How Much Help Do I Owe My Debt-Ridden Dad?

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How Much Help Do I Owe My Debt-Ridden Dad?


I wonder, though, whether you haven’t left out one of the main ways in which you could assist him. What if you and your father discussed your respective situations frankly, working out a strategy for addressing his financial problems? You could have a conversation about what’s reasonable for him to expect from you, in light of your situation. These conversations are bound to be uncomfortable, and you may both have avoided them for that reason. But I suspect that confronting the matter — with love and respect — will be better than each of you continuing to agonize about it on your own. In the end, it will be up to you to decide what you give him. And a loving father isn’t going to want to undermine your chances of living a happy and successful life, whether that’s here in the United States or back home nearer to him.

For nearly a year and a half, we were in a pandemic pod with another family, and our children became fast friends. We saw this family nearly every weekend; it was our only social interaction. A few months ago, just after the children went off to different preschools, the parents suddenly said they were splitting up, much to our surprise. Several months later, one of the parents had sole custody, claiming the other parent was mentally ill and recounting several violent incidents.

The other parent has reached out to ask us to write a letter on her behalf to support regaining some custody of her child. She says that her ex-partner’s claims of violence and mental illness are false. I wasn’t present for any of the incidents, so I can’t say who was right or wrong; we merely heard stories. On one hand, the claims of violence could be true, and my account of her character would be false, although true to me. On the other hand, if the claims of violence are false, am I assisting a system that is denying my child’s friend interactions with the other parent by not writing a letter on her behalf? I want to do what is in the best interest of the child, while maintaining healthy boundaries. My husband says not to get involved, and my instinct is to trust the system. Do I have an obligation to write a letter on her behalf? Name Withheld

The legal system for deciding matters of custody is far from perfect. But it’s most likely to work well if decision makers have as much useful information as possible. So accurately describing what you know — and avoiding conjecture about what you don’t — should be more helpful than not.

In a contentious custody battle, each parent is naturally tempted to exaggerate the flaws of the other. While things have changed since the period when you were in a pod together, it’s relevant that (as I assume) both your friends appeared to be responsible and caring parents when you did spend time with them. You worry that your character claims would be false, though “true to me.” Really, they’re true or they’re not. That you put it this way underlines your uncertainty about how much you know. So make it clear that you can speak only about what you were present to see. The parent who solicited the letter is the one submitting it to the court, and she won’t if she or her attorney has reservations about it. Still, this is a case where the dictum “write what you know” is worth taking to heart.


Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.” To submit a query: Send an email to ethicist@nytimes.com; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)



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