I am a father to a nine year old boy, I am separated from his mother and have been since before his birth. We don't really get on but we are civil for his sake and communicate maturely as and when it is required. We both have quite negative views about each other but we keep those views to ourselves as much as possible.

He stays with his mum through the week and with me at weekends.

The problem I have is that all I really want is for him to have the best chance in life in what is obviously a far from ideal situation, but I have always felt she is not giving him that. I try my best not to be judgemental, I am far from perfect myself, but I feel like I try my best and I am sure his mum does too. I live alone and work full time. When my son stays at the weekends he has 100% of my attention, and I also travel 60 miles after work to take him to sporting events at least once (sometimes twice) per week.

Examples of some of the problems I have experienced:

  • I send her money every month, enough to feed and clothe him. Yet I often have to bring food with me when I visit during the week because she says she cannot afford it. She has admitted to using food banks despite her fiance who she lives with having a full time job. He goes to school with messy clothes with holes in them. I have to buy him clothes and it leaves me wondering where my money is going. But if I stop sending money then there are legal implications against me which feels immensely unfair.
  • He is often very late for school or misses entire days because he just doesn't want to go. She lets him play computer games late at night and he sleeps in. She allows him to stay off if he says he has any kind of medical compliant but will only go to doctors if it's really serious. He will say he has a sore tummy and she might keep him off for several days. He is missing out on vital lessons and experiences. I have a strong intellect and I can recognise similar traits in him, but he is behind most of his class in most subjects for reasons I can only speculate on.
  • I rarely get included in any information that I feel I have a right to. Last parents' night I found out while sitting in front of his teacher that he had been getting bullied by some older boys and there had been meetings about it involving the school head. It was obvious from my reaction that this was new information to me and I felt very embarrassed that the teacher could clearly see that. It made me feel like she saw me as an absent parent who doesn't care or take an interest. But I ask him every time I see him how his day in school was and he never indicated any problem and he is my only source of information. His annual school sports day was this week, I got 13 hours notice and was unable to take time off work to attend. If I had a week notice it would have been no problem. I don't know if it's malicious or just lack of care, but it really upsets me that I don't get to be involved in these things.
  • There are some behavioural issues that, while I am certainly not a psychologist, I feel can at least in part be attributed to lack of attention. Any time I go to collect him or drop him off, his mum is often in bed, regardless of time of day. She hasn't worked in all the time I've known her. When he is at home I'm not convinced he gets any real human interaction. When he is with me I try to engage with him as much as possible and introduce him to children of a similar age but he just seems disinterested and unadventurous.
  • And the absolute killer for me, which prompted this post, is YouTube. It's the straw that broke the camels back for sure. He recently announced to me that he has his own YouTube channel and invited me to watch, he took a lot of pride in showing me what he had achieved. He sits in his bedroom alone, unsupervised, at age nine, and has his mobile phone set up on a stand to record a video of himself playing online games on his laptop. You don't see his face and the only part of his body you see is his hands, but I feel very strongly that this is every single kind of inappropriate. The names of his characters and his live commentary both smell very strongly of attention seeking. The parent in me wants him to stop and delete the channel immediately, I work in online marketing and have a very real understanding of the dangers of the Internet. But at the same time, he is finding an outlet and I worry that if I block that outlet he will find another one that may be even more dangerous.

My problem

In all honesty, I don't know what to do. His mum has already been investigated by social services for hygiene problems in the house. I can see problems everywhere I look, but my son loves his mum unconditionally and is unaware of any problems. I couldn't bring myself to try and force a separation. And in all honesty I have a crisis of confidence in my own ability to do any better. I have a very demanding job and giving him any more attention that I do now would have a big impact on my career. My parents and her parents would both be in a position to support if required, but I don't want to put any unnecessary pressure on anyone.

My question

Any time I consider any action I can take, I look at potential outcomes and all I see is a picture being painted of me being the bad guy. How can I give my son a better chance at a safe and proper life without causing undue suffering to him and those around him and pushing his mum to be even less co-operative than she already is, and without making him see me in a negative light?

  • 3
    From what you say it does sound like your son is being neglected. If that is the case you need to take action to prevent it. The priority should be to protect him from neglect, I am sure he loves his mother, you might get painted as the bad guy, those need to be secondary concerns to protecting a child. Commented May 27, 2017 at 22:43
  • Regarding the YouTube concern, it's worth noting that the Terms of Service state "You may use the Service if you are at least 13 years old" (youtube.com/static?gl=GB&template=terms). Therefore you may have a possible route to shut this down. Commented Jan 16, 2020 at 13:18

6 Answers 6


I am going to comment and answer each paragraph.

(Keeping it civil and not fighting in front of your son is absolutely the way to handle it. You aren't 'fooling' your son, but you are modelling how to handle a difference of opinion without being rude or coming to blows.) Your son knows you care and you show him by taking him to sporting events and on weekends.

  • Sending extra money: Ask your attorney if sending clothing along with a copy of the receipt counts towards child support. You should take photos of the inappropriate clothing that you are replacing. (You might do the same with food you provide for your son at his mother's home.) Do not replace child support payments unless you know it is legal to do so -- but keeping a record of extras you provide can potentially help if custody ever became an issue. I highly recommend keeping a journal with pictures and receipts for all you do and everything you witness, or your son or his school reports.
  • Late to or missing school: Again journal it. Record the nights he doesn't get sleep and the days he is late or missing. You might ask the teacher what areas you need to work on and then find innovative ways to teach him those subjects on weekends. That would make an interesting different question. If it ever is necessary you will have a virtual goldmine for the court.
  • Excluded from information: Write or email the school and formally request copies of report cards, and absenteeism, lateness. Tell them you want an events calendar and any newsletters that go home. Use that sports day as an example. Tell them that you share custody and have as much right to that info as your ex. I'd do the same at your son's doctor's office. That should be as easy as access to his patient records online. It doesn't matter what the reason is -- act towards getting included around her, not through her.
  • Neglect: Unless you are willing to fight for custody, I'd say there isn't much you can do about how much she interacts with your son in her home. You could call him every evening. Talk over the day, homework, concerns and so on. This needn't be a long conversation but even ten minutes a day should help.
  • Youtube: At nine I also would be extremely concerned. Unfortunately, I am not sure that you can parent your son in his mother's home. If you search "teaching children about internet danger", you find tested ways to teach your son that go way beyond the knee-jerk 'stranger danger' policies of the past. Youtube has many videos that teach this -- but please watch them before you share them. Select what fits your situation. There are books available, too -- but again, read them first before you share.

  • Your problem: We cannot help if you don't know what you want to have happen. Keep records of social services investigations and interactions. You need to decide if you want full custody or not. The above items were concerned mainly with supporting the status quo. If you want custody, you'd need to find a school, a daycare, a nanny/housekeeper. It sounds to me like you might have to decide between a demanding job and parenting. I am not judging you. Only you know what can happen and what reasonably cannot. Is a nanny/daycare any better than living with his mother? That you must work to support your son doesn't change. Is his situation so bad that you must act -- regardless of the cost to you and your future career? Again, only you know the truth of this.

  • Being the bad guy: All parents sometimes have to be the bad guy.It is a hard part of parenting. When I was a minor, I had eight surgeries and believe me -- I protested. I told my parents that they were torturing me, that they did not love me, that they hated me, that they liked seeing me suffer. I was also being sent to boarding and all girls schools and so on because my parents thought it was in my best interests. Whether or not I think or thought they were right is moot. They were doing their level best to be good parents. I certainly know that I was tough on them and that they were the 'bad guys' because I painted them that way. I have had to make a few tough calls myself. It's hard to disappoint your child. Most parents will find themselves in this situation quite a few times as they parent.

Sometimes I did see my parents in a negative light. It usually did not last long. I was able to see the reasons for their choices even though I was not mature enough to admit they might be right. Just keep to your rule of not discussing his mother negatively, and if you did decide to go for custody, be truthful but without saying anything bad about the mother he loves. (It's not like you do not want him to love his mother.)


Being a divorced son and father, I can provide some additional perspectives:

  1. You need to request full custody. There is no other suitable option. Otherwise you will always blame yourself for letting down your son. Be prepared to work less to stay with him, or work and earn more to send money to the mother, to please her, and to pay for extra support.

  2. You must love and respect your child, but you should never expect him to love you, only to respect you. As a parent you are an aware witness of his becoming. Anything that falls short or goes beyond that implies neglect or manipulation.

  3. Teach him rules and cause-effect relationships. Youtube and social networks may be constructive and playful, as a bike or playing football, as long as their rules are mastered and implications understood. Teach him how to manage his anonimity.

  4. Build a close relationship with him. Imagine you are his empathic Gunnery Sergeant. The problems you are facing now are nothing in comparison to those your family could have to face in 5 years (drugs, alcohol, violence).

  5. On top of reaching for a website such as this (which is a great choice), reach out for friends and relatives. Link with parents of your son's friends. This will be very important for him and yourself.


I couldn't bring myself to try and force a separation. And in all honesty I have a crisis of confidence in my own ability to do any better. I have a very demanding job and giving him any more attention that I do now would have a big impact on my career. My parents and her parents would both be in a position to support if required, but I don't want to put any unnecessary pressure on anyone.

I don't think you actually believe that you couldn't do any better. You're saying that his mother:

  • spends large amounts of time in bed
  • has been investigated by social services for hygiene problems
  • uses available money unwisely/not in the best interest of your son
  • doesn't seem to adequately feed him
  • sends him to school in messy clothes with holes in them
  • sometimes doesn't send him to school even though he isn't really ill
  • lets him stay up very late, so that he's too tired for school the next day
  • doesn't seem to interact much with him at home
  • doesn't seem to encourage him to interact directly with peers, instead allowing him to look for a replacement online

While none of these points would be a huge problem by itself, you are painting a very ugly picture with the whole lot of them.

If you really believe this to all be true, I guess you should ask yourself what's more important to you: Your career or your fear that your son's life will be negatively impacted by all this. I'm also noting your use of the term "unnecessary pressure": Does this mean you're not sure that your son is in fact being neglected? Because if you are sure, then the boy's grandparents might see that as well, and it might not be "unnecessary pressure" but "necessary sacrifices in order to help our grandson".

Have you talked to her parents? Do they see the same problems you see? Can you image any custody arrangement / living conditions for your son that would be better than how it is now? Have you discussed this with the boy's mother, or her parents, and your parents?

If I were you, I'd first try to figure out how much change you're willing to introduce into your own life in order to improve the situation for your son. Are you willing to move closer to him? Are you willing to work part time? Are you willing to set back or sacrifice your career for him? If the answer to these questions is no, then there probably isn't much you can do. If it is yes, then I'd try to talk to the boy's mother and see if there is any room for improvement without introducing larger changes in custody or living arrangements. Maybe the grandparents could be a part of this, especially the boy's maternal grandparents, because if they actually agree that the boy is neglected, they might have more influence on her than you. If nothing else works, legal action might be your only recourse.

Finally, your goal wouldn't necessarily be to force a separation of mother and son. It might turn out to be enough for you to reduce work to 80% part time for a few years, and to also look after him on Mondays or Fridays or both, and for both sets of grandparents to chip in with a bit of time each week, leaving mom with the rest.

However, this probably wouldn't work without you living close by (e.g. in the same town).

Whatever you decide to do, I'd decide quickly, because your son is now nine, and won't be a child for much longer. I'm assuming you're still one of the most important persons in his life now, but once puberty kicks in, you'll have to share your influence with whatever peers he chooses as his friends, and depending on how that goes, it will become much more difficult to affect changes.


As others have suggested, try to get custody. Without custody, you have little to no power to effect change. Unfortunately, getting custody is usually a tough and very expensive route and there is no guarantee of success. (Men have get custody more so in recent years than in past decades). The advice others here gave about documentation is very important. The documentation should be legally valid. Emails may not be legally valid since they can be doctored so easily. Talk to your attorney for guidance in what to document and how. Lawyers cost much money. Consider hourly rates when choosing an attorney. Custody while working is also demanding, so plan ahead as to how you will handing the responsibility (e.g., sick time, school vacation days, school outings, etc.). I feel for you and your child and wish you the best of luck.


Kids often just grow out of whatever "bad" behavior you might notice. It may be more important to maintain a loving relationship with your child than to focus on fixing the bad behavior. In short, focus on the positive and maintain the love your child has for you, especially if you have limited time with the child.


You need to get a lawyer and get increased custody of your son.

No matter what impact this has on your career - you need to do it before your son gets negatively affected by the environment with his mother.

Regarding some other points. The school - engage with them directly. make sure your email is also on their email list for receiving information. insist on all communication regarding problems at school affecting your son is cc'd to you and you are invited to all meetings.

About the title of your post "tough love" - dont worry about this. Even if you reduce the hours he is allowed to play video games and enforce a bed time rule, it wont negatively affect your son, these are all positive actions. He will probably appreciate the stability and positive influence you have in his life by behaving responsibly, and you can always counter-balance the negative feelings of "tough love" by being the "cool parent" - take him to the technical museum or ball game on the weekend, for example, or buy a new playstation and play it together with him (whilst at the same time enforcing reasonable hours he can play it).

Your job - if your son goes seriously downhill in teenage years, your job or a next promotion wont seem to matter. Prioritise your son. Find a way to make it work. Flexitime. Work 80%. Get a nanny. Ask your parents to help. Whatever it takes.

In summary - your son needs responsibly parenting, a good male role model, stability, and boundaries.

It sounds like you are a reasonable person and can achieve all of these better than the mother.

You need to take majority custody, have him with you minimum 5 nights a week (school nights), let him visit his mom on weekends.

Document everything, start a diary, get a lawyer, involve social services again.

Good luck

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