Making Conversation or Making Fun
Q: I was at a party and listened to a parent making fun of the choices his son was making. I felt he was violating his privacy and entertaining the group at the expense of his son. Do kids have a right to privacy in public situations?
A: I am most aware of your profound respect for privacy. I like that you listened to this father, not only hearing what he was saying, but also wondering what it is like to be discussed in a public situation. Your values and respect for privacy are evident in your question.
I think each person has to develop his or her own code of ethics. Clearly, your personal code of ethics is causing you to wonder if you had any responsibility to this child whose parent was violating his privacy. It also sounds like the comments being made seemed negative and judgmental regarding the child, rather than tender and endearing.
As I talked with other parents, asking them about their thoughts on this issue, I was struck by how torn they were between the need to share their trials and tribulations of parenting and the possible perception of being mean-spirited or disrespectful.
There seems to be an unwritten code that we are all in this job of parenting together, and talking about it is part of our shared history. We may also err on the side of talking about our children in ways that we would never talk about our friends and neighbors.
Your question brings that distinction to light. Are we saying anything that our children might not like us to share publicly? Have we asked the child’s permission?
Most of us have talked with others about our children. Have we questioned our motives behind sharing our own perspective on what is happening? My experience tells me that many parents really want to hear how other parents have coped with similar situations.
Many parents want to know that they are not alone as they watch their children struggle or make bad choices. It can be difficult to know when we are being helpful to our children, and when we are robbing them of learning from their own mistakes.
Some people are naturally entertaining in social settings. They may tell stories about themselves, their spouses or their children. If you are the spouse of a person like this, ask yourself how you felt about being the subject of a story. Is it hurtful or loving when a story is told about you? This is the most important issue.
If a parent is cruel, putting down his or her child, sending a message of lack of acceptance and rejection, then the listener will be, not only uncomfortable, but faced with a dilemma about how to respond.
An indirect person might say, “I understand that you are upset and frustrated with your child’s choices.“ The subject could then be directed toward a topic other than children.
If you are able to be direct, you might tell the parent that it makes you very uncomfortable hearing him talk about his child that way. You might even call the parent aside for a private conversation. Ask the parent if he or she needs help dealing with his or her frustration, offering to listen privately or suggest a professional for help.
We all have a personal style for both handling our children and putting on a social face. When we listen to one another, having the personality style of people in mind is usually helpful. It doesn’t mean that everything they do is OK; it just helps you understand that this is how they are.
One thing life teaches us all is that we are unable to change who and how people are to suit our needs. It also teaches us that we don’t think like others, respond like others and make the same assumptions others would make. However, we are able to recognize what makes us uncomfortable and decide how to deal with that.
If you have no other recourse, and you are really uncomfortable, you could leave the room when this parent is speaking.
Some of the parents I surveyed about this question said that most parents first ask, “How is your daughter or son?” before they even ask, “How are you?” It seems to be part of our culture to check in with each other around our children. Many times, social occasions become part of this ongoing check-in.
Many parents choose not to say anything about their child that they wouldn’t say directly to their child’s face. Operating with this in mind allows them to monitor what they say and keep it respectful.
Many parents have a purposeful conversation about privacy with their children. Not only does privacy apply to knowing what is shared or not shared with family, friends, and acquaintances, but how to communicate when there is a perceived violation of privacy.
Trusting relationships are very important between couples as well as parents and children. You want to make sure you are honoring the trust you have in your relationship with your child, no matter what other parents do.
In fact, you might want to take that parent aside and say, “My children have told me some things that have shocked me, too; I just never wanted to breach their trust or faith in me by sharing it. I hope it will always be a secret between us, and something that they will outgrow with age.”
For you, there is something useful in looking at things through a larger lens of time. It keeps you looking and hoping for the best. Thanks for the question. Good luck!