This week's problem: Christine's clever, mature 17-year-old - and only - son aims to take a year off before A-levels. Since his speciality is Spanish, he wants to go to Peru. But Christine, having read how dangerous it is, is horrified. While Christine wants him to be independent, she's really worried about him going to a country fraught with danger. What should she do?

So the boy's clever and mature. But just how would his brilliant GCSE results help him were he to find himself lying alone, with dysentery, in a mountain village the other side of the world? And will an A in Spanish help him when he's surrounded by people speaking Quechua? As for maturity, he's only just 17. How mature can anyone be at 17? One thing I remember at that age was that I had no sense of mortality at all. Which is why kids of 17 can appear much braver and bolder than adults. While a three- year-old may totter blithely across a motorway that a 10-year-old would hesitate to cross, similarly a 17-year-old may long to travel to places which, at 19, he would shrink from visiting.

And anyway, it's one thing to be clever and mature in Ponders End, or even Eaton Square, but how clever or mature would he appear in Lima? Cleverness and maturity are qualities that are culturally defined. For instance, a 17-year-old Peruvian drug-dealer, savvy and streetwise and king of the backstreets in the city slums, could well find himself unmanned were he to try to use the same tactics to survive in a small rural village in the Cotswolds dominated by the Women's Institute and the parish council.

My anxiety is that Christine's son simply has no idea what he might be getting himself into. And were I Christine, I'd insist he spent at least a month travelling around Europe on his own before hiking off to Peru. It is very foreign, and the boy may have no idea how he might feel, hundreds of miles from home. Heaven knows, even the oldest of us can long for the comforts of home when far away.

After a month in Europe, he'll be that bit older and wiser. But if he does go, he must be cushioned with advice and, in return, cushion his mother with reassurances that he'll stick to the beaten track and never talk to strangers in the woods. He must carry a stat of his passport, sew his money into his clothes, hang on to his luggage for dear life, keep his credit card separate from everything else and, whenever he moves, let the British Embassy know where he is.

Christine's son must become mature enough to understand that when he gets to Peru he may meet some fierce descendants of mighty Incas as well as Paddington Bear's cuddly relations.

readers' responses

Having recently returned from Mexico and Guatemala after much hand-wringing from my own mother (and I'm 30), I can understand your anxieties.

Encourage him to go with someone else, register with the British Embassy when he arrives there and get him to promise to telephone every two weeks (reverse the charges if necessary).

I've found from my own travels that there seems to be a kindred spirit among backpackers in all countries. We all watch out for each other and I'm sure your son will meet and make great friends while abroad. An experience such as the one he is planning is a great character-building exercise and will help him in coping with what will be a much more demanding environment than humping his way across the Andes: the ordeal of exams and the success that we as a society expect from our children.

Steven Marks

Channel Islands

How much experience does Christine's son have of coping alone? How will he react when a plain-clothes policeman with a gun says his passport is not in order? Outside the major cities, English is rarely spoken. Many areas are remote; communication with home, or even with Lima, is difficult. Unfortunately, accidents do happen.

It would be stupid to allow a 17-year-old to wander alone around Peru and expect nothing to happen. Why doesn't Christine's son try something more structured? The big cities have good language schools where students are encouraged to live with families while they study Spanish. In this way, he gets to see Peruvian life and culture from the inside.

Dominique Young

London

I really think you should allow your son to go to Peru, despite your worries. I was 19 when I went alone to Brazil (with no Portuguese) for a visit of several months. I had an amazing experience.

If your son is as bright and mature as you say, then a trip such as this could only satisfy the need he feels for independence and make him more mature and experienced.

I have reservations, however, about a trip that widens one's view before taking A-levels. Going back would feel similar to climbing back into a small box. So perhaps you should agree to it - after the A-levels.

Student

London

next week's dilemma

Dear Virginia,

I'm 37, divorced and I live on my own. Three months ago, I met a really nice man of 40 and we sleep together a couple of times a week. I am very, very fond of him but have never told him I love him, though I feel things are heading that way. But I do feel he's one of my closest friends.

Last month, however, an old boyfriend came over from the States and stayed at my home. One night we got fairly drunk and slept together for old times' sake, naturally, we used a condom. He said he loved me and I said I loved him - which I do, but as friends. It was great and I didn't think anything of it. But unfortunately he wrote me rather an explicit and extremely loving and affectionate card, which my boyfriend happened to read and he went spare, saying I'd betrayed him, that he could never trust me again, and that it was all over.

I feel he's totally over-reacting - after all, my body doesn't belong to him - and yet I feel wretched. How can I make him understand that it was all no more than a loving expression of affection between two old friends? I know if the same had happened in reverse, I might have felt a bit disgruntled, but I wouldn't have made a great thing about it. I would have thought that at our age we could have got sex into perspective. Or did I do wrong?

Yours sincerely, Sian

Comments are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a Dynagrip 50 ballpen from Paper:Mate. Send relevant experiences or comments to me at the 'Independent', 1, Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London, E14 5DL; fax 0171 293-2182 by Tuesday morning. If you have any dilemmas of your own you would like to share, let me know.

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