Parental Eavesdropping

Like many states, New York has a law that bars recording communications unless at least one of the parties to the communication gives consent.  Earlier this week, the highest court in New York considered whether parents can legally eavesdrop when one of the parties to the communication is their child — and held that parents can do so under certain circumstances.

The ruling came in a case where the divorced father of a five-year-old boy, over an open phone line, heard his son having a “violent conversation” with his ex-wife’s bodybuilder boyfriend.  The father recorded the conversation.  (Disturbingly, though, the father apparently didn’t contact authorities to give them the recording until months later, when the ex-wife and boyfriend were arrested after neighbors heard screaming and crying coming from the house.)  The boyfriend argued that the recorded conversation shouldn’t be allowed into evidence at his trial because neither party to the conversation consented.

eavesdropping-1stepmother-helpThe New York Court of Appeals disagreed, and concluded that the father had “a good faith, objectively reasonable belief that it was necessary for the welfare of his son to record the violent conversation he found himself listening to.”  Three of the judges on that court dissented, concluding that the ruling raised policy concerns that should be left up to the legislature and could raise issues in divorce situations, with the parties to the break-up planting bugs to record conversations between their children and the other party to the divorce.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone would argue that a parent who heard their little boy being threatened with violence couldn’t making a recording to try to help their child — but then again, it’s hard to imagine that a father who made such a recording wouldn’t immediately take the recording to the police to try to get his son out of a dangerous situation.  The father’s inaction in the case makes the ugly divorce scenarios that apparently motivated the dissenting judges seem more plausible.

But one person’s bad judgment shouldn’t mask a key reality:  parents should be permitted to eavesdrop and intervene when they honestly believe their child is at risk.  Whether it’s bullying on a school bus, or a situation where a child is falling under the sway of a sexual predator, there are many instances where parents could legitimately decide that making a recording of a conversation involving their child was the right thing to do.  It’s not snooping, it’s trying to protect your kid — and we shouldn’t let speculative worries about what might happen in other worst-case scenarios prevent parents from following their basic parenting instincts when it comes to trying to do right by their children.

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Marriage And Money

How much of a successful marriage is attributable to what money can buy?  Do good marriages now carry a price tag that working class Americans cannot afford?

Those are some of the questions explored in a scholarly paper that looks at work and marriage in working class and middle class families.  A Slate article on the paper contrasts the stories of two families.  A Mom in Ohio works at a minimum wage job and has had two failed marriages, one to a man who left and another to a man who beat her; her 20-year-old daughter also has had an abusive relationship and is now dating a guy in jail.  Neither wants to get married soon.  The middle-class family in the Pacific northwest, on the other hand, can afford weekends at a vacation cabin, annual travel, and building a barn and buying a horse for their daughter who had begun “acting out” and then enrolling her in a private school involving horses.

The paper, Intimate Inequalities: Love and Work in a Post-Industrial Landscape, is based on interviews and surveys of more than 300 Americans.  It focuses on job stability and security.  Secure middle-class couples can afford luxury items like vacations and gym memberships that keep their marriages viable, whereas working class people who don’t have stable sources of income are more concerned with keeping a job and their own survival than with providing materially and socially for others.

I have no doubt that economic uncertainty and loss of a job can provide additional stress that can turn a rocky marriage into a divorce.  The two stories in the Slate article, however, also suggest that other, more important factors can come into play.  Marriages simply don’t last when one spouse is physically abusive, no matter how many horses a couple can afford.  Men who can’t make a long-term commitment aren’t going to make good husbands, regardless of socioeconomic class.  Dating guys who are in jail probably isn’t a good recipe for a stable and satisfying married life.  Serial philanderers, people with emotional problems, and others who are ill-suited for marriage similarly are found at all income levels.

There’s something a bit off-putting, too, in the implicit suggestion that successful marriages are primarily about money, rather than love and compatibility.  Depicting marriage as primarily an economic arrangement that people will endure because it allows them to take nice vacations inevitably discounts the essential emotional component of a strong marriage.

Sometimes marriages end in divorce because people grow apart over time; sometimes they fail because people just exercised poor judgment in getting married to people who weren’t suitable in the first place.  Money woes and job concerns may be a factor in some instances, but I think successful marriages are about a lot more than what is in the bank account.