My son has not paid child support; I am very upset at his irresponsible attitude. What should I do?

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Alamy</span>
Photograph: Alamy

It’s almost impossible to force someone into doing what we think they should, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith, but you can try to help him


My 27-year-old son is the father of a two-year-old girl. He and his girlfriend broke up shortly after the baby was born. They had been living with his girlfriend’s family and she had agreed to move in with my son and his father after three months. When she changed her mind he felt betrayed and the relationship deteriorated.

I had concerns about their plan to have a baby from the beginning but we were only informed once she was pregnant. My issue is that my son has not paid child support to date. He says he will start paying once his ex-girlfriend allows him unsupervised visitation with his daughter.

He perceives his ex-girlfriend as controlling and vengeful. I feel she is bitter about how things ended, but she is a good mother and protective of her child. My son has recently expressed an interest in another girl, and mentioned that he might have a baby with her. I am very upset at his irresponsible attitude towards parenting, so I said that I would not speak to him again if he impregnated another woman without at least a minimum of commitment in terms of living independently and financial support. I am wondering what I should do if this situation should arise?

Eleanor says: Let me start with an observation: it looks to me like a shared structure echoes through a lot of the interactions here, in which one person tries to get another to do something by using a threat or an “or else”. Your son wants his ex to change the rules about visiting his daughter, so he uses child support to try to make her. His ex wants him to be or do something different, so she holds off time with their daughter until then. And now, desperately concerned about the future, you really hope your son will make a different decision – and that the prospect of losing contact with you will make him.

Unfortunately though, it’s almost impossible to crowbar other people into doing what we think they should.

The problem with or-elseing in loving relationships is it tends to leave only two possible outcomes. Either the person does what we want them to, or they don’t. If they do, it can be hard afterwards for either of you to forget they only did it over a barrel you built – it’s hard for them to feel trusted, and for you to feel trusting. And if they don’t do what you wanted, you’re left having to follow through on a punishment that’s often as painful for you as it is for them.

It would be so much better if we could guarantee that simply stating the ultimatum would shake some reason into them, snapping them into genuine, felt agreement. But it’s not often that someone who’s already making alarming decisions becomes more rational when they feel attacked. Often, the “or else” just adds rancour and hierarchy to an already bitter disagreement.

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You do have grounds to be concerned here. And if those grounds were purely about you, I’d say it was your prerogative to cut your son out. But if he does have another child – indeed, even with the first – things won’t get better for that little child with one less responsible adult around.

I wonder if you could make progress instead by trying to help your son feel like someone who could provide financial security and independence, instead of just someone who should.

Sometimes the parts of our lives we mess up in are the ones where we never thought we could do well: “I’m just like this.” It takes real energy and self possession to break irresponsible habits – I wonder if hearing “you are up to this task” might fuel him more than “you aren’t and you should be”.

Helping people make better choices is often more about kindling their imagination than force-altering their behaviour; they need to be able to picture a different life in enough detail to chase after it. So maybe, whether he has this child or not, your goal could be to stoke that imagination. Wouldn’t it feel better to be self sufficient? Isn’t he tired of not being trusted? He has the character and ability to change! (For instance: “I really know you can be the bigger man and put [daughter] above this fight with [ex]”.)

Ultimatums leave bootprints on relationships that it’s very hard to dust off. You might find, for everyone here, that real change is more likely when you invite the other person to be the one insisting that things should be better.

This question has been edited for clarity.

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