Teaching the Greeks and Critical Thinking - Part 6: The Ethics of Avoiding the Extremes of Family

Teacher: Since we've already dealt with the Greek notion of the Golden Mean as applied to Success, I thought we'd dispense today with the preliminaries and cut right to the chase by discussing another one of our topics. Who would care to begin?

Student 1: I'd like to deal with "the Family." I think a balanced view of the family would be that you naturally love your mother and father, sisters and brothers, support and are loyal to them. You owe your parents a lot. They brought you into this world, raised you, cared for you, and love you. They're always there for you, no matter what. You may have your disagreements, and sometimes they may crowd you, and your little brother or sister can be a pain at times, or most of the time, but that's all to be expected when you've been living together in close quarters for years. You're family! What more can I say?

The problem comes as you get older, become more independent, and start breaking away as is only natural, a process which most parents understand. Then you meet that "special someone," get serious, marry, and have a life of your own. But some parents, not all of them by any means, but some parents, probably more the mother than the father, still expect you to remain part of their family instead of having your own with your new spouse. Your parents may start resenting that you don't call them more often, like every day, or visit them every Sunday for dinner, when they can pry into your married life, or give you the third degree about what you've been doing or about your spouse's family. They view your keeping them at bay and attempting to live your own life as some kind of betrayal.

The young couple can't understand why the parents are so insistent about inquiring into their life together, and why they don't seem to grasp the fact that you're married now and want to be left alone with your wife or husband, but they can't accept this and begin putting all kinds of pressure on you. They want you and your spouse to be a satellite that revolves around them, failing to realize that you want to have an independent existence.

I hear this all the time from my friends, whose married sisters and brothers have to deal with this constantly, and how this puts a strain on their marriage and creates a lot of hard feelings all around. It finally reaches a point where the couple becomes the "black sheep" of the family because they're always fending off their parents' questions to protect their privacy. This is what I'd consider a balanced view of how to handle parents like this.

The extreme way of dealing with this situation would be for the couple to capitulate to the wishes of these parents rather than keeping a healthy distance from them. The son or daughter shows more loyalty to the parents than to their spouse. This is really sad because it shows that something's radically wrong with this couple by their siding with the parents. You have to protect yourself and your spouse from these kinds of parents and their meddling. Maybe someone else could give an example of the opposite extreme. The only possibility I can think of would be rejecting the parents completely.

Teacher: Could someone give an example of having no family feeling whatsoever?

Student 2: Sure, but before I do, I just wanted to comment on what's been said so far. I can see why someone would think that way about these particular parents, who are still holding on and refuse to let go, but I think you really can't just cut them off like that. Blood is thicker than water, and family is always there for you. With all the divorces today, who knows how long your marriage will last? So I wonder whether it's wise to reject your family because you never know how your marriage is going to work out. I think you have to bend a little and make some concessions.

Student 1: I'm not saying that you reject your parents, but that you simply refuse to call or visit them as often as they'd like, or let yourself be continually hounded by their interrogations, and learn to deal with the tension this would inevitably entail. I don't think you have any other choice. After all, you married this girl or this guy, and you owe them your total allegiance because, if you don't, the situation will only grow worse. It's simply a matter of standing your ground and setting up boundaries against this intrusive badgering about your personal life, even if it causes hard feelings. You're no longer a child, but an adult, who simply wants a private life with your spouse, and you have to fight to protect this relationship, otherwise it will be destroyed by these parents. The example I gave is the exception, and I doubt very much that most parents are like this, but some parents are, and that's the type I'm talking about.

Student 2: But what if you and your spouse don't make it and have to go your separate ways? You'd still have your family to fall back on. They're there for you. I don't know how else to put it, but you need them as insurance in case something goes wrong and you have a break-up or divorce, whereas family's forever!

Student 1: If there were a break-up in this particular case, it would undoubtedly be caused by these parents and their continual meddling in the lives of this couple, who finally caved to the parents instead of standing their ground by remaining loyal to each other. Giving in to these parents would show that the son or daughter wasn't worthy of their spouse because the parents came first rather than the spouse, who felt betrayed, and justifiably so!

I'd blame the parents first and foremost, and then the son or daughter who was too weak to stand up to the parents and tell them to stop interfering with their lives, and, if they refused, ask them why they were trying to wreck their marriage, because that's precisely what they'd be doing. After all, when you marry someone, it's you and her, or you and him, forever, and if your family can't respect that loyalty, then that's their problem and there's something wrong with them! You have to fight for your spouse to show them that they come first, and not your parents! It's better to have this out with them sooner than later, and if your family doesn't have your happiness at heart, then you walk away from them!

Student 3: I think you're blowing this way out of proportion. You have to look at this from the parents' perspective. They miss their son or daughter who has been living with them their entire life. They're interested in them even when they're married. Maybe it's a bit of the empty nest syndrome and they're lonely. It's hard for parents to break with their children so quickly, and I don't think they're trying to be controlling, intrusive, or newsy at all, and that this couple may be too sensitive and over-reacting. Just call the parents once a week, and about that Sunday dinner, hey, you're getting a free meal out of it, so what's wrong with that? It's a small price to pay to keep peace in the family. And don't forget, when children come along, you're going to need a baby sitter you can trust and who won't charge anything, and who better than good old Mom and Dad to the rescue.

Student 4: I don't agree with that at all. If a couple wants their privacy, they're entitled to it. End of story! It might not bother some couples who wouldn't mind having their life be an open book, but other couples would. I know I would if I were that daughter or daughter-in-law who was losing control of her life by having to check in daily, spend every Sunday visiting them, or run a continual gauntlet of personal questions when seeing them. It's just none of their business, and I don't know what it is about privacy that they wouldn't understand! Real life isn't an Oprah Show!

Teacher: Why don't you continue now with your example of the opposite extreme of having no concern for one's family?

Student 2: Right. You could have parents who don't deserve any respect. Maybe they're in jail, druggies, abusive, or neglect you and make your home a living hell. In those cases, I could see a kid writing them off. On the other hand, let's say you have two really good parents, and the kid starts rebelling. The parents love their kid and do all the right things, but the kid still acts out, really becoming a problem, almost as if they're punishing the parents. Maybe the kid got in with a bad crowd or is going through a phase. Or maybe it's drugs, or the kid's bored and wants attention, wants to be known as a kid "with issues" for some kind of status thing, or is emotionally or mentally unstable. Beyond that, I'd be at a loss to explain why they'd be acting this way because, clearly, the parents don't deserve this kind of treatment.

Student 6: And then there are tiger moms or helicopter, snowplow, and bulldozer parents. I hear they're even driving college professors crazy by calling them up and asking for extensions on their kids' term papers, requesting make-up tests, and, if you can believe it, changing grades. We're talking major insanity here with these parents, who have a colossal problem with "letting go" and don't even realize the impression they're making.

To be honest, though, some kids like this because it saves them the trouble of having to fight their own battles if Mommy or Daddy does it for them, but I think that most of them would be embarrassed or resentful at being treated like children. It could even do them long-term damage if they bought into what their parents were doing. I mentioned this a while back to my grandfather, a man of few words, who just shook his head and said, "Those parents are creating a ticking time bomb for themselves."

Student 7: You can understand when parents do this while their kids are in elementary school, or in rare instances in middle school, but in high school and college? Give me a break! I could easily see a kid rebelling against these parents, who think they're fantastic parents when they're only control freaks or a couple of vampires feeding off the lives of their children. Get a life!

Teacher: Anyone else? Nothing? Okay. Well, a take-no-prisoners exchange of views! As with all our discussions, we haven't resolved anything, as that's your job. My job is simply to encourage as many different viewpoints as possible to give you food for thought.

Again, like last time, I'd ask you to step back and view everything you experience in terms of this Greek idea of the Golden Mean and its three lenses of "too much, too little, and just right." It's all part of your training of looking at things critically, role-playing different points of view, thinking outside the box of what's familiar and customary, or, as that great Scottish poet Robert Burns once said, learning "to see ourselves as others see us. It would from many a blunder free us and foolish notion." See you tomorrow.