Dear Virginia,

My son, who's 13, has been given a punishment at school for smoking in the lavatories with some friends. My son says there's no way he would smoke at school. I know he has had the odd cigarette in his room when I'm not around, which he admits to, but I trust what he says. I feel so angry about this – because I believe him – that I want to ring up his teacher and protest, but my son has begged me not to get involved. Do you think I should stand up for him?

Best wishes, Dilys

It's every mother's desire to act, whenever a child is under threat, like an enraged lioness. Her angry roars will be heard from here to Land's End, and although it's perfectly OK for her to chastise her child if he does wrong, woe betide anyone else who so much asks him, when he forgets, to say "Thank you".

However, not only are we not lionesses, and, thank God, have the capacity to behave like civilised human beings, but there comes a moment when the lioness act is completely inappropriate. It comes, I have to say, about now, when a child is beginning to start to be an adult.

Now if your son were to be assaulted in the street by a mentally deranged stranger, lioness is the mode to get into. But quite honestly, when a school gets it a little bit wrong, that's not the moment to get your claws out. OK, he wasn't actually smoking. And I'm sure, if you have a trusting relationship, he was probably telling you the literal truth. But it could be that he was smoking just before the teacher caught them, or that he might have been thinking of lighting up in a moment or two after the teacher caught them. The thing was, he was in a gang of kids who were smoking, and the whole group got punished, whether they were smoking or not. Punishing the group, even the innocent ones, is the school's way of saying that smoking is completely unacceptable and making it more difficult for the smokers who will, if a group of innocents is punished when they get out their fags, not be as sought-after when they're lighting up in the future.

Life is unfair. And one of the ways that children discover this is by being caught out in incidents like these. Your son's not going to be excluded. He's not getting a black mark that will blight all his future job opportunities. He's just got extra homework, or some kind of talking-to – and that, unfair or not, will be a reminder to him that it's a pretty dumb thing not only for him to smoke at school but to have anything to do with other kids when they're having a cig.

Far more sensible, rather than going in with all guns blazing, and embarrassing him and shaming him in front of all his friends and, indeed, the teachers, I'd say that now you think about it, that you'd prefer it not only if he didn't smoke when you weren't around, but that he didn't smoke at all.

Readers say...

Treat him as an adult

Your son was in the toilets with some friends who were smoking and they got caught. He agrees this was wrong, and his greatest concern is that you personally believe him when he says he was not smoking himself (which you clearly do). He is also adult enough to accept that the teacher who caught them would have been unlikely to be able to see exactly who was and who wasn't smoking, and therefore punished the whole group. He believes the matter should be left as it is. I think your son is absolutely spot-on in his response to the situation, and would congratulate him on his maturity. Show that you respect it by treating him as an adult – of course you are angry that he has been treated unfairly; sympathise with him for being punished, but discuss with him why he thinks his friends smoke, and whether he thinks that the school's chosen punishment (making the whole group suffer) is helpful or counter-productive in dealing with the problem.

Mum going in on his behalf, with all guns blazing, will just make him feel like a little boy again, and he doesn't deserve that.

Sarah Haywood

by email


You're so naïve

Sorry, but how can someone who is probably 30 years older than me be so naive?! I am 13, and I know people in my year who drink and smoke, but their parents are clueless. The reason is... the children lie! Funnily enough, your lovely little boy probably did smoke, but he lied to you.

Why do you think he doesn't want you to get involved so much? If there were eyewitnesses, they will be asked, and they will tell what they saw. Another thing is, if he knows he can get away with smoking at home, what is to stop him trying to smoke at school? At 13, he shouldn't be smoking, anyway! If you don't sort out his problem, it will most likely lead to others, including drinking and drugs. There are plenty of ways to help stop smoking, so there is no reason not to help him quit.

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Life isn't always fair

If your son says he doesn't want you to get involved, I'd be inclined to trust him. Sooner or later he will have to face the world without you and fight his own battles. He may well have endured a punishment while innocent, but life isn't always fair and we have to handle it as best we can. If the problem doesn't go away, think about having a friendly word with his teacher at the next parents' evening. In the longer term your son's desire to smoke looks like a much more serious problem, so maybe you should turn your attention to helping him with that.

Don Manley



Is he telling the truth?

My instinctive reaction was that Dilys' son wasn't telling her the whole truth. My daughter, now 18 and once a horrid teenager, said he definitely wasn't telling the truth. She said that at 13, even if she was caught, she'd have lied to me, as "that's what 13-year-olds do".

Whatever the truth of the matter, ringing the teacher when angry is not the way forward. I'd suggest waiting until she has calmed down, then if she must contact the school, treat it as something both she and they want to deal with together. There are lessons to be learned here for both of them. If Dilys goes in with guns blazing, she and her son will lose the respect of the school and it could affect his future there.

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