Wednesday, July 29, 2009

What Does It Mean To Be Responsible?

Like Amitai Etzioni I am an inveterate reader of advice columns. I believe that anyone who gets into the business of therapy or coaching should make an effort to work through the dilemmas these columns address. Every advanced degree program in clinical psychology or coaching should include a course on Miss Manners.

Learning how to deal with real dilemmas is far more useful than mastering a myriad of theoretical abstractions. Believe me, I know.

Most serious thinkers look down on the practice of giving advice. Therapists disparage it in favor of their own favorite activities of asking how it feels and offering empathy. Perhaps because therapy has always looked down on advice-giving, this essential human activity has been relegated to the Style pages.

To my mind advice columns are like the common law. They adjudicate before they theorize. They offer solutions to specific dilemmas faced by real people. They do not offer grand theoretical constructions and beautiful abstractions.

A few days ago Etzioni wrote a column about some advice offered by Carolyn Hax, advice columnist of the Washington Post. Link here.

A woman wrote to Hax explaining that her sister had asked permission to name her as her children's guardian in the event of her and her husband's death.

Surprisingly, the aunt refused. She explained that she and her husband had chosen not to have children, and if she did not want to care for children of her own she was not going to risk bringing up someone else's children, even her sister's.

Her sister and brother-in-law did not take kindly to this refusal. Now there is a rift in the family.

Even more surprising was Hax's response, summarized by Etzioni: "...responsibility for children lies with the parents, ... extended family are under no obligation to accept this responsibility for themselves."

Etzioni was appalled by this redefinition of responsibility. So am I. Hax seems to be saying that the mother should be duty-bound respect the wishes of the childless aunt.

I would note that this mother did not intend to send her children over to their aunt tomorrow afternoon. She is not trying to pawn them off on their aunt. She is asking for a minimal gesture, one that would only become relevant in the most extreme situations.

Reasonably so. Considering how painful and disruptive it would be for children to be orphaned, would it not be best to know that they will be cared for by family members and not strangers.

None of this seems to have mattered to the aunt and uncle. Their insensitivity belies a very thin skin indeed, and suggests that they are far from comfortable with their decision to remain childless.

The larger problem is cultural. We live in a culture where people are told that they have only one loyalty and one true responsibility: to do as they please and to live as they wish.

Such an anti-ethic manifests a fundamental narcissism, but it also suggests that being loyal to your heart's desire relieves you of responsibility to family and community.

I agree heartily with Etzioni's point, namely, that if the only person you take responsibility for is You, then you simply do not know what it means to take responsibility.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dr. Schneiderman, I have read several of your columns and I admire the clarity of your thinking and your ability to communicate so well. I have to disagree with you on this one though. I think Washington Post columnist Carolyn Hax’s advice was right on the money. I think the sister who assumed her sibling would take her children in the event of her demise was the person being narcissistic and irresponsible.

I know we give tax breaks to parents and no such break for people who choose not to have kids. However, I don’t think that the wishes of those who have kids automatically trump those of people who have chosen not to.

Look at this particular case. Both women are in good marriages. Hooray! One of them knows she doesn’t want kids and miracle of miracles she has found a spouse who feels the same way. A lot of men won’t even consider marrying a woman unless she is willing to give him a family. Unfortunately, her sister has chosen to have child and fully expects her sibling to take responsibility for them if necessary and got really nasty when she heard the word “no” and realized she wasn’t getting her way.

Think about the husband of sister who has chosen to be child free. How many times have wives who have wanted kids while their husband didn’t force the issue by getting pregnant on the sly? These women are expecting something magical to happen when the reluctant daddy holds his child for the first time. I’m sure many times this does work out well, but sometimes it doesn’t. The husband resents the child he didn’t want and realizes he is living with a woman he can’t trust.

In the Washington Post case, not only is a man who doesn’t want kids being told he’d better change his attitude, he might have to raise his sister-in-laws kids. Whew! How long do you think it will be before this guy leaves? Not every adult is cut out to be a parent and no one should be shamed into parenthood or be branded as irresponsible if they don’t want to raise someone else’s child.

But no matter, because the sister with the kids wants what she wants. That’s all there is to it. In my opinion the responsible act for the sister with kids is to find someone who genuinely wants and can afford to care for her children. This way they will grow up in a loving home instead of with people who are seething with resentment because they no longer have sovereignty over their own lives. I don’t want to see children sent into foster care if it is avoidable. But I think it is a magnanimous and selfless act for a sibling to take responsibility for another sibling’s kids – not a duty.

By the way I did a Google search to find out if the late Christopher and Dana Reeve had siblings who could step up raise their teenage son. They did. Mr. Reeve has a brother and Mrs. Reeve has two sisters. However, I believe Dana Reeve made provisions for their son to live with faithful friends instead.