Would you begrudge your son a start in life?

DILEMMAS
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This week's problem: Janet's son, Tom, has just arrived back from university in debt, proposing he either takes out a student loan or borrows from his parents. She would prefer to increase his allowance because he is both a responsible lad, and they could easily afford it, but his father, a self-made man, thinks Tom should tough it out with part-time jobs. Should Tom be put under stress just for the good of his soul?

Is Tom's father living in the past? Worse, is he living in his own past? Jealous of what he sees as his son's "cushy" lifestyle, it sometimes seems as if the cold withdrawal of comforts for his children is a bitter man's way of meting out punishment for his own unhappy privations at that age.

It is not even as if Tom's dad's past reflects today's scene at all. Get a job? Easy to say. Thirty-odd years ago you could walk into any caff, any building site, any cinema, and jobs just lay on the ground like litter. Today grown men with degrees and experience find it hard to find employment. And even if Tom did get a job, what would be the point, unless his parents were completely on their uppers financially or he actually savoured the prospect?

Half the benefit of going to university or college may be to spend time boning up on facts, delivering essays and getting a degree; but it's equally important to talk for hours to other bright people, to enter juggling competitions, play in your own band, fall in and out of love and, crucially, build up some kind of network of friends who may support you in the employment market in the future.

There is another difference between students today and those of 30 years ago: then, all students, rich or poor, had grants, and some could - albeit barely - actually eke out an existence on them. Does Tom's father think this is still the case? Today there is no way any student could possibly live on a government grant, and getting into debt is, wickedly, part of the student existence laid down by this government.

Tom's parents are already contributing, but now he needs more. Since there is hardly any risk that as a student Tom is ever going to be living the financial life of Riley, Janet and her husband should increase his allowance by a small amount.

And if he gets further into debt? A student rather than a family loan is preferable if only for his own sake. Janet could always pay it back at some later stage (though she should not tell Tom this now); but the hassle of the forms and the bank managers would be useful experience.

I can just hear Tom's father ranting away. "But in India children of 10 earn their living, bah gum! And when I were his age, I dug coal with my fingernails and it never did me no harm!" Thankfully, Tom does not live in India; nor does he live in the world of 30 years ago.

His parents are rich, and they cannot pretend to be poor just to set a crazy example inspired by some past resentment harboured by Tom's dad. Otherwise, the only example they will set is one of meanness.

I have just retired from being a tutor on a four-year degree course and was responsible for administering a small hardship fund. I know very well how much parents hate the idea of their children taking on debt. Students, in their turn, hate asking their parents for extra money. But part-time and holiday jobs are harder to come by and students at University College London, for example, are not supposed to have jobs in term-time anyway (although tutors tend to turn a blind eye if it does not interfere with their academic work). When too much outside work is being done and academic work is suffering I have often had to point out that they are jeopardising their degree and defeating the whole object of coming to university.

Celia Shaw

Croydon

How Janet's dilemma struck a chord in me. I was at the receiving end of a similar situation 20 years ago. My parents always steadfastly refused to contribute financially in any way to my education - even though my father was in a well-paid managerial job and my mother was earning too - all in the name of "character training" and "let her see what a tough world it is out there". On returning from my first term at university with an overdraft (my grant from the local education authority had not even met the cost of my room) I saw that my parents had treated themselves to a brand new three-piece Parker Knoll suite. The message was clear: their comfort was more important than getting their daughter off to a good start in life.

How this alienated me from them and created a gulf in what I wished could have been a warm, communicative and supportive relationship! And how false not to help your child when you had all the means at your disposal to do so. The result for me was that I dropped out of university, trained as a secretary and got a well-paid job abroad, vowing never again to depend on my parents for anything.

Catherine de Lara, Norfolk

What did Janet and her husband deny Tom when he was young? Not take him on holidays, give him baked beans on toast whilst they had coq au vin? Come on, Janet, one of the joys in life is giving, especially to one's children. Make your son feel good and you will feel good as well. Being at university is an interim period for young people, not living at home but not yet away. He will still feel part of the family and if nothing else, you will reap the rewards later. You really will. And don't offer it as a loan, give it to him.

Rosealeen Lawrence

Berkshire

As a fourth year student with an £800 overdraft and three student loans, I feel I am in a reasonable position to comment on Janet's dilemma.

Taking out student loans nowadays is simply part of student life. It is a necessity for many students, and Tom would more than likely be in the majority if his parents asked him to do this. Tom is quite old enough to manage his own money and his parents should not feel guilty if he has to deprive himself of a few homely comforts now and then.

There is of course another option. Tom could take out a student loan, deposit it in a high interest account, and use the (gross) interest which he would receive to help him pay back the money which his parents had given him.

However, I am inclined to agree with Tom's father. I have personally found vacation jobs on the whole to be invaluable experiences (despite the boredom). A taste of the world outside academia is not only a refreshing change, but also a way to enhance future employment prospects. My advice is this: let Tom experience the potential monotony of employment, so that he will savour his time at university and realise why he needs to study.

Sarah Gratton

University of Nottingham

Dear Virginia,

I am shaking as I write this because I have just tackled my husband about a collection of pornographic magazines hidden underneath our bed. First he tried to pretend they weren't his - though whose they were I can't imagine! - and then he got aggressive and said, what if they were his? What business was it of mine, he asked. Then he said they were something that all normal men liked, and that I was just a prude. But I can't believe "all normal men" like them. These magazines contained not just ordinary pin-ups but photos of couples having sex as well and pictures of women in humiliating positions that made me feel quite sick. I thought we had a marvellous sex-life, but now I can't bear him to touch me. He's getting angry and says I'm making a mountain out of a molehill. I wish I could find out why he likes them and why he's so devious, and if it's true that all men like them. And anyway, how do their wives cope with such a horrible habit? Should I insist he gets rid of them?

Yours sincerely, Sandra

All comments are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a Dynagrip 50 ballpen from Paper:Mate. Please send your comments and suggestions to me at the Features Department, The Independent, One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL; fax 0171-293 2182, by Tuesday morning. And if you have any dilemmas of your own that you would like to share with readers, let me know.

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