Should she ring parents in advance? Should she go to speech day wearing a hat covered with pink and purple ostrich feathers? Should she make a pass at the father of one of the boy's friends when she's drunk? Should she insist her sons wear shorts when they're 15? The answers are: "No," "No," and "No".
Because if there's one thing a child hates, it's to be thought different. A friend of mine refused to have television when his children were young, and not only do they heap blame on him every time he sees them now they're adults, but they also spent most of their childhoods sneaking off to friends' houses to watch television there.
It's fine to have rules in your own house that might be a little bit out of the norm. But you simply can't extend these rules dictatorially when they're entrusted to someone else's care.
Penny might insist on the boys having a bath every night, for instance. But if they were to visit a house in India, say, which only had a bucket of cold water to pour over their heads once a week, she surely wouldn't insist they stuck out for baths.
When we go to other people's houses we have to go along with their ways of life, and the sooner her boys understand that, the better guests and members of society they'll be in the future.
Now if it were a matter of the boys visiting a violent family, rather than watching a violent film in the presence of a kind and caring family, that would be different. Penny wouldn't dream of ringing up the family to ask them to be on best behaviour in front of her sons. No, she would simply refuse the invitation.
Children who are brought up in physically sheltered environments, it now turns out, get ill. Their kitchens are so germ-free, their food so immaculate (correct sell-by date, never eaten after falling on the floor) that they don't build up anti-bodies against common diseases. Similarly, children who are brought up in completely sheltered emotional environments get ill in their own way.
Violence is part of life. It is never, ever, going to be eradicated from the human spirit. Violence on television and on the screens is never going to be eradicated. Violence is something children have to be prepared for, and how better to begin than when cosying up in bed with a couple of middle-class schoolboys sipping mugs of hot milk before bed.
How protective can Penny be, anyway? Can she stop her boys from seeing a fight in the street? Would she refuse to let them see King Lear, with the Duke of Gloucester's eyes gouged out, or Edward II, with a red-hot poker shoved up a man's bottom? Or would she say those plays were "different" because they're art?
Penny has to start allowing her children to make up their own minds about things, because that's the role of a good parent. She needn't lower her standards in her own home, but she has to appreciate that other people have different standards. So do her boys.
I think the question that Penny has to ask herself is: which would she prefer? That her children are occasionally exposed to violent programmes in the comfort of secure homes? Or that they spend chunks of their lives feeling like they're from Mars, weird children who are shunned in the playground because they just don't have the language or familiarity with a late television culture to join in?
In allowing her children to stay at their friends' houses, Penny must accept that different parents apply different standards. If she rings the parents to explain the situation, it will almost certainly be taken as a criticism of their parenting, and with reason. Presumably, when the boys' friends come to stay at Penny's house, Penny's rules apply. If she is unhappy about any aspect of the sleepovers, she must simply say: "No."
But is this the entire issue? Eight and nine are ages when children take their first small steps towards independence; up to this age parents control almost every aspect of their children's lives.
Perhaps Penny is, in part, resistant to these first steps.
You're in danger of being over-protective, smothering and even an embarrassment to your offspring. Some surreptitious enjoyment of "unsuitable" television in someone else's house is little different from indulging in a few sweets after they've cleaned their teeth - They're forbidden thrills but will not lead to moral degeneracy or terminal tooth decay!
By all means, when it's your turn to have their friends on return visits, follow your custom of no TV after 9pm, but allow for something positive in its place - stories, a gentle game or two...
Children who grow up in caring families within a clear moral framework are not going to be corrupted by "unsuitable" television.
Lifestyle will be guidance
Your boys will already have heard all about the gruesome bits in the playground and much more besides. Probably they are glad to have some occasional experience of what most of their friends take for granted.
As a young mother I banned Enid Blyton and horror comics. I think I was wrong about Enid Blyton and the horror comics I found under their beds in a spring-clean.
Do listen to your children, however tired or busy you are.
So keep to your rules as long as you can in your house. You can't keep them out of circulation.
They'll make their own decisions. In time, the way you live will be their guidance.
Next Week's Dilemma
I have a gay male partner and for 20 years we've been close friends with a woman whose divorce left her with deep wounds. We've been away on holidays with her, as well as sharing life's joys and sorrows. She's always longed for a new partner and now she's found a new man, and we met him and liked him. But she's now said that she has a separate life from us and that the chances of seeing her again are going to be rare. We are terribly, terribly hurt. We suspect her partner may be homophobic. Should we confront her with our feelings or accept that at the end of the day heterosexual people are all homophobic under the skin? Yours sincerely,
Anyone with advice quoted will be sent a bouquet from . Send letters and dilemmas to Virginia Ironside at `The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, fax 0171-293 2182; or e-mail dilemmas@ Independent.co.uk, giving a postal address so that we can send a bouquetReuse content