Daphne's husband has asked his mother along for a few days of a fortnight's holiday out of a sense of duty. Daphne finds her inane wittering washes over her as she's good at heart, but her husband is constantly irritated, behaves rudely and makes faces behind her back. Daphne finds the situation stressful. What can she do? We have all heard stories of people's ghastly mothers or fathers and when we've met them have found them to be unfailingly sweet, courteous, intelligent and charming. What we, and Daphne, fail to take into account is how they behaved as parents. One friend of mine was beaten mercilessly with a leather strap and locked into cupboards by her alcoholic mother. She hates her.And yet out of a curious sense of duty, she continues to see much of her, putting herself under constant stress.

How, for instance, could one ever forgive a mother who had sent one away to boarding school, miserable and trying to hide one's tears? Or a father who had been totally disinterested in us as children? What is more interesting is why adult children find it so difficult to express their hatred against their parents and often try to hide it from both their parents and themselves, by keeping in constant touch, often under the guise of that frightful word, "duty".

But what duty do we have to bad parents? And yet there is an absolute taboo about not loving one's parents, however they behaved in the past. Honouring thy father and mother is, after all, enshrined in the 10 commandments. I recently saw a boy on a television show who had, when his mother was away, sold her car and gone on a spree with his girlfriend with the money.

When she returned he said he did it because he hated her. She sank into deep depression and ended up in hospital. Even when he revealed that he hated his mother because she married a man who loathed his step-children so much that he built a separate house in the garden for them to live in, he stopped them ever seeing their mother alone, and insisted they went away to school, the audience was united in their condemnation of his actions. "But she was his mother!" they shrieked. "How could he?"

His attitude seemed to me utterly understandable. This woman had betrayed him, and he wanted to hurt her as much as possible in return. Not very charitable, perhaps, but at least he was open and didn't kow-tow to her for the rest of his life out of a sense of duty. Interestingly, since the incident, he and his mother were getting on far better than they ever had done before.

If Daphne's husband could be persuaded to talk about his childhood and perhaps get in touch with some of the anger he feels about his mother, and then, acknowledging it, put it in the past where it belongs, he might be persuaded to treat her in a more civilised way. If he's unable to do this, he should see far less of his mother and certainly not ask her on holiday. Or perhaps the woman treats him like a child, even though he's an adult. No wonder he behaves like one in response.

Parents don't have a right to love and respect. They have to earn it like everyone else. Simply giving a child enough to eat and enough clothes to cover him is not enough. Yes, we certainly owe a duty to our parents if they suddenly become old and cranky due to age and illness. But not if they have behaved unfeelingly to us in the past. This, I suspect, is Daphne's husband's problem and perhaps Daphne could be a bit more charitable to his moods while, without criticising him, persuading him that these holiday visits are pointless unless he can resolve his rage and behave in a more civil manner.

readers' replies

There are many milestones on the road to maturity. Some of us think we've reached adulthood when we've completed our education, or married or taken out our first mortgage. All these are useful markers on our journey, but learning how to behave as adults towards our own parents seems to be one of the most difficult milestones to achieve.

My sisters and I spent many young adult years complaining about our mother and comparing examples of her irritating behaviour. Of course, this attitude was obvious in the way we spoke to her and treated her.

Eventually, moaning with my sisters became a bit of a bore and I understood that treating my mother badly said much more about me than it did about her. Finally, I made the decision to treat her with the same courtesy I would show to anyone else.

Looking back on it, this seems like an important milestone; the point when I became an adult, separate and more or less equal to my mother. I imagine she had already seen me this way for years, but it wasn't really true until I could see myself this way.

Daphne's husband is behaving like an adolescent and needs some encouragement to take the next step on that road to maturity.

Pricilla Plocki, London W13

Daphne's husband is acting like a petulant brat. The most likely reason for his rudeness to her is that he's embarrassed by her and finds her immensely irritating. His disrespect for her is his way of dissociating himself from her, telling the world that she may be his mother but she makes him cringe.

This is the way spoilt children behave when their parents irk them; throwing tantrums because Daddy wouldn't buy them a BMW for their 18th. I'm sure he wouldn't dream of being so ill mannered and churlish towards colleagues that annoy him. He's lucky to have a mother whose worst crime is inane wittering.

Leyla Sanai, Glasgow

Duty should not be forgotten when it comes to the elderly, who need help and to feel loved, but should be kept within bounds. I personally feel that sacrificing several days of a fortnight's holiday is too much, but they may be stuck with it this year. Could they go on a holiday next year which the mother would not enjoy and, in advance, arrange a special treat to compensate?

Margaret Brown, Sevenoaks

next week's dilemma

Dear Virginia, I have a small spare room in my flat and because I am very lonely I have considered letting it out to a lodger. We'd have to share the kitchen and bathroom.

I'd be really interested to know what the pros and cons and are, and whether there are any pitfalls. Do you or your readers think it would be a good idea?

- Connie

Letters are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a bouquet from Interflora.

Send comments and suggestions to Virginia Ironside, Features Department, The Independent, 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL (fax: 0171-293 2182), by Tuesday morning. If you have a dilemma of your own that you would like to share, please let me know.

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