There are few more-credible voices in this country on the subject of rearing boys and young men than psychologist Steve Biddulph, so when his latest tome Raising Girls turned his focus to females, attention was bound to be paid.
After the book was released in January this year, I was surprised by the tone of some reviews, including one by Kate Figes that ended with the sentiment “it might only be once a man starts talking about these issues their importance moves to centre stage”.
Another critique vapoured the heavy air of offence being taken; that it was perhaps inappropriate for a man, even one as professionally esteemed as Biddulph, to opine on the subject and folly to think anyone could cover such a complex topic in 250 pages.
Having written extensively about men, women and gender, I know you can’t help offending people, no matter how good your intentions or how carefully you phrase them.
Some people, particularly feminist bloggers and men’s rights activists, only see shit in their sandbox when you dare to venture into areas that have obviously caused them pain and frustration.
Often, you can offend both groups at once, as evidenced by the fact I’ll get back-to-back emails from readers accusing me of misogyny and being a “feminist mangina” about the very same article or post.
Biddulph, however, has bravely waded into fraught territory. As the father of a three-and-half-year-old girl, I found his book in turns gripping – when it specifically addressed many of my own challenges as a parent – and informative.
Mostly, however, it was hugely comforting in its message parenthood is not a one-shot deal, and we have lots of chances to get it right and raise daughters who are “wise, warm and strong”.
Irish reviewer Hugo McCafferty made the point back in May “having a daughter is the most amazing thing, but it’s also terrifying for a father.”
“There’s no point of reference, I know exactly how to treat a boy. Even in his most angst-filled teenage years I’ll just know when to push the issue or when to leave him alone, because I was there too and all I have to do is remember.”
But with girls, says McCafferty, “all help is welcome”.
I strongly concur and, as I’ve done many times in the past with Biddulph’s other works, I’d like to share some of his words with you in the hope they’ll spur you to pick up what I found to be an important and wise book.
One of his insights that rang particularly true with me was his breakdown of girlhood into five stages:
1. Security – ‘Am I safe and loved’ (birth – 2 years)
“As people respond to her needs, both physical and emotional,” writes Biddulph, “growth hormones, instead of stress hormones, flood her body and brain. She instinctively knows she is loved and safe. And she carries that inside her, always.”
2. Exploring – ‘Is the world a fun and interesting place?’ (2 – 5 years)
“She thinks, if people are going to stay close and care for me, I can relax and check out the toys, play in the garden, toddle across the grass, mess about with dirt and stones and leaves.”
3. People skills – ‘Can I get along with others?’ (5 – 10 years)
“She discovers she is not the centre of the universe.”
4. Finding her soul – ‘Can I discover my deep-down self and what makes me truly happy?’ (10 – 14 years)
“When your daughter gains identity through doing, and believing, and strengthening her inner world, she will be freed from the need for approval that haunts many teenage girls and makes them conformist and dull.”
5. Preparing for adulthood – ‘Can I take responsibility for my own life?’ (14 – 18 years)
“By steadying herself, and by receiving the welcome and support of older women, she can leave behind childishness and harmful gullibility, be accountable, connected to consequences, and proactive in making her life worthwhile. While life itself can deliver this realisation to a girl, leaving it to chance is a hazardous and unreliable way for this to happen,” writes Biddulph.
I’m sure many of you will recognise these or similar stages in children you know, perhaps even yourself. Biddulph also suggests that under stress, all of us are liable to “drop back a stage or two”.
“Think of those days when you just don’t want to get out of bed … or deal with people – that’s quite normal from time to time,” he writes, and it’s perfectly normal for young girls to do the same.
The stages are also not set in stone either, says Biddulph: “The nature of human beings is we can often recover things we missed out on, by getting them down the track.”
Thankfully, I’m pretty sure my daughter hasn’t missed anything so far, but what I found most reassuring about this first part of Biddulph’s book is it gave me a rough map of what to expect from my child in the years to come.
And as all men know – “it’s always easier when you have a map!” writes Biddulph.