The Ethical Dilemma: Family Rules

Joan Reisman-Brill answers your questions this week!

Experiencing an ethical dilemma? Need advice from a humanist perspective?

Send your questions to The Ethical Dilemma at (subject line: Ethical Dilemma).

All inquiries are kept confidential.

Treating Elderly Relatives Like Children: My spouse’s family is a wonderful, caring group, but their caring can slip into what I consider controlling. Over the years, I’ve seen them run roughshod over the oldest, frailest relatives, insisting that they attend family gatherings even when that involves carrying them up and down stairs, forcing them to stay overnight when all they want to do is sleep in their own beds, setting them up with unwelcome live-in aides, and taking away their favorite junk foods. I’m not sure if there’s anything I can do to rescue other unwilling recipients of the family embrace, but I’m worried about what happens when it’s my turn to be the defenseless recipient. I’ve been telling my spouse since before we were married that I never want anyone to do that to me, but I fear deaf ears.

–Save Me From The Saviors

Dear Save,

As someone who spent the summer in a wheelchair (all better now, thanks!) reminding people that my feet were out-of-commission but my brains were not, I know what it’s like to have others decide it would be a treat to wheel you through crowded streets during a heat wave so you can have dinner in a nice but distant restaurant instead of the diner on your block, or marshal troops of visitors when you need rest, or inform you there will be no more cheese in your omelets until you can make them yourself again.

Of course others have to step in if a person is not competent to make her own decisions—and even then they should at least consider what that person’s wishes might be–but that doesn’t sound like what’s happening here. Some of what your spouse’s family does must be because they genuinely want to do what’s best for that person, but perhaps they have a distorted view of what that would be. You might try asking them how they would feel if they were the ones being dragged from their homes to sit through family gatherings when they don’t feel up to it, or why they would deprive Grandma—who may have few other pleasures in life—of  her beloved Mallomars. You might also tactfully question whether they are making Grandpa spend the night for his convenience or their own. If it’s too much to get him home the day of the get-together, maybe they could move the event to or near his place, or allow him to skip the occasion if that’s what he really prefers.

It’s also possible that there’s a family culture of saying no when they mean yes and expecting others to override their protests. Some people are too proud or stubborn to ask for help or express appreciation for it, even though deep down that’s exactly what they want. Maybe your spouse’s family is tuned in to a dynamic that eludes outsiders but works for them.

But when you say yes or no, you probably mean it. So you need to make that crystal clear. While there may be legal means to protect yourself from overly-aggressive intervention, that would be a last resort against well-meaning relatives, and would only apply to certain major issues, such as if someone took it upon themselves to sell your house and put you in a home (or their home), or made medical care decisions in contradiction to your wishes. You should express to your relatives and one or two reliable, unrelated friends what your preferences are. You could even create a living will and sit down with key players to go over it. But realize that, while you feel fierce in your independence now, there might come a time when you’ll be secretly happy to have people drag you to family events and send someone to do your cleaning and groceries. Better to have a family that does too much for you than one that does too little.


Policing Play Dates: Our kids, ages 12 and 14, have one friend who keeps kosher; another who is being raised vegan in a home full of rescued animals; and another whose fundamentalist family home-schools him, has no TV, and limits what he can read and watch.

We’ve taught our kids to accept their friends’ restrictions. But when we stop at a restaurant for lunch, the kosher kid isn’t sure what he can and can’t eat, and we aren’t sure what to tell him (other than to call his parents, but they don’t always answer the phone). The vegan girl ignores the salads and veggies and orders a burger; when she eats at our house, I make alternatives like spaghetti, but she always helps herself to any meat we may also be serving. My son and the fundamentalist friend spend their time together playing violent fantasy electronic games that I don’t think his parents would appreciate. I suspect this is a big part of why these kids love to play with ours on our turf.

While we’re aware of the various family rules, we haven’t been explicitly instructed by any of the parents about limiting the kids when they are with us, and frankly, I have no interest in asking or enforcing. The parents know what we eat and how permissive and non-religious we are. Is it ethical for our policy to be “don’t ask, don’t tell” when these kids are clearly playing fast and loose with their own house rules?

—Treating Them Like Family—Our Family

Dear Treat,

It would be different if the parents had asked you to adhere to their restrictions. Then, if you agreed, you’d be in the position of imposing their principles in lieu of your own. And how would that work? Would you allow your family to eat bacon cheeseburgers while the friends are stuck with kosher or vegan, or would everyone have to be on a restricted diet? And would your son’s games be off limits to him while his friend is around? It might also be different if the kids were younger, in which case you might ask the parents to send permitted food with them, or serve only foods they are allowed, and have your son pick out G-rated games to play. But these particular kids are old enough to babysit—so you shouldn’t have to babysit them.

It would make more sense, and even be more ethical, to decline the role of sheriff, explaining that you wouldn’t be comfortable enforcing rules you and your own kids don’t follow. You’d prefer that the parents make sure their kids understand what they are and aren’t permitted to do, and that of course you’d try to be accommodating (i.e., you wouldn’t take everyone to “Bad Grandpa”).

People who live by restrictive rules have to the shoulder the burden themselves, not expect others to carry it, if they wish to function beyond their own cocoon. The sooner their kids learn how to conduct themselves around people who freely enjoy other choices, the better. The fact that none of the parents has brought this up suggests that they realize that by now their kids know very well what they’re supposed to do, and they’re willing to look the other way rather than monitor compliance. Otherwise they wouldn’t allow their angels to hang with you libertines.

Meanwhile, these kids are learning about non-kosher carnivorous permissive humanist families, with you as their role-models. So let them see what your life really looks like, rather than disguising it to appear more like theirs. Maybe they’ll learn some valuable lessons.