Some old friends have asked if they can come and stay the weekend with us in Kent. They’ve stayed before, with their son, and it was good fun, but that was four years ago, when our daughters were small and their son was only 14. What’s changed is that their son’s just got out of prison for watching child porn, though there’s no history of him having committed any offence in person, and our daughters are now nine, 13 and 14. I feel extremely nervous about letting this boy into the house. What can I say to them?
Yours sincerely, Nell
I’m always astonished at how our obsession with good manners, and our reluctance to cause offence, can often override basic safety issues. I can’t count the times I’ve accepted a lift in a car in which the driver has clearly been drunk, just because I didn’t like to upset them by refusing a ride. Abroad, I’ve been very nervous about asking taxi drivers to slow down on precarious mountain roads – just because I feel it’s their car, they’re local, and how dare I upset them by imposing my foreign will?
I even remember, to my shame, watching a small child putting broken glass into his mouth but, rather than offend the parents by pulling his hand away, simply politely pointing out the fact to them several seconds later. Luckily, they leapt into action before it was too late. When they asked me later why I hadn’t acted myself, I could only offer the feeble reply: “I didn’t like to, as it was your child.” Mad.
But you, Nell, are in exactly the same situation regarding this boy – though personally I’d call him a man. Rather than risk damaging your friendship or appearing unwelcoming to your friends, you’re prepared not only to risk your daughters being abused or, at the very least, being looked at rather oddly by this bloke, but you’re also prepared to suffer an entire weekend of walking on eggshells, making sure that your daughters are never out of your sight, setting up all kinds of traps and locks to prevent this young man sauntering into one of your daughters’ bedrooms, and generally risking nervous breakdowns just by imagining the worst that could happen.
Be frank with your friends. Tell them that you’re understandably incredibly nervous about letting their son be around such young girls. Explain that if they want to come without him, you’d be delighted to see them. That if they all wanted to come as a family when your daughters were in their early twenties you’d be thrilled. If your friends wanted to come over with their son when the girls weren’t around, you’d welcome him into the house. Explain that although you know the chances are incredibly slight that their son would actually do anything, you’re plagued by an irrational fear which you can’t get rid of. (I don’t see why you shouldn’t pretend that your fear is irrational even though it is, in most people’s books, perfectly rational.)
Whenever I’ve argued with people who know about paedophiles that surely looking at images online is miles and miles away from wanting to do something about it – in rather the same way that sexual fantasies are one thing, and acting them out another matter completely – they have all said that they suspect that all men who enjoy looking at child porn would, deep down, like to carry out their fantasies in real life. Who knows who is right? But in this case, to find out just isn’t worth the risk.
Video: Theresa May announces new plans to stop online child abuse in July
It is irresponsible to let him stay
The parents of this young man are either in denial or being seriously irresponsible even to contemplate bringing him into such close proximity to young children, given his conviction and sentence. I have little knowledge of the probation system or the treatment of former sex offenders but I imagine that he would, for a while at least, be on some sort of register limiting his contact with children.
Given what we all know of the dangers and serious damage that could result, you have every reason to be nervous. I would politely point out to them that in the circumstances it is in no one’s interest that the visit should take place. In fact, I think that you could be judged as irresponsible if it did.
John Rutherford, by email
They need your support, too
Poor you, poor son, poor parents. The son may have had help in prison to ensure he’s not tempted to watch child porn in future. If you didn’t have children, I’d advise you to welcome them to stay with you and your partner. But you do. So I think that you should talk frankly with your friends and their son, either by phone, or in person if it’s possible for you to visit them. You should explain that the son probably doesn’t pose any greater threat to your daughters than many other people they’ll meet, but that you don’t feel that you can take that chance until your daughters are older. Cruel, but I hope they’ll understand that you’re protecting your family and not condemning the son.
Sally, by email
Teach your children a life lesson
As the mother of a prisoner, I know how much I value those friends who still support me. Perhaps you could have an honest, yet sensitive discussion about how you can all work together to ensure that your children will feel and be safe. They are old enough to understand and learn some coping strategies. Agree that your children don’t spend time alone with him and let them know that if they are at all worried or uncomfortable they should tell you immediately. It seems to me that if you can teach your children to manage this risk, they will learn an important life lesson. And the boy, too, may benefit from being accepted into another family.
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Next week's dilemma
Every year, around about the beginning of October, I feel unaccountably sad and depressed. I’ve looked back in my diaries and see that it’s always been around the time when the clocks change in the autumn that I have either felt suicidal – I once had a breakdown at that time – or have been very ill, physically. I’m starting to wonder if I suffer from SAD syndrome, that condition that makes you feel unhappy as it get darker. But I feel it’s odd, if it is, that it lasts only three weeks or so. Do you think it’s worth buying one of those lamps just to see if it is? They’re so expensive.
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