1st February 2013
In 1997 Steve Biddulph published Raising Boys: Why boys are different - and how to help them become happy and well balanced men. The book was published in response to what he perceived as a crisis in the upbringing of boys; boys were falling behind girls educationally, they were becoming more violent, more disengaged and more boys were turning to drink and drugs.
Until five years ago Biddulph saw no reason to write this book about girls, however a sudden and worrying plunge in the mental health of girls inspired him to write Raising Girls.
So what is this new crisis? Biddulph explains that girls are being forced to grow up too quickly, by a combination of sexualisation at too younger age; a media which tells a girl that a her appearance and sexual availability are the only measures of her worth; where both she and her male peers learn about sex from online porn; where the influence of the internet exposes girls to constant scrutiny and contact with her friends while simultaneously isolating her from genuine human interaction.
The combined effect of these factors is to make girls depressed, insecure and lonely. As a consequence, girls are drinking more heavily and at a younger age, taking drugs, having sex earlier and with more partners and that the incidences of self harm and eating disorders are rising rapidly.
A major factor in this change in girl’s behaviour, according to Biddulph, is the internet. When Raising Boys was written, the internet was still the minority interest of a few geeks, slow and frustrating to access on a dial-up telephone line. Today a child still in primary school may have internet access 24 hours a day on their own Smartphone.
Friends are important to a girl, and she can be in constant contact with her friends by text, on Facebook or by instant messaging. However this means she may find herself constantly distracted from her homework by the bleep of her phone or a message window popping up on her computer screen. This also means that at home she has no respite from school bullies who can still bombard her with hurtful messages, broadcast cruel comments and circulate or embarrassing images to all their friends at the click of a mouse.
A recurring message in the book is that we must help our girls to reject the ever-narrowing definitions of female attractiveness. Perhaps the most difficult area of this ‘appearance fascism’ to resolve is the issue of body, weight and food. On one hand more girls are overweight or obese than ever before, on the other more are developing a disordered relationship with food in an attempt to match the impossibly thin ideal weight offered by the media. Raising Girls is detailed and specific on how to identify the sort of disordered eating signifying Anorexia or Bulimia, and how to help your daughter if you discover this. It is less helpful on what to do if your daughter is unhealthily overweight. There’s lots of what not to do, but little on what to do.
Of course the important question addressed is how can we help our girls to grow up without succumbing to these dangers? The answer is very much the same as with raising boys. Keep communicating with your daughter. Be a good role model for your daughter. If you are fortunate enough to have other female relatives or friends who can support your daughter – Biddulph is a great believer in girls having a special auntie from whom they can get a different perspective – you should encourage her to spend time with them, along with men who will treat her as a warm, intelligent person, deserving of respect.
I applaud his recommendation that parents should avoid giving girl’s any toy which reinforces gender stereotypes such as pink Lego sets which consist solely of female characters that keep house, paint their nails and bake cakes and fashion dolls aimed at pre-teens whose wardrobe consists of the type of clothes more usually associated with prostitutes. We must also let they enjoy the rough and tumble of childhood without having to worry about messing up their nice clothes.
However, occasionally his solutions are impossibly idealistic. He proposes that girls should not have televisions in their bedrooms. Sorry Steve, but in an age when even primary school children are expected to do homework on a computer, few of us have enough rooms in our house for multiple children to have a quiet place to work in addition to their bedroom. Kids will work out pretty quickly how to watch TV on their computer, laptop, phone or tablet.
But this is a minor criticism. I whole-heartedly agree with Biddulph that is vitally important we protect our girls from growing up too soon. We must reject sexy bra tops for 6 year olds, we must admire them for their accomplishments rather than their looks and we must teach them that in a healthy relationship neither party coerces the other to do something that they do not want to do.
In his introduction to the book Steve Biddulph states that girlhood is supposed to be fun. Yet today childhood is being eaten away and our children, male and female, are being forced to grow up too soon. Our daughters are suffering because of this. If 14 is already the new 18 and 10 is already the new 14, we cannot act too quickly.
As Biddulph so succinctly concludes “It’s time to mobilise our love and our determination, and for all our daughters everywhere, put things right.”
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