Dilemmas: Sympathy for those sulky stepchildren

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The kids are bored. They hang around the house whining about how deadly life is in Bridget's home, and she's in despair. They're her sulky stepchildren, who won't even take an interest in her new-born baby. The nine-year-old girl flirts with her father, and the 10-year-old boy sulks.

There's no question of their not coming because their father insists on the visits being maintained. But, having tried to be friends and failed, Bridget is wondering if she shouldn't just flee the house every weekend.

No one had very much sympathy for Bridget. Kay Vincent of Carmarthen rather summed up the general feeling when she described her as 'a selfish, immature, insensitive woman who is prepared to sacrifice her husband's relationship with his children because she is unable to come to terms with their needs and isn't able to make two children of only nine and 10 happy in her own home . . . She has no right to expect that her stepchildren should like her. She is not their choice. They would undoubtedly prefer to be living with their mum and dad.'

And Katharine Driscoll from Maiden Bradley, Wilts, echoed her thoughts: 'Don't expect the children to be interested in your baby who has supplanted them . . . Be generous and sensitive on their behalf rather than yours. You have a family unit, which they haven't'

And there was a feeling, too, that Bridget was taking terribly personally what was only normal kids' behaviour at that age. When her own daughter grew up to be nine and 10, she'd realise that most children mooch around the house looking at their watches, be they stepchildren or not.

'You could have been describing my grandchildren,' wrote an anonymous reader from Worcestershire. 'When they visit, they haven't enjoyed the car journey. They didn't want to come. They switch on the TV without asking permission or slump in a chair and sleep. They don't join in the conversation. I want to see my daughter and son-in-law and the children simply wait to go home because they are bored in my flat.'

However, is it their fault that they're bored? Children may be bored 50 per cent of the time, but not all the time, surely. Might it not be up to Bridget or their father to make sure they're entertained?

'When Bridget says she's organised treats for the children, I wonder what form they take?' asked Mrs A Bairstow of Grimsby. 'Trips to a pizza place, or the cinema, where everyone just sits looking at yet another screen, or at each other over a table, eating silently?'

Picnics, trips to the sea, kite-flying, boardgames, cards . . . it's these sorts of activities, she says, that bind families together and mean most to children of that age, 'where they have the attention of parents in a participating way and can make memories for their later years by making friends with each other instead of enemies.'

Madeleine Morey of Chard in Somerset was also critical of Bridget. 'Her use of the word 'flirt' when describing the daughter's relationship with her father suggests that there is a fair degree of jealousy on Bridget's part, too. I wonder exactly what sort of behaviour Bridget describes as 'flirting'? Most little girls 'flirt' with their fathers; they copy their mothers - or stepmothers]

'And I notice Bridget refers to their weekly 'visits'. So long as she continues to think of 'visits' from her stepchildren, they will remain 'visitors'. If she and the children's father could think more in terms of providing a second home, complete with resident toys, books, nightclothes, and so on, perhaps some of the problems might begin to resolve themselves.'

But Julia May of Bath, said that since the children probably don't view Bridget as a stepmother, simply dad's second wife, she should 'relieve herself from the responsibility of trying to make a family unit out of something which isn't]

'The children are probably bored out of their brains because at nine and 10 they would rather be with their own friends or in their own environment . . .'

And whatever the children's father said, Ann B of Cambridge thought it unnatural that the children should come every weekend. 'It can't be good for either Bridget or the children. Having them every other weekend would allow Bridget some breathing space - time to enjoy her own family. And the children would also benefit from spending weekends at their main home - their mother's. It seems unnatural to only spend school days at home and not be able to experience that complete relaxation that can only happen at weekends in your own home.'

But not a single correspondent suggested what I would recommend, that the children be asked their views on the situation. If Bridget and her husband could sit down with them, admit that they're aware the children feel bored much of the time, and ask if they would prefer to come less often, but, when they did, to have the weekends focused more on family outings - or trips out with their dad alone now and again - then the children would feel more powerful and less angry.

Boredom is usually a form of aggression turned inward. Making the kids feel less like pawns in a family game and more as if their real needs and desires were being taken into account could result in dramatic changes of attitude all round. Particularly, of course, if the children knew that the initiative for this new democratic system came from none other than the wicked stepmother herself.

Should we go on holiday with them?

Dear Virginia,

LIKE the parents of a friend of our daughter, we have left it late to book a holiday, and suddenly they have suggested that we share a gite in France together. The problem is, we don't know these people very well. Our seven-year-old daughter gets on with theirs, but they also have a 12-year-old son, and we are taking my husband's 17-year-old daughter from his first marriage. My husband is rather dubious. We like our life rather organised and feel they are rather more laid-back. My husband said it would be fine as long as he didn't have to spend too much time on his own with the father, who's good-hearted but a bit of a bore. Do any other readers have experiences of going on holiday with virtual strangers?

Yours sincerely, Yvonne

Please send comments to me at Features, the 'Independent', 40 City Road, London EC1Y 2DB; fax 071-956-1739, by Tuesday morning. Those whose suggestions are quoted will be sent a Dynagrip 50 balllpen from Paper:Mate. If you have a dilemma that you would like to share with readers, let me know.

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