Since most mothers, whether they work or not, feel insecure about their abilities to be good mums, it was no surprise to find that Ursula, who had left her five- year-old son, Paul, with a friend over Easter felt guilty and anxious when it turned out he was unhappy.

She thought that her friend's home had a happy feel - it was a big, rumbustious family - but Paul claimed to have been slapped by her friend and temporarily locked in a cupboard by the elder boy when her friend was out.

Like many working mothers, Ursula was in a quandary. It seemed obvious her friend was a passionate woman, not unkind but highly strung. To make matters more complicated, the woman clearly adored Paul and wanted to help out by having him after school. This would save on expensive baby-minding costs. And, emotionally, Ursula was getting no support from Paul's father, who thought his son was over- reacting and should learn to get on in a big family.

But it seemed there was no contest. Most people thought that Ursula should make other arrangements for Paul. And immediately.

Mrs Angie Chapman of Hayes, Kent, thought Ursula and her friend should sit down and work something out 'as if the friend were a childminder'. They should 'agree a code of discipline that Paul understands and with which both women feel comfortable'.

But, unfortunately, the friend is not a childminder. She is a friend who is doing Ursula a favour. Ursula is under a great obligation to her; she can hardly sit down and make conditions.

Eileen O'Hara pointed out that if you pay, you at least have some say about how your child is cared for. 'With friends everything becomes blurred where kids are concerned.'

Another working mum, Margaret Pretty, of Kingston upon Thames, wrote: 'Working parents should not compromise over the quality of child care and certainly not ignore alarm signals . . . removing a child from this sort of 'care' would seem as obvious and instinctive as pulling him away from an open fire.'

The problem was partly that Ursula's instincts about the family could well be right. Perhaps, in its own terms, it is happy and open. But if the atmosphere at Paul's own home is quite different, if just the tiniest raised voice means disapproval, then 'rumbustiousness' can be terrifying.

I know several happy families in which everyone screams at each other; and despite an intellectual knowledge that everything is fine, I usually come away with a headache. Raised voices still frighten me as much as they frighten Paul.

As Nicholas Gough, of Malmesbury, Wiltshire, put it: 'Ursula's friend's home may indeed have a 'happy feel' and the family may be 'rumbustious', but Paul may not perceive it in this way. If Paul is spending more time in tears, then there is something painful going on inside the boy.'

In other words, it doesn't matter whether the family works marvellously in its own right; if Paul is unhappy in it, then pull him out.

But Anne Crocker, of Bath, pointed out that perhaps the undercurrents were more sinister: 'The families are 'mismatched in fecundity and style, and the two mothers are 'chalk and cheese' in temperament . . . there may be skeletons in the understairs cupboard of what seems to be a 'happy, rumbustious family'. How else could the bigger bully-boy have such sway? And whom did this slap-happy, all-embracing Earth Mother leave in charge when she was out for a considerable period?

'Paul already 'copes in a big family',' Ms Crocker argued, 'simply by being at school, where the hurly- burly of classroom and playground is enough to cause distress to many five-year-olds.'

Certainly, I've never been able to understand the thinking of some parents who take the line that 'it's no bad thing to have him hurt a bit. He's got to learn it's tough out there.' I've always felt that life is quite tough enough to make its sharp points clear round every corner, without parents adding to the misery by standing by and doing nothing on the rare occasions they can help to ease the pain.

'In my experience the testimony of very young children is reliable,' wrote Margaret Pretty. And even if his reports are exaggerated, it makes no difference. He is not happy. It is the duty of parents to do their best to hear children's feelings, and certainly not let money and convenience cloud the issue about their children's welfare.

Dear Virginia

Yours sincerely, Desmond

ALTHOUGH I am barely out of university, my older half-brother has asked me to give advice to his 15-year- old son - who apparently worships the ground I walk on - as to how he can pass his GCSEs this summer.

I find this tricky as I feel I know too well the joys of skiving off revision. At the same time, if a word from me would help, then I feel I have to oblige, as I like my half-nephew, or whatever you call him, Tom. But I feel I can't quite come the heavy-handed grown-up with him. Does anyone have any ideas of how to handle this, and also any ideas on exam-passing? I only scraped through my finals as it is.

Send your comments to me at the features department, the Independent, 40 City Road, London EC1Y 2DB; fax 071-956 1739, by Tuesday morning. And if you have any dilemmas, let me know. I will report back next Thursday.

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