, with parents boasting about their kids, whether it be their sporting and academic achievements, their popularity, their great talent, their beauty, even their wonderful personalities.
So to criticise a child, however indirectly, is to criticise the adult’s parenting – and by extension, themselves – which leads to defensiveness and anger.
Secondly, many parents are clueless about what their kids are getting up to. They may be blinded by religious or cultural parameters, limited by language differences, unable to negotiate social media and technology, or unwilling to believe anything bad about their little angels. New information about their child may be genuinely shocking, and not easily assimilated.
Thirdly, and most surprisingly, is that many parents don’t see “bad” news as being all that bad. Some parents love regarding their kids as “cool”, even if that coolness involves inappropriate behaviours.
“Maybe they were cool kids themselves,” says Dani, “or maybe they weren’t cool at all. But these parents gain vicarious satisfaction from their kids having sex or partying.”
Whereas once they boasted about their child walking early, or talking, now they boast about their child’s first forays into underage drinking. Confronting these parents will only backfire, because they are proud of the behaviours others may find concerning.
Ultimately, Dani says, you need to be extremely cautious before approaching another parent. If you remain unsure, but think a child may be at risk, it may be helpful to contact the school. The counsellor or pastoral carer can speak to the child and make an assessment without disclosing sources.
As for me? I decided not to contact my friend. Her teen didn’t seem to be in any real danger, and it wasn’t worth risking my friendship with her.
Having said that, if it was her husband acting out? I would have been on the phone to her in a minute.