Dilemmas: Does a split home spoil a child?

Simon's 10-year-old son divides his time between his mother's household - materialistic and liberal - and Simon's more strict and frugal home. Each parent has a new young family. The boy is behaving like a "spoiled brat": should he stay with one parent?

VIRGINIA'S ADVICE

In some people's houses you can arrive late, get drunk and swear, watch the telly and eat grapes on the carpet. In other people's houses you arrive on time, say please and thank-you and drop them a grateful line the next day. And you can enjoy each experience equally, but in different ways.

So I don't think it's Simon's rigid rules that are making his son so bolshie. It's because the rules are ones that always involve the use of the word "no". OK, the child can't watch violent films or buy trendy trainers at Simon's. But does Simon offer any amusing alternatives? Excellent board- games? Snooker? Carpet bowls? If not, no wonder the chap's sulky.

Then I wonder if the boy's not treated, along with Simon's young family, as "one of the kids". There's a great difference between a 10-year-old and a five-year-old. And no doubt the boy's not particularly crackers about his step-parents or, yet, his younger half-siblings. They're all living and breathing evidence of the split between his parents. Are special concessions made to Simon's son so that he feels he's older, more grown- up, more sophisticated? Does Simon ask if his son would like his friends to stay sometimes? Does Simon take him out on his own to do son-and-dad things? Does he go out of his way to make his son feel special and wanted?

I know that I'm sounding a bit "all a child wants is a piece of string, a bent pin and a pond and he's happy as Larry"-ish, but most boys when they are faced with the choice of a video or a fishing or camping trip with their dad would voluntarily choose to go on the expedition.

If Simon made the effort, he could make his home, frugal and strict as it is, every bit as interesting and entertaining an environment as his ex-wife's. If his son is behaving like a "spoiled brat" it's because he's angry and unhappy at Simon's. And Simon's pejorative interpretation of his behaviour can hardly make his son feel wanted.

And perhaps Simon doesn't realise that now is probably the time when his son wants to feel less "stateless". Maybe he'd like a base: a single phone number where he knows his friends can reach him. Living in two houses is rather like living in hotels. I bet he'd like to have one room where he can keep all his favourite things and feel safe and private. Not two.

The answer is, of course, to ask the boy what he'd like to do, and to do it in a way that doesn't sound as if he's not loved or wanted. Simon could say to him: "Look, I realise you're getting older now. I'd love to have you living here all the time, and I know your mum would love to have you living with her all the time. I'm not asking you to choose, but would you like it if you made your base at mum's, and then come over to ours when you want? I have a feeling you'd like to start making your own decisions a bit. Would you like to come here every other weekend, say, but if you feel like coming every weekend that's fine, or if one month you only want to come one weekend then that's fine, too? Or do you like things as they are?' And so on.

In other words, don't ask me, ask him. Treat him like a responsible boy who's growing up very quickly and he'll behave reasonably. Treat him like he's a spoiled brat and it should be no surprise that he responds in the same way.

READERS' SUGGESTIONS

Two households can be good

It would be most unfair of Simon to stop his son spending time at his son's mother's home. The experience of two markedly different home environments has probably had significant effects on their son, but these can be positive and negative. By the age of 10 their son has experienced most aspects (good and bad) of both parents and step-parents, and their differing home environments. At worst he is probably as confused and spoilt as he can be. However, he has also benefited from experiencing two different lifestyles.

NICHOLAS E GOUGH

Swindon, Wiltshire

Spend more time together

Simon's son has been very fortunate in that he has enjoyed the full benefit of the emotional support of both natural parents since divorce. The method by which your ex-wife and yourself have maintained these arrangements is most commendable and you should attempt to overcome this latest problem through co-operation with your ex. Failing this you should consider discussing the situation with your son, without being derogatory about your ex.

Such behavioural problems are common amongst children in split families. Regrettably they are often worse when the father spends shorter periods of contact with the child. You should certainly not consider backing out of your son's life. He is about to enter a crucial stage in his development.

JOHN BEALE

London

Hold on to your standards

Kids are miraculously flexible. The one thing they can't do is pretend one of their parents doesn't exist. My daughters (now 26 and 28) had a 50-50 upbringing, and can now value, criticise, and love both sides. What your son needs is for you to hold fast to your standards.

TONY CROFTS

Witney, Oxon

Next Week's Dilemma

Dear Virginia,

I divorced my husband 15 years ago because, although he was a marvellous father, he couldn't stop belittling me, criticising me and trying to make me his clone. I spent the time alone reasonably happily, had a couple of affairs, but recently re-met my husband who's moved to Spain after a heart attack. I suddenly realised that I was still in love with him. We've even discussed getting back together again, but he told me, very kindly, that he couldn't have sex any more. Now sex is very important to me. One orgasm and I'm happy for a week. Do you think I could get a younger lover? I think my husband would accept the situation, but I'd prefer to keep his existence to myself. Do you think this would be a good idea?

Yours sincerely, Alex

Anyone with advice quoted will be sent a bouquet from . Send letters and dilemmas to Virginia Ironside, `The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, fax 0171-293 2182; e-mail dilemmas@independent.co. uk, giving a postal address for a bouquet

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