Dear Carolyn: My husband and I recently chaperoned a five-day high school trip. The daughter of some friends was one of the students. She has had a contentious relationship with her parents, and was distant with us and the other chaperones.
On the trip, she made it abundantly clear she is in a relationship with another female student. There were some sleeping-arrangement issues we had to deal with.
On our return, I told her I respect her privacy but don’t want to keep secrets from her parents. I asked if she had told them of her relationship. She has not and does not plan to. I told her that puts us in a bit of a dilemma, that I wasn’t going to go out of my way to tell them, but I wasn’t going to lie to them, either. I suggested if she needed someone to talk to, she could talk to us. Her only response was, “Please don’t tell them.” Then she walked away.
We believe the parents would treat her relationship the same as a heterosexual relationship, so the issues are probably less about her sexual preferences and more about control and getting away with sleeping with her lover because her parents think they’re just friends.
I need advice on how to handle this with her parents. We don’t get to see them often, but are in a club together. We don’t want to out a sullen, alienated teenager, and I don’t want to be a busybody. On the other hand, I would be upset if my daughter were engaging in adult activity at this age, and if I were the last to know. Suggestions?
– What Happens in Vegas ...
A: You got the answer right the first time: Don’t volunteer anything, don’t lie when asked. That honors your role as chaperone (disclosure for major rule-breaking, discretion for the rest) and as the parents’ friend (no deception). If the daughter were in harm’s way you’d have to tell, but she isn’t.
There is one unturned stone here that might be useful to turn. You say, “I would be upset … if I were the last to know.” Have you asked yourself why?
Sure, it’s embarrassing to discover everyone knew something but you, I get that. Not only does it alert you that you’re more out than in, but it also reminds you that everyone else sees your out-ness – though that’s more about ego than anything else.
For parents, there’s an added element of worry in being last, because it tells you, among other possibilities, that your kids aren’t sharing, don’t trust you, aren’t as close to you as you thought, or might keep you in the dark until there’s real trouble, and even after. These are certainly significant in ways ego-bruising isn’t, but: When a third party steps in with the missing information, as you’ve considered doing here, what does that fix?
It doesn’t move the child to share, establish trust, or draw closer to a parent – not unless the family involved deals with the underlying problem between them. They’re already aware there is one, presumably, since the relationship is “contentious.”
And whether telling enables a family to solve such problems is certainly debatable. Sure, reporting the daughter’s relationship to the parents could get them talking toward a resolution, but it could also get them yelling and the daughter withdrawing even further from her parents’ influence and embrace.
Again, barring imminent danger, kids need privacy – even secrets, to a degree – to work things out at a pace that suits them.
If taking this position gets you in trouble when your friends find out what you knew and when, you have this: “I believed it was for Daughter to share with you, and argued for that. I made a judgment call, because if ever you’re in my place, that’s what I’d want.” Yes?
Adults, meanwhile, would do well to resist the temptation to care whether they’re first, fifth or 40th to receive a bit of news. When being left out is meaningful, it is so only as a symptom. Instead of dwelling on the what, work instead on mending the why.