Amy Dickinson is a general advice columnist.
DEAR AMY: My brother has two children, the oldest of whom he adopted when she was an infant. She is now an adolescent and I recently learned that he and his wife (the child’s biological mother) have decided not to tell their daughter that she has a different biological father (who, according to them, is a drug addict). They said they will never tell her and are just hoping she never finds out. Their daughter’s biological father has family in their small town — some of her cousins even attend school with her. I am concerned that someday, one of those cousins may tell her that they are, in fact, related. Or that she may find out in some other less-than-ideal way. I know this isn’t easy, even for highly functioning adults (which, quite frankly, my brother and his wife are not), but I can’t imagine them keeping it a secret forever. What about potential genetic health concerns? What about her potential desire to know her own ancestry? Is it a right for someone to know this information? I feel uncomfortable having this important information that seems relevant to her (I wish that somehow I didn’t know this truth). I plan to honor my brother’s request unless I am for some reason asked by his daughter directly, in which case I would suggest she talk to her parents or insist they be honest with her. Can you give me some perspective? Am I being too nosy or judgmental? How damaging is it for a child to stumble upon information like this, versus having it shared directly with them by their parents? What would you advise a parent like my brother in this situation? — Concerned Aunt
DEAR AUNT: Children should be told the truth about their lives, even if the truth yields challenges.
Imagine the burden that would be lifted on the parents (for instance), if they found a way to be honest about this — keeping this secret affects their family relationship in all sorts of unseen ways, as it has already affected their relationship with you and yours with your niece. If the child finds out from others, she may choose to hold this secret, too — creating a lingering chain of secrecy, and a big burden for her.
You should urge the parents to disclose the truth — with a professional counselor’s involvement. A family therapist can help guide both the adults and child, through the disclosure and beyond.
I also agree with your choice not to override the parents’ decision, but to make clear to them that you will never lie to the child if asked.
DEAR AMY: My spouse and I recently opened the holiday present from my mom, and it’s not something we particularly like. It’s something to hang on the wall, and it’s been customized with our initials, so we can’t return or exchange it. We appreciate the thought and care she took, and we feel bad about not liking it because not only was she very excited about it (she kept asking us whether it had arrived and then whether we had opened it), but also because it was probably quite expensive. My mom has bought similar hangings for other people and has asked us what we thought of them, and we’ve told her that we don’t like them too much. She has a habit of asking what you want and then ignoring what you say. Now we’re not sure what to do. We don’t want to make her feel bad, but we also don’t want to lie. When we call to thank her, should we tell her that we like it, just to be nice, and put it up on the wall whenever she comes to visit, or should we be honest and tell her “we appreciate it, but ...” Is there a way we can keep this from happening in the future? — Appreciative but not Enthused
DEAR APPRECIATIVE: When you call your mother, thank her sincerely. When she invites you to enthuse, tell her, “Well, it’s not quite our style, but we’re so grateful for the generosity and the trouble you went to and we’re going to find a spot for it.”
DEAR AMY: I have some wisdom to impart. “Always assume positive intent” is the sales and service slogan for employees of a large computer corporation. It works wonders in my marriage and relationships with my grown children. We keep it taped on our fridge as a friendly reminder. — Dianne
DEAR DIANNE: Now it’s going onto my fridge. Thank you!