Virginia Ironsides: Dilemmas

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Dear Virginia, All year, we've been promising our eight-year-old twins laptops for Christmas. But money is really tight, as I've been made redundant, and we may have to sell the house. I feel terrible about letting them down, particularly as they apparently both came back from school having written essays about 'What we want for Christmas', and it's clear they're each expecting a laptop. How can I break it to them without feeling I'm betraying them? Yours sincerely, Suzette

Of course you're not betraying them! One day, your children will have to learn that, in exceptional circumstances, promises can't always be kept, and they're certainly old enough to understand your worries about money. No doubt they'd also be pleased to think they were being made part of the family cuts rather than being pampered and showered with expensive gifts while the rest of the family made do with beans and paper chains as presents.

The other thing that makes it all far less hurtful is the fact that there are two of them. An only child might feel upset, because they always take so much responsibility on themselves for anything that happens to them, but since neither of your twins is getting a laptop, no one can feel favoured above the other.

You could get one second-hand laptop for them to share. Or you could let them use your computer if you have one (you write by email) for half an hour every day if that would help things.

I doubt whether they'll be terribly disappointed, even though they've written about their wishes. These essays are often written because they're convenient, not because they're true. When he was small, my son once wrote a poem about me at school saying how much he liked chicken and rice, and I was forever making it after that until he sheepishly told me one day that he'd written it only because it rhymed with "nice". He didn't actually like it at all.

I think you're probably imagining their suffering as a substitute for suffering yourself at the potential loss of your house, and the general anxiety that being made redundant brings. Sometimes, it's much easier to get upset on behalf of someone else, rather than on behalf of yourself. Who knows, maybe you're also being reminded of being let down yourself as a child, and you've subconsciously pinpointed the "no laptop" situation as a kind of focus for all your unhappiness, both past and present. Again, I remember letting my son down once – we turned back on our way to Whipsnade because I remembered he had a music lesson – and I can never go past the wretched place even to this day without weeping with guilt. My son has no memory of the incident at all.

Don't worry. Your children will easily cope without laptops. It could be that lots of people in their school have laptops but I'm sure lots don't. It's not as if you're depriving them of food or shoes. And as so many will be feeling the pinch this Christmas, there's no question of their feeling alone and especially deprived.

You can still have fun

I'm sorry to read that you have lost your job, especially over Christmas, when it is so much harder to deal with. You should sit down with your twins and explain that circumstances are difficult at the moment and that you must all work together to get through to the better times ahead. Do this before Christmas, so that come the day, they have had time to adjust their expectations.

It is important for any child to understand the need to spend money wisely and the misery that comes from not doing this. But fear not, you can together plan lots of other inexpensive ways that Christmas can be fun. The greatest gift you can give them over Christmas is happy quality time with you, so shake off the consumer society nonsense about having the latest and greatest and remember that true wealth is your child's smile and a mother's love.

Mark Hamilton

By email

They're too young

First, let me say that I really hope you find another job soon. However, I cannot help but be stunned that you have promised your children a laptop – each! One laptop would be more than fair for them to share, and even then, I would say that is more than they should be getting. What on earth do eight-year-olds need a laptop for?

There are so many amazing things you can do with your children that don't require spending in excess of £300 on each on them. Lego, painting, cooking, crafts are a thousand times more appropriate for eight-year-olds who have a ready playmate by the fact that they are twins. Make salt dough and paint it, have a walk, collect leaves and bits of wood and make things, dress up, build a fort/camp/ shop etc under a table, but for the sake of your bank balance and their childhood, don't get them laptops!

Explain that because you don't have a job there is less money to go round and that you have rethought the idea of laptops. Get them to save for one if that is what they really want. They will be more likely really to look after it if they bought it with hard-saved money. Have Christmas as a family and treasure the time that your children are still children.



Keep your promise

Seriously, a computer today isn't just a toy. It is a valuable aid to education. It helps with reading, with logic, with manual dexterity and in many other ways. It is also expected of their peers that they should have one. Would you want your children to be made to feel different, inferior, even, because their parents cannot afford to buy them a computer each? Having twins is expensive. It is hard on you. I suppose it's no use expecting them to share?

Try your local supermarket. They have the best deals these days, sometimes with a small laptop for under £200. I'd make every effort to do this for your children.

There is also the matter of the promise. It is never a good idea to promise your children something and then fail to fulfil that promise.



Next week's dilemma...

Dear Virginia, My husband was married before and had two children. He and his wife get on well, and she's always pleasant to me. I've just had a new baby and she's married again and she's asked us all over for Christmas Day. I'm starting to dread it. I just don't know how I can cope. I feel I will be at such a disadvantage – I'm much younger than her, and feel I'm just tagging along. I can't sleep at night. I'm tempted to say I have to look after the baby and stay away. What shall I do? Yours sincerely, Barbara

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