Steve Biddulph: A call to arms for girls
A third wave of feminism is needed, says parenting author ahead of his visit to Ireland
“Eight-year-olds worry about their weight, and 13-year-olds worry about whether they are ‘hot’ enough,” says author Steve Biddulph. Photograph: Thinkstock
Steve Biddulph is the author of Raising Girls
‘Fourteen is the new 18,” is what parenting educator and author Steve Biddulph hears all the time from mothers talking about their daughters.
“That’s in terms of the pressures, decisions and concerns, and the way they have migrated downwards into the childhood years,” he explains. “So eight-year-olds worry about their weight, and 13-year-olds worry about whether they are ‘hot’ enough.”
A third wave of feminism is needed to respond to the plight of young females today, says Biddulph, whose Raising Girls was published in 2013 as a “call to arms”. Both in the West and in the developing world, “it’s all about the girls now”.
“For example, the rape laws in the Emirates states, the child-marriage situation and sex slavery in Cambodia are all part of the treatment of girls as commodities. If our daughters know their struggles – worrying about weight, diet, being misused sexually, bullying and so on – are part of the same struggle, they will feel more powerful and less self-focused. More angry, instead of anxious,” he suggests.
Ironically, perhaps, this is the same writer and family therapist who in the 1990s made his name with his first bestseller, Manhood, and then the phenomenally successful Raising Boys, highlighting how young males were losing their way in a more gender-neutral world. The latter was a handbook for parents, explaining the biology behind the behaviour and advising about how to keep boys happily on track in life.
At the time, girls were on the move, going places, focused and confident, but boys were somehow all wrong, he writes in the preface to a later edition of that seminal book: “Too noisy, too energetic, unmotivated at school, dangerous to themselves and others. And then they turned into – men!”
The very best outcome, “not just of my work but a concerted effort all across the globe, is that dads have trebled the amount of time they spend with kids, in one generation,” he tells The Irish Times from his home in Tasmania ahead of his first visit to the Republic next month.
Meanwhile, the pendulum has swung against girls. There was a sudden and marked plunge in girls’ mental health about seven years ago.
“Problems such as eating disorders and self-harm, which once had been extremely rare, were now happening in every classroom and every street. But more than this, the average girl was stressed and depressed in a way we hadn’t seen before,” he writes in Raising Girls.
“Girls aren’t born hating their bodies. They aren’t born hating their lives. Something was happening that was poisoning girls’ spirits.” It was a development that seemed to come on in early teens, but was starting younger and younger.
The 21st-century phenomenon of “shrinking childhood” applies to both boys and girls as they race to ape their heroes and heroines in a media-saturated world. But Biddulph believes girls are more aware of the messages around them.
“It’s showing up in very high levels of anxiety and depression, as well as drinking and unhappy sex at too young an age. Not that there’s ever a good age for unhappy sex.”
He also encourages parents to reflect on what messages they might inadvertently be giving out. “Are you passing on fears about weight, fashion, and so on, by always focusing on those yourself?”
Gender-neutral parenting has been tried, with the best intentions, he says. While we should aim for equality, and bring the two genders closer, we have to acknowledge their differences.
“There are gender-specific risks: boys die at three times the rate of girls, and go to jail at about nine times the rate,” he points out. “They still aren’t doing great at school, though I, and many others like me, have worked to make school more boy friendly across the world.”
Since girls are far more likely to have mental health problems, we need to make them “more self-believing, and boys more connected and guided into being good men”.
It means that, yes, parents who have both boys and girls do need to treat them differently – although varying temperaments are even more of an issue than gender for parenting styles, he says.
“Some kids are thin-skinned; they are so hard on themselves it’s hard to be hard on them.”
Dramas and crises
Born in Yorkshire, Biddulph emigrated to Australia with his parents at the age of nine. A psychologist by training, his first job was with the Department of Education in Tasmania, the island state that lies 240km south of the Australian mainland, where he has lived for much of his life. He and his wife, Shaaron, have raised a son and daughter.
He worked as a family therapist in Launceston, Tasmania, “but became more and more an educator as I believe every family has dramas and crises and needs help to understand what’s going on”.
This was a motivating factor behind a succession of books that have chimed with a worldwide audience – as well as those already mentioned, they include The Making of Love, which he co-wrote with Shaaron, and The Secret of Happy Children.
His latest, The New Manhood, which will be published in the UK and Ireland next year, is “very helpful with understanding husbands”, he says, “and for men understanding themselves”.
Having turned 60 last year, he has cut back on his travels and public speaking, and has set up two Facebook communities – one for Raising Boys, the other for Raising Girls – as an experiment last January, for the exchange of views on parenting issues. “We don’t allow arguing – just respectful differences of opinion. So it’s like a village.”
The sentiment of the proverb “it takes a village to raise a child” is echoed in Biddulph’s assertion of the importance of role models in children’s lives.
“We copy and take on people we see as like us,” he says. “That’s what we actually are, a bundle of all the good role models we have seen and spent time with. It’s a stunning thing to realise this.”
Yet society is increasingly segregated by age. Although teenagers are naturally drawn to mentors, role models , “cool aunties”, and so on, there aren’t as many adults in kids’ lives today, he points out.
“Girls probably spend 80 per cent less time with older women than they used to. So it becomes a kind of ghetto.”
Children need to be taught how to contribute. “I made a huge thing of boys learning to cook in Raising Boys. It’s often the thing people remember most about that book.”
The all-pervasive influence of the internet, bringing with it an easy availability of porn, convinced Biddulph to rewrite his chapter on boys and pornography for later editions of the book as more and more research came to light.
“I am much more hardline now, because porn is so different to the magazines and pictures of the 1950s.”
Most porn today is degrading or even violent, so respect and tenderness are missing from what they see. “Boys learn to treat girls with cruelty or abuse, and think that’s actually normal.”
The challenge is to let children know that “sex is great, positive and life-affirming, while porn is such a mess-with- your-head kind of thing”, he says. “It relies on warm and encouraging mums and dads being open and supportive, and not everyone has that.”
It is also the best reason not to have computers in bedrooms, he adds. “While kids are bound to see things from friends and so on, it’s the addictive, repetitive aspect that really causes harm. And of course little kids shouldn’t see it at all, as it really bewilders and frightens them.”
What parents need to know: Steve Biddulph’s top five tips
1. Hurry is the enemy of love and so whenever you need to improve relationships – dad and daughter, mum and son, husband and wife – you need to find more one-to-one time. Slowing life down always helps make things better.
2. You can be close to only one person at a time (unless it’s a sleeping baby) and so make time, however short, to really link up with each other each day. You have to feed a marriage like you keep a fire alight.
3. If you are a dad, the first thing that comes into your mind to say is usually the wrong thing. So have a think and work out what might be the thing people really need to hear. And speak softly – daughters especially love when you aren’t loud.
4. A daughter needs two things from her parents: a dad who treats her as if she is important, and a mum who has time to talk.
5. For a boy to be a good man he has to see a good man. And preferably lots of them.
Biddulph on . . .
Gender-specific risks: “Boys die at three times the rate of girls, and go to jail at about nine times the rate.”
Social media: “For kids it brings a lot of anxiety. It means they can’t leave the playground behind them at the end of the day.”
Children’s need for nature: “It settles and soothes them, but also gives them self assurance and a capacity to handle themselves more safely. I especially recommend messiness for girls from a young age.”
Sport elitism: “Sport is too precious a part of childhood to be abandoned to the corporate competitive forces. And parents’ egos have to be kept at bay.”
Early teens: “There is no age when we care as much, feel as much, dream as much, or question as much . . . Their brains turn to jelly, so don’t be angry with them if they are muddled or lost. Think of them as newborns, just finding their skin.”
Countering porn: “The difficult thing is to let kids know that sex is great, positive and life-affirming, while porn is such a mess-with-your-head kind of thing.”
Kerry coup: Parenting author to talk in Tralee
It is quite a coup for a small group of parents in Co Kerry to be hosting the first talks to be given by Steve Biddulph in the Republic.
Parenting Our Children – Art and Science was set up in 2008, when some members of the Tralee branch of the La Leche League decided to organise a public parenting talk to mark the league’s 50th anniversary. Psychologist Dr Kate Byrne was invited to talk about attachment parenting.
“We were really surprised at the number of people who came along – over 100,” Caroline Doyle, one of the members, tells The Irish Times. They saw how people of different backgrounds and different philosophies were interested in coming together to hear and talk about parenting.
So what started as a once-off has been repeated every year since. The guest speakers have included anthropologist Prof Helen Ball, who specialises in sleep needs, biologist Dr Aric Sigman who spoke about children and electronic media, Sir Richard Bowlby who talked about fathers and, last year, Dr John Sharry, co-developer of the Parents Plus programme and Irish Times columnist.
Some months ago Doyle, a mother of three, was reading Raising Girls. She went to look up something on Biddulph’s website and saw that he was coming to the UK. The group emailed him and asked if, by any chance, he would like to come to Kerry.
“He just emailed back and said ‘Yes’,” she says with an air of somebody who still can’t quite believe their luck. “We are really, really excited.”
Biddulph is leading a one-day workshop for professionals working with families on Thursday, September 11th (admission €75 including lunch), which is limited to 60 places , and a half-day workshop for parents on Saturday, September 13th, entitled “The Secret of Happy Children – Raising Boys and Raising Girls (admission €20). Both events are in the Institute of Technology, Tralee; for further details and booking see parentingourchildren.org. Steve Biddulph is giving two talks in Tralee, Co Kerry, on September 11th and 13th.