When Steve Biddulph, Australian author, activist and psychologist, published his international bestseller, Raising Boys, girls were doing "just fine". Then, about five years ago, he started to notice "a sudden and marked plunge in girls' mental health". He decided it was time for a new book, and last month Raising Girls hit the shelves.
There is actually very little scientific evidence to support the idea that boys and girls are inherently different. Cordelia Fine's book, Delusions of Gender, discusses the fact that most studies about people's ways of behaving and thinking find no differences between men and women. Gender stereotypes are simply passed down from generation to generation, as though they are genetic. Gender, says Fine, is in the mind, not in the genes.
Setting aside that stumbling block, Biddulph introduces his position on child psychology by saying: "I never quite trust experts, unless what they say matches my own heart and passes the test of common sense." And that is the crux of this book – you have to put your trust in Biddulph's heart and notion of common sense as he does not provide any references, cite any studies or offer any alternative opinions on most matters. He simply tells you how it is and what you should do about it.
Biddulph identifies five stages of girlhood and describes how girls progress from one age group to the next. In each stage, a girl learns a different lesson of growing up – being secure (0-2), learning to explore (2-5), relating to other people (5-10), finding her soul (10-14) and taking charge of her life (14-18).
"When you're studying psychotherapy, it's nice to put these things into certain age brackets but then when you have a child in front of you, you're wondering where they fit and if there's something wrong with them if they don't fit into the right age bracket," says psychotherapist and mum-of-four Abby Wynne, who feels defining these stages so neatly can ultimately be confusing for parents.
Biddulph gives advice specific to each stage. Let's start with babies: your baby needs to be calm, you should respond immediately to her cries and never ignore them. Dads should play with their daughters, too – just make sure she doesn't get too stressed by the rough and tumble (she is not a boy!).
Now, keeping babies calm and playing with them corresponds to most people's idea of common sense. In amongst the stereotypes that drive the stories in this book, there are sections of practical advice and information. This is the positive aspect of the book. Not that you couldn't have worked most of these things out for yourself, but positive reinforcement can act as a support for parents.
Also, I found that reading about what Biddulph thinks I should be doing, made me think more about what I am doing and how I'm doing it. Of course, any discussion on parenting would have a similar effect.
My daughter, Anna, is four. This is the stage where she learns to explore the world. According to Biddulph, I need to be very careful about my gender stereotyping with Anna. Apparently, parents speak with a different focus depending on the gender of their child. To a boy they say, "Look, there are three rabbits in that field", whereas to a girl they say "Look at those cute rabbits". You see, "girls are often quite frightened by maths" so we need to try and reverse this trend.
Luckily, Anna, who has two brothers, is not scared of maths. Or rabbits. Phew, I must have said the right thing the last time we saw some cute bunnies.
Biddulph warns us not to assume that girls can't do things, such as maths and science, and even suggests that if we encourage girls to study science, we could double the amount of talented scientists out there. Because currently all scientists are men? Later on, Biddulph says that some interests girls might have are music, art and yoga. Not science. Oh well, it was a nice thought, while it lasted.
> Harm Luijkx's daughter, Nicci, is nine and at Stage 3, where she learns to relate to other people. Biddulph says that at this stage, a girl's greatest interest is her friends and usually when she is upset, it is because of them.
"I think that's true", says Harm. "When she's very upset, it's usually because of something that happened with friends from school or friends here on the street."
However, at this stage, parents' behaviour still has the greatest influence. "I tend to agree with that. Of course, the older she gets, the more she gets it from her peers but at this stage she gets it from us."
Harm and his wife are scientists and he finds the idea that girls might be scared of maths worrying. "I don't think they're scared of maths, but they can be made to believe that they're supposed to be scared of maths. The stereotypes are all around them and they can tend to follow them because they think that's what they're supposed to do."
Harm suggests that Biddulph may actually be reinforcing the stereotypes that he claims to be challenging. "At the moment, there is clear evidence that girls are doing better at school. That doesn't back up his theories at all."
Harm also has two boys and finds that Nicci and one of her brothers are more alike than the two boys. "I think in our family they don't really fall into that stereotyped difference."
> Mairead Boyle is mum to two girls, Abi (14) and Ella (10), both at opposite ends of Biddulph's Stage 4. Mairead has always had a good relationship with her girls, but as Abi becomes more independent, Mairead feels she is getting out of her depth.
"I can't believe this, but I'm going to do a parenting class. I think I've given Abi the impression that her decisions are as important as mine and I've tried to be her pal, too. I'm at the stage where I just need to take control again."
After their first big argument recently, Mairead sat down with Abi and they talked through their issues and both agreed to change their behaviour. "I said we have to make changes and I asked her what would she like me to do," says Mairead. "It's about us working together and it's helped me to stop moaning!"
Mairead feels the Internet has changed the way teenagers interact. "Facebook adds a lot of pressure at this age. Everything is documented and commented on."
Mairead says that, while Abi is smart about her privacy online, she is still concerned about the amount of time her daughter spends on the computer. "When I say, 'I'm worried about you', she says, 'I'm just talking to people, there are six of us here having a chat'. I'd like her friends to be in the house talking face-to-face but is that just an old-fashioned way of thinking about things?"
Abby Wynne agrees the Internet can be a cause for concern.
"What's happened in the last five years is that there's been an explosion on the Internet and everyone is open to cyber attack and everything happens so quickly that you might not even have time to process it. I would say that everyone's mental health is being affected by that, not just girls'."