Continuing my series of alternative responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicists, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on others, here is my take on today’s post, “What Can I Do About a Neighbor’s Partying Child?”
I live in a neighborhood of predominately single-family homes in Southern California. On our block, most homes have garages that lead to an alleyway shared by homes on the other side. One neighbor is a single parent with three children, one of them a junior in high school. When they first moved in last summer, this adolescent was using the converted garage as an area for social gatherings. Multiple teenagers parked their cars in the alley, which is expressly forbidden by posted signs, and engaged in underage drinking. The mother was approached and essentially told us that we should talk to her child because she has been ineffective. This summer, although the cars are no longer in the alleyway, the partying has resumed: Our trash can was filled with beer cans this morning so that the parent would not be aware. I think this is an accident waiting to happen. The police have taken reports, but the behavior is unchanged. What would you do? I was so angry this morning, I wanted to dump the evidence on her front porch. NAME WITHHELD
My response: The mother gave you permission to intervene. If her children are too young to see the consequences of their actions, every culture I know of accepts and supports that adults can guide their upbringing.
If you don’t feel comfortable talking to the child, the mother sounds like she’s comfortable with you talking to her. Have you asked her what you can do besides talk to the kid? She has the greatest stake of any adult in this situation. This doesn’t seem like a problem you need to act on alone, nor does acting alone seem effective for your goals.
If you feel intense anger, I would suggest working on your emotional awareness before acting. Acting out of anger and rage don’t create effective outcomes that often. I consider these posts, “Why people flip out (including yourself) and what to do about it” and “How not to lose your composure: Rational Emotion” relevant and, I hope, helpful.
The New York Times Response:
Kenji Yoshino: The writer is caught, as we all are, in a time of shifting norms. Some decades ago, the norm was more ‘‘it takes a village’’ — a neighbor could discipline another neighbor’s child directly. Now we’re all supposed to say we can’t discipline anyone else’s child. But ‘‘it takes a village’’ should be the model here. First, the parent has effectively enlisted your help. Second, the problem is such that no individual can really address it alone. For me, the most noble and elevated goal here is to prevent drinking and driving. I would really encourage the letter writer to enlist the help of other neighbors and go as a cadre or a group of parents to the single-parent home and to offer assistance.
Amy Bloom: It’s nice to offer the assistance. But this is a case in which the mother has said, ‘‘I’m not getting anywhere with this kid, feel free to talk to the kid,’’ which is not the same as saying, ‘‘I’d really like your help in managing this situation.’’
There’s the elevated concern, which is drinking and driving. Then there are legal concerns — these kids are underage, and they’re parking where they shouldn’t. The letter writer is entitled to be really annoyed by this and to ask the cops if they could do a slow roll late at night to clear out the partyers. I would ask the mother to meet with you and a couple of the neighbors and also ask the kid to join you as well. You have to tell the kid that you’re not going to tolerate this behavior; that regardless of whether his or her mother is resigned to being ineffective, the neighbors are not; and that the police will be called regularly about the partying and the mess and the underage drinking.
Kwame Anthony Appiah: If the police haven’t changed the behavior, that suggests they haven’t done enough. Unless this child is a committed lifelong criminal and doesn’t care about this sort of thing, the fact of going before a juvenile court might make a difference. Being scared a little bit by police intervention would be a good thing.
I grew up in a place where every adult was Auntie This or Uncle That and everybody was in charge of you. You had absolutely no right as a child to ignore the suggestions, advice and admonishment of other adults; that was one of the reasons we all felt so safe. There would always be somebody looking out for us.
I don’t know whether it’s possible to shift the norm back — this family only moved in a year ago. Where you find collective responsibility for young people is usually in relatively stable communities. Maybe it’s not possible to reverse this, but it would be worth having a conversation in this country about whether it isn’t better for young people to have relationships with more adults than their parents, relationships in which they can learn, can be advised.
Yoshino: Not only is going to the single parent as a group a good idea, but so, too, is going to the police as a group. One reason the police may not have been effective in the past is that they feel as if they can ignore an isolated call.
Bloom: Although a cadre can be effective with the police, it’s pretty overwhelming in a personal situation. You don’t really want to go to the lady and her kid with nine neighbors.
Appiah: With a posse.
Bloom: No posse, no pitchforks. Go with one neighbor, and the two of you sit down with the mother and kid and express your concerns and what will be happening next. It’s not like the kid doesn’t know what’s going on. If you don’t, the kid might otherwise extrapolate that most adults are going to be like his or her mother, who basically is resigned. You don’t want that to be true.
Read my weekly newsletter
On initiative, leadership, the environment, and burpees