My son, who is seven, has been for a few sleepovers with another boy, his best friend – but I’ve been horrified to hear what’s gone on while he’s there. The parents have argued violently, the boys have been left alone – admittedly only for half an hour – with no one in the house. They’re allowed to use matches to build fires in the garden. There’s more. The trouble is my son really loves going round there. I’m torn between encouraging his independence and preventing something I feel might end in disaster.
In principle I’m extremely keen for children to be allowed as much freedom as possible. I think they’re a lot more resourceful and clued-up about most dangers than parents, will allow. But it’s one thing to let them climb trees while you’re keeping an eye on them from the window, and crossing your fingers while you spot them mucking around on the river, and another just to let them run wild. Let them think they’re running wild, certainly, but be there, even if you’re eyeing them through a telescope from a distant hill.
We have a rather romantic view of children’s lives in the past – getting up to all kinds of adventures and scrapes. Tousled Just Williams who, having caused havoc to nests of furious swans, built dens in forests, cooked entire breakfasts on their own, scrumped apples, and been given serious cuffings by village bobbies, appeared to be able to cope and, indeed, even hold down jobs. But the past was different. There weren’t nearly so many cars, for a start. And in the past, children would often go out on their own in a large group. There’d be older boys to watch out for the younger ones and someone always around to rush for help from a familiar neighbour. And most of these children would have been brought up from day one with independence and resourcefulness instilled in them. And even then, of course, there were terrible accidents.
But like most modern kids your son presumably lives, since you sound so responsible, a somewhat sheltered life. And to expect him to be able to cope with these pretty grown-up situations does sound a bit much to ask.
I’m slightly worried, too, by the fact that you know all this. Presumably it’s your son who’s told you. Could it be that he’s confided in you precisely because he does feel a bit nervous about all these goings-on, even though he would never admit it?
I’d make clear to the mother that she must be around all the time when your son visits, keeping an eye on them. And if you don’t trust her or can’t face it, ask her son over to yours in future. I bet he’d love the stability of a non-chaotic home. And it doesn’t mean the kids can’t light fires – or some equivalent. Just that you’ll be there hiding behind a door with a metaphorical bucket of water in case things get out of hand.
Change the venue
When my twin daughters, now grown-up, were in junior school, they had a friend who had a difficult home life. They went to play there occasionally, but when the sleepover stage appeared, I was nervous. The child’s mother was kind but often absent. I suggested that her daughter may like to sleep over at our house. It worked; she had a break, the girls enjoyed themselves. It would be a shame to prevent your son from enjoying his friend’s company – just change the venue.
Katherine Merton Jones, by email
My two sons presented me with the very same conundrum; they enjoyed the freedom of a sleepover at a well-off and seemingly stable family home. However, one of them returned swearing and with rudeness towards their mother, and with further gentle pushing told us, that they regularly left the young boys alone to have raging rows upstairs. We obviously recognised this as domestic violence.
We stopped all contact and told our sons it was not normal to behave in this manner. It wasn’t easy, but sensible talk and gentle persuasion is the key.
Next week’s dilemma
On the outside we’re a normal family, with a boy and a girl at university, and an older daughter. But recently our eldest came home and started a violent row with me, shouting abuse, breaking a glass over me, and storming out. As I come from a violent family, I found this really upsetting. I apologised, and she’s now apologised to my husband but says she finds me “really annoying”. I feel such a failure. Most mothers are so close to their girls. My husband and I have learned a lot through counselling but this episode has destroyed me. What can I do?
What would you advise Elsa to do?
Virginia Ironside’s new novel is No! I Don’t Need Reading Glasses (Quercus, £14.99)