Don’t Ask…Don’t Tell?
What Do You Do When a Friend’s Kid Misbehaves?
The ink had not yet dried on my 16-year-old son’s driver’s license when I received an uncomfortable phone call from my good friend, Stephanie. Clearly unhappy to be the bearer of bad tidings, she
nevertheless told me that she had just seen my son, Brian, “tooling down 117 like a major playboy.” It seems that Brian, in a frenzy of misguided overachievement, had broken several non-negotiable driving rules at once: he had put the top down on my husband’s convertible, which he was casually driving with just one hand on the wheel. His other hand held the cellphone into which he was cheerfully and distractedly speaking. He was, as Stephanie described him, “the poster child for what a teenager shouldn’t be doing in a car.” He was also, as it turns out, busted.
Stephanie was miserable to be the one ratting Brian out—she and her husband are the “cool parents” my son has always wanted (as opposed to my husband and me, who are both certifiable dorks). “I love the kid,” Stephanie says, “and I didn’t want him killing himself.” She turned him in “without any hesitation at all.”
A scenario like this is all too common in the suburbs, where small-town life can offer little in the way of anonymity. When I lived in Manhattan, I could go for weeks—even months—without ever bumping into anyone I knew. But here in Westchester, I am constantly running into friends and neighbors at the dry cleaner or at the mall. Unfortunately, it’s also pretty common to see their underage kids buying six-packs of Budweiser at a local gas station. Which inevitably raises the question: If you see a friend’s child doing something wrong—or something that their parents wouldn’t like—do you rat them out or shut your mouth?
To find the answer, I sought out the advice of someone who spends every workday dealing with teenagers—Andrew Selesnick, the principal of Horace Greeley High School in Chappaqua. When it comes to youthful misdeeds, Selesnick firmly believes that adults need to be “the guiding eyes” for kids. “It’s one of the great challenges of being a teen,” he says. “Every moment is filled with decisions, some of which can have disastrous effects.” Selesnick cites current research showing that teenagers’ brains continue to develop until their late 20s—until then, he feels that they “are essentially hard-wired to take risks in order to learn. They need enough protection to make sure that these risks don’t have dire consequences.” To this end, Selesnick believes that if you see a teen making bad choices, “you should always tell the parents.” He does realize, however, that “parents are not always happy to hear what their children have been up to.”
Ginny Warsaw of Warwick, New York, found this out the hard way after seeing a neighbor’s 13-year-old-son drive an all-terrain vehicle recklessly into traffic. The boy, who was not wearing a helmet, cut off a commercial truck on a main road, narrowly escaping disaster. When Warsaw—who has two grown sons of her own—told the boy’s father what she had seen, he bluntly told her to “just mind her own business.” After that experience, Warsaw admits that she definitely would think twice before reporting another child, but says that if she saw a kid in danger “I probably would make the attempt again.”
But how should you react if, instead of seeing the dangerous behavior, you hear about it second-hand? My friend Debbie from Scarsdale found herself in murky ethical waters when Michael, the son of one of her closest friends, went off to college. Soon after he left, Debbie heard from several sources that the boy had developed a campus-wide reputation for dealing drugs. But none of the people who shared this information with her were willing to go to the boy’s mother with it. And despite her genuine concern for Michael, Debbie couldn’t bring herself to confront her friend with the rumors. “I was torn,” she admits, “and I’m not proud of the decision I made. But I couldn’t betray the confidence of the people who told me what Michael was doing. Plus, my friend is not someone who’s open to hearing negative things about her kids. I was a little afraid she’d shoot the messenger.”
It’s easy to understand Debbie’s fears, since no one is happy to hear that their kids are acting out. Learning about my son’s reckless driving was hardly the high point of my maternal career, although I was grateful to have been warned about his dangerous behavior. And my friend Stephanie readily admits that, while she didn’t hesitate to tell me what she had seen, she would have been far less quick to report the child of “someone who might have turned on her.”
This conflict of loyalties can be “the crux of the matter,” according to Dr. Meg Sussman, a psychologist who works at the Purchase College Counseling Center and also has a private practice in Mount Kisco. Dr. Sussman believes that there’s no black-and-white answer to when you should or shouldn’t notify someone’s parents but feels that a good guideline is, “As a parent yourself, is this something you’d want to know?” She feels strongly that when behavior “rises to the level of being really dangerous, it’s important to tell parents what you’ve witnessed—even if it means breaking a confidence.”
But there are some cases, it seems, in which “to tell or not to tell” depends less on the severity of the behavior and more on the relationship between the parents. When Caroline of Mamaroneck found out that her teenage daughter’s best friend was drinking a lot at parties, Caroline shared that news with the girl’s mother, who happened to be a close friend of hers. But when she learned that her younger daughter’s friend had become sexually active at 15, she never dreamed of telling the girl’s parents, because she barely knows them. “If it was my child, then, of course, I’d want to know,” Caroline says. “But how do I call total strangers and drop this kind of news on them? I just couldn’t do it.” Relationship or not, Caroline definitely would inform other parents if she knew their
child’s safety was at stake.
It can be less clear what to do if you see a kid who is misbehaving but isn’t in immediate peril. Should even minor infractions be brought to a parent’s attention? And where do you draw the line? Do you report a child for smoking cigarettes? For making out? For ordering a venti mocha frappuccino—with caffeine?
Not necessarily, according to Dr. Sussman, who has two teenage children of her own. “If my sixteen-year-old daughter told me her friends were drinking, I wouldn’t necessarily tell their parents. Unfortunately, drinking and smoking cigarettes—you don’t have to like it, but it’s normative behavior. If it rose to a dangerous level, that would be different.” Dr. Sussman also emphasizes that “this isn’t a decision you have to make alone,” and recommends consulting with other parents or asking a school guidance counselor how to handle such a situation.
Wayne Plump of Bedford Corners has two daughters who are now 22 and 26 years old, and he is relieved that he never witnessed any of their friends being “really out of control.” He does, however, remember several occasions when he saw his daughters’ friends smoking cigarettes. Instead of turning them in to their parents, his choice was to confront the smokers directly. “I found the kids to be attentive,” he says about his interventions. “At least I didn’t see their eyes glaze over.” Moreover, he’s convinced that as a concerned and friendly adult he was sometimes able to “strike a nerve that wasn’t dulled by a lifelong habit of ignoring one’s parents.”
Principal Selesnick of Chappaqua agrees that in some cases—especially for lesser infractions—it can be beneficial to talk with the offenders themselves, because “at least an adult has acknowledged to the kid that they’ve done something wrong.” But whether parents are notified or not, Selesnick counts himself as someone who definitely thinks “it takes a village” to keep teenagers safe.
This may be particularly true if the village is Rye Brook, where a group of about 20 concerned parents have made an informal “pact” to keep an eye on each others’ kids. Local resident Irene Metz, whose children are 19 and 14, says that “since Rye Brook is such a small town, everyone pretty much knows one another.” This makes it easier for parents to keep each other informed about what the kids are up to, especially when it comes to “parties, drinking, and driving.” Metz feels that this system of sharing information actually reduces teens-gone-wild behavior because “the kids are aware that there is a network of parents out there, keeping an eye on them.”
According to Metz’s 19-year-old son, Josh, who is now away at college, the Rye Brook “pact” is not really all that effective, and he reports that eluding concerned parents was just a matter of “buying beer in Port Chester and knowing who you couldn’t talk to freely.” Josh says that he “would have been pretty mad at my parents if they’d gotten one of my friends in trouble.” But there’s reason to believe that Westchester teens are more mature than we give them credit for, since Josh also states that “if any of my friends had been in serious danger, we would have taken that up with adults anyway.”
Jean Mann of Mount Kisco similarly has arranged with another mother to “tell each other if we see or hear anything about each other’s kids.” Mann has yet to hear any reports about her own two daughters, but firmly believes she would want to know if they were engaged in inappropriate behavior. “I wasn’t an angel growing up, so I realize that kids do this stuff,” says Mann, who thinks that parents who were “sheltered or nerdy when they themselves were growing up tend to be in denial about drinking, parties, and drugs. Personally, I usually expect the worst.”
My friend Lisa, a Bedford mother of two sons, may have been a little too quick to believe the worst when an acquaintance called her to report that she’d seen Lisa’s 15-year-old son, Matt, cutting class. He was, according to the woman, brazenly hanging out under a tree, soaking up the sun right in front of Fox Lane High School. Lisa raced to the school, but saw no sign of her son. After checking with the attendance office, she learned that he had been present and accounted for in all of his classes that day. In retrospect, Lisa isn’t sure that the woman reporting her son had entirely pure motives, and recalls that, “She didn’t know us well enough to genuinely care about our welfare. She seemed to relish telling me that Matt was cutting school.” When Lisa told Matt about this woman’s accusation, he raised one eyebrow and asked, “Do you really think I’m stupid enough to cut school in broad daylight?”
Having known Matt all of his life, I can vouch for the fact that he’s anything but stupid. The problem, of course, is that even smart kids can make foolish choices. My own son made this painfully clear the very first time that he was allowed to use the car after getting busted for DWC (driving while chatting). Thrilled at the prospect of driving once again, Brian earnestly promised to stay off the phone before blowing out of the house. I could still see him driving down our block as I dialed his cellphone, which he answered—promptly and happily—before realizing that his worst nightmare was on the other end of the line. Which just goes to show: it doesn’t always take a village to incriminate a kid; they frequently will do it all by themselves.
Susan Goldberg believes her own two children to be absolute, perfect angels. She also believes in hobbits, the Tooth Fairy, and weapons of mass destruction.