Miss Conduct

Green extremes

Resist the urge to be an environmental perfectionist, plus sibling squabbles.

By Robin Abrahams
November 29, 2009

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I am extremely environmentally conscious, more so than my parents. When I visit for the holidays, my mom uses paper plates and plastic utensils for large gatherings. Instead of using these, I open the cupboard and get out my own plate and utensils, but then she feels offended. I think she should respect my views and not be upset that I am the only one at the event not using the paper and plastic products. I do not want another holiday where I am forced to harm the environment. P.B. / Herndon, Virginia The best way to stay green over the holidays is to stay home. This will have two beneficial effects: One, you won’t be burning fossil fuels to get from one place to another, and two, you won’t be contributing to negative stereotypes of environmentalists as intolerant perfectionists. Which is, of course, exactly what playing the “green card” in such a conspicuous fashion amounts to. Your mother doesn’t want her style of entertaining criticized, explicitly or implicitly. Most hosts and hostesses don’t. A gracious guest goes along with household norms, within reason. And using a paper plate and plastic flatware is definitely within reason.

The ecological harm represented by a single paper plate or plastic fork is far too minimal to let it become a power struggle that will only hurt your relationship with your parents and your ability to be a good advertisement for your beliefs. (I am assuming that you hope to bring your parents over to your cause someday, not merely impress them with your ideological purity.) Surely your carbon footprint has a bit of wiggle room. Unless you honestly claim to be living a no-impact life, you can make up for the sin of the paper plate -- which I assume you’ll recycle anyway -- in some other way, much as we all make up for our caloric or financial holiday overindulgences. Use less electricity for a week or bike to the grocery store.

My son and daughter, adults in their 20s, had a good relationship as they were growing up. Now that my daughter is married with children, my son feels left out. As a result, he criticizes her and her husband to me. She suspects this and is distancing herself to protect herself and her family. He does love her children, and they adore him. I find myself in the middle and don’t know what to say. How do I stay neutral? Or should I intervene somehow? M.A. / Newburyport I think staying neutral is your best option at the moment, and it sounds as if that’s what you want to do. So make an official declaration of neutrality, and stick to it. Let your kids know that you realize they are having problems and that you are going to stay out of it so they can resolve the situation. Tell them that any bad-mouthing must end -- you are not going to take sides or listen to complaints. Given the time of year, it might not be a bad idea to discuss how the holidays are going to be handled as well. (Also, tell them you love them, you’re there if they need to talk, but you won’t offer advice, etc. -- add whatever you customarily do to your basic parental “setting boundaries with love” speech. Each family is its own culture, and I can’t tell you exactly where you ought to draw lines. Wherever you draw them, though, communicate them clearly.)

You can still reserve the right to step in and say something if the situation continues to be tense. For now, though, give your kids the benefit of the doubt. They’ve had a strong relationship in the past, and your son isn’t resentful of his nieces or nephews, and, in fact, enjoys their company. You have grounds for optimism, so give your son and daughter a chance to weather this awkward life transition on their own.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a Cambridge-based writer with a PhD in psychology. Got a question or comment? Write to BLOG Read more of Miss Conduct’s wit and wisdom at CHAT Get advice live this Wednesday, noon to 1 p.m., at

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