Audio – Steve Biddulph talks about his new book Raising Girls
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Leigh Hatcher: I'm so pleased and privileged to have helped raised three gorgeous girls in our family, now young women. They've developed into the most beautiful, engaging, good-hearted young women who are so entirely different from each other. It is a huge responsibility. No one does it perfectly. And today, it's especially a very, very tricky task to navigate raising girls, especially if you're a dad. Which is why Steve Biddulph's thoughts on raising girls is a gift to parents and girls around Australia, around the world. Steve's groundbreaking book Raising Boys sold 3 million copies worldwide and now he's addressing the emotional, physical developmental, educational, social conditioning and relationships of girls, in Raising Girls.
LH: Were you always intending to compliment your work on “Raising Boys” with the equivalent for girls?
SB: Not at all. It was an awakening for me because when I first wrote Raising Boys I was very clear, it was no great surprise that boys had been in trouble for hundreds of years. And there was a boy catastrophe unfolding. And when I first got looking at that, for instance, boys have three times the death rate of girls in the under 25 age range. Part of what I assumed was that, and this was 20 years ago, was girls were doing fine. And in fact they were educationally and in all kinds of ways girls were soaring ahead. Because we put a lot of work into that during the twentieth century.
And then about five or six years ago we started getting research and statistical evidence coming in from around the world. Particularly in mental health epidemiology that was pointing to a certain drop off in the mental health of girls to the stage where it's looking like about one in five girls now have some kind of really serious mental health problem. Whether it's eating disorder, binge drinking, a lot of anxiety, depression, body image types of things. That we're now very, very worried about girls and it's not every girl but mums and dad listening at home would certainly recognize the “I hate myself. I hate my body. Life sucks.” Loss of heart and loss of spirit in young women. And there's no mystery why that is. And that's why we're getting activated to help parents to fight back.
LH: So why do you say it's happening in this recent kind of generation?
SB: What's happened really clearly Leigh, is about ten years ago, corporations around the world began to recognize that there was a very lucrative market in selling products to young women, especially if they targeted what they now call the preteens. You know something’s happening when you hear these terms that weren't around before. And so they identified the preteens or sometimes called the tweens, which is girls from about 8 upwards, 8 to about 12, 13. And one of the things we know about girls is that they're very socially aware and very conscious of belonging and feelings and fitting in.
These companies realize that if they get these young girls anxious about their looks and about belonging and being lovable they could create a huge market for selling things like fashion products and diet products, make-up and things like that. When you and I were kids Leigh, if a girl was going down to the shops on a Saturday morning she would probably put on some clean jeans and a t-shirt, she'd brush her hair and she'd be off down there. These days’ girls 12 or 13 spend an hour putting themselves together with make-up and clothes and fretting about what to wear.
LH: And the message is you're not good enough as you are.
SB: That's exactly the message. There are three or four very clear message and one of them, the first is that your looks are the most important thing about you. What gets blasted into young girls is that looks are everything. We started to call this “look-ism”. Because it's this feeling that if you don't look perfect, if you don't look like the front of a magazine, when you step out the door people will sneer at you, you won't be good enough.
They've done surveys, and it's also now crossing over to boys as well, what's your biggest concern? It's confidential, private, surveys where no one knows what you're writing.
Is it world peace?
Is it your parent’s marriage?
Is it violence in the world?
70% of young people write, my looks. That's the biggest concern.
LH: And the message from parents which would certainly reassure them about their identity and their worth is not strong enough.
SB: I'm glad you're looking at it in that broad picture Leigh because that is the other half of the problem. There have always been hyenas circling around young women, they've always been vulnerable and there have always been people out to get them in different ways. But when we first started looking in to this, we thought, why is it, why are they so easily sort of hitting their self-esteem? And we've begun to realize also that we just haven't loved our girls well enough.
First of all, how to really stop the toxic media coming into your daughter but the other one is how to make her strong enough that when it does, it just washes off.
And I think it has to be those two things that both attacked because this might surprise you but I'd be so interested of what your listeners think about this, is that 50 years ago Aunties, Uncles, and Grandma's perhaps as well, but Aunties were a really big part of the lives of girls. And you couldn't always tell everything to your mum and you sometimes you'd be embarrassed with your mum or you'd be angry with her, you didn't want to talk to her. There were nearly always two or three aunties around. Girls and aunties used to be allies in life and aunties could sense to the girls.
Over the last 50 years, what’s happened is that all the women have disappeared from our girls lives. So you've got mum, you've got the old school teacher that you get on well with, but after that it's just the peer group and peer groups are a very mixed bag. Because you have good friends and the caring friends but often there's a lot of meanness and a lot of competition in the peer group and quite a lot of pain as well and I've seen girls do a valiant job of trying to help their friends when their friends are suicidal or they're drinking too much and things like that but it's too much burden to put on a group of 16 year olds to look after the mental health of each other.
And so what I'm urging people to do is I want to start an auntie movement where anyone who's got nieces, starts to take them out for coffee and meets them every month and have them over their house for weekends and becomes a real active presence in their nieces lives. Because this might be part of the immunization of our daughters. Does that make sense to you because you're a dad Leigh?
LH: Yes it entirely does and I think that there's great wisdom in that. When you say we haven't loved our girls well enough, as well as that extended family, more of a community thing. What haven't we done? And what might we do better with our girls?
SB: Okay. Well I think that some of this is just a part of what's always been my message in The Secret of Happy Children and books all the way through, that I think we became a very hurried society. When I was a young student, I was still in my teens, I got really interested in third world countries, and this happens a lot more now, but it was a bit unusual then, but I went and I lived in a village in New Guinea on the coast of New Britain. And then it was a couple of years later I went in and live in Calcutta in India in a slum and sort of just stayed with families and watched how families were. And what I noticed and other people have noticed this as well, is that third world families are much more affectionate.
I mean we're more affectionate than our Victorian forbearers were, and I was, I hear you're laughing at that Leigh. I came from Yorkshire which was the world capital of negative parenting. And we've certainly loosened up a lot but along with that also we got more hurried and I've got this thing I say to audiences sometimes that hurry is the enemy of love as we start to rush past each other more and more at the breakfast table and at dinner time and heading out to meetings and things.
The love starts to kind of seep out of our family. It's quite common for people to have a baby but really not spend a lot of time with them. And it's in those little things where you say when you're bathing your babies; some people bathe a baby like they're just getting it over with. Whereas bath time with a baby can be just so lovely and you pour the water down their back and they play with the bubbles and some mums sing to their baby while they bathe them and it's just the thing that your body remembers. You remember that lovely feeling of being bathed by mum and patted dry. And that kind of soft loving time, I think is a mental health a lifelong resource in a way.
LH: This issue of hurry, and rush, and busyness, I must say is such a recurring theme. On this program we hear about it in so many different contexts. But what do you say to parents about how to break through that epidemic of impatience, of rush, of busyness?
SB: Yes, I think it's to do with having a bit of a step back and think. One of the reasons I do live talks is my main way of giving therapy more efficiently really is that when you stop a little bit and you just have a little bit of a think, we go through our lives and we have deep down whisperings or misgivings that are just whispering away there. And then someone comes along and says something and something inside you says, “Yes. I knew that. I've been thinking that.”
I've been a psychologist maybe 35 years now, and I don't think in my entire life I've ever changed anyone's mind but what I've done is I've occasionally reminded people of what they really deep down believe. I used to teach a stress management seminar and people would quit. One in eight people would leave their job at the end of the seminar. And so they stopped getting me back and I think it's just that people have to think about it, think, “Whoa”, you know, “I hate this job. Life is not going how I planned it.”
LH: But that will involved big decisions.
SB: It will. And we want to do the best for our kids but Leigh, I think we're a herd animal. I think human beings are a herd animal and so if the herd runs we kind of run with it. If everyone is doing it, we sort of think well, I got to pay expensive school fees, or, my kids have got to have all these expensive runners, or we've got to go on our holidays to Bali or things like that because everyone else is. But that might cost another five hours work a week for dad or mum to be paying for that. Or it might mean two jobs when you could've got by with just one.
And so what I'm telling people is, look, what we know from psychology is your child would rather have you than have the money. And if people have been thinking along those lines themselves and then someone comes along like me and says it then sometimes its enough to turn the corner.
There was a rule we were taught as family therapists, it's called the 5% rule. And this is that a 5% change is really as much as you can handle. So try making a 5% change in how affectionate you are with your children or spend 5% more time hanging about before you rush off out the door. See whether it makes a difference. Don't take my word for it, just try it out and see if it improves things.
LH: Steve, the birth of your own daughter sparked quite a surprising reaction in you. It was something that you found very powerful and scary at the same time.
SB: Yes. I'm sure a lot of people listening have had this experience. When people said, “What do you want?” We had a miscarriage so it was a few years before we got to have another attempt at having a baby and, “What are you hoping for?” And I always said, I don't care, I don't mind. I really believed that I felt that.
Our daughter was born in an emergency cesarean and I was in theatre, I was allowed to be in the theatre. And when they lifted her out of Sharon's belly and said, “Oh it's a girl.” I just started bawling and I was like, “Yes. It's a girl.” And all of a sudden I knew I felt like the doors in my heart opened and I realized that I really, really, wanted a daughter and I never admitted that to myself. So that was thing that happened.
LH: Can I convince to you that I fainted at the birth of my first daughter which I'm deeply ashamed about but it was just a gorgeous moment as well.
SB: Oh, yes.
LH: This first year of a girl’s life is much, much more significant than many parents would perhaps realize. What happens in that very crucial year?
SB: Yes. One of the things that we're starting to look at it one of the key stages for girls and it comes down to each stage answers a question and the girl makes a conclusion. We're an active being; a little child is not just shaped by their environment. But they look at their environment and they make decisions based on that. And the first years decision is, “Am I loved or not? Am I loved and secure?” Now that can be improved, now that can be changed later on down the track and the people who've I've talked to and I'm sure listening tonight, who have fostered babies or adopted babies from the third world and thinks who probably had a terrible time when they were little. And so you can always work on and change these things hopefully down the track.
But that little girl in her body, what she's doing is she looks at her mum's eyes, she looks from her mums eyes to her dad's eyes. She monitor's in her body the heartbeat and the breathing and the feeling. Girl babies are much more alert to the emotions of the people around them. And she decides, is this world a safe place? Are the adults safe? Does mum love dad? When people are around me do they settle down and can I really, really relax. And so she's making a life conclusion about the world. She doesn't care if she lives in a mansion or a tin hut. Babies don't care about that. But they care a lot about the emotional quality around them. And that's what they base their foundation on.
LH: Following along from that is a much debated issue about the juggle of work and family life. How both parents are juggling that, child care. What's your message to parents about that?
SB: Yes. It's not just my message, it's what does the research say? There's a very, very clear indication that it helps to delay child care as long as you can. When they measure what’s called cortisol which is the stress by-product in our blood stream and it's a good measure because you can measure with a little swab, like a little cotton wool bat, and you get a little saliva out of a kiddie’s mouth and you can measure their stress levels. And what they found was that kiddies in daycare have very high stress when they first go there but six months later the stress level has not fallen.
And it turns out that kiddies learn to cope on the outside and so you can say they're more relaxed now, they play happily, but if you actually get an objective measure of blood or saliva cortisol levels, then kiddies can carry stress which we don't know about. And the child at home gets progressively more relaxed as the day goes on. A child in day care gets more progressively more uptight. Lots of parents have to put kiddies in daycare. And after about the age of three they're much more ready for that. But it's not the ideal.
I think we have to be honest and say look, this is something we need to do, we've got, not everyone's got a lot of choice but it's a little bit more like tobacco and with other things, what people need is the science to be straight. And so people can make their choices based on hard evidence. I'm not a big fan of daycare but sometimes it's better than not having a roof over your head. But I think people need to know that it's second rate. And that the time that mum or dad, it doesn't have to be either sex that is the one that stays home, but someone who loves you, is always better than someone who's paid to mind you.
LH: One of the significant points I know you emphasize, is the role of fathers in the raising of girls. It's not to take anything away from mums, but you're also very keen for dads to step up to this task of raising girls.
SB: Yes. There are a lot of, particularly Christian speakers who've got onto this early, the fact that dads are the self-esteem department for daughters. Mum is the security department, but dad's the opposite sex and for most girls and certainly as they get into their teens, the opposite sex is the one they're interested in. So they take their cue from their dad as to how interesting they are, and how intelligent they are. And it's just simple things like, a dad when he goes to Bunning’s on a Saturday morning to buy a hot glue gun or something to do the craft work, on the way home, stops for hot chocolate with her and have a chat. She can't help but conclude from that that he likes her company. And we know, again from the research, that girl is probably going to wait an extra two years before she has her first sexual experience because she has kind of a benchmark. She wants men who respect her and she will have a sense of self respect and so dads have quite an amazing mental benefit if they're friendly and interested.
LH: What are the practical things do you urge dads to do?
SB: Very simple ones. Don't yell. Girls have got very good hearing and often dads are a little bit deaf and so don't yell and don't be rude or mean. Girls are also very sensitive too that you don't smell bad and that you dress neatly and that you don't swear around them. So it's quite old fashioned things. Girls really like it if you're well groomed and courteous and a bit of a gentleman. And of course that means that when they look at boys they have that sort of criteria, they just like that because almost automatically expect to be treated with respect.
Now girls have never been treated with less respect and boys now are often exposed to a lot of pornography and often quite violent pornography. Their parents don't, aren't too careful about that and so there's a kind of boy that just looks at girls as meat. But it means we have to help our girls to feel respected and to, in a way, demand respect so that they navigate the world of boys with a sense of “I'm worth something.”
LH: What would you say about the need to spiritually develop a girl or for that matter a boy I suppose.
SB: Well I think the thing to realize there's an age that's very open to this. And what that age is from 10 to 14. In that age group girls are looking for their soul and this is the time when very often they find an interest or they find, even just a hobby, it might be horses or it might be some kind of craft work or a sport or something. And what's happening there is it's their own identity, and it's their own link to the world.
Quite often they're very affected by how bad the world is around them, the poverty and the pollution and the loss of nature and their spirituality needs to find a channel and so doing something with people who are optimistic and people who are active in the world.
And so Jesus wasn't someone who sat around singing hymns or writing books about stuff, He was all about confronting poverty and all about confronting injustice. And so the people that followed him were activists and I think what girls like to see and the kind of spirituality they want is, “What can I do? What can I do in this world? And where are the adults who worry about this? Who not worry about clothes and make-up and trivial things?”
Spirituality is about the big picture, it's about cosmic picture and so that's the age when as parents we need to get them into the natural world, get them around women who are doing amazing things and so they can have role models for that. We say look, we're just your mum and dad and our job's to keep you alive until help comes along. But we want to show, we want to bridge you and look where you can find that. Whether it's through prayer or meditation. Whether it's through retreats that offered by your school and to find ways that daughters are not disappointed by that because this is a window that you have to answer.
LH: Yes a precious window. There's been another great debate over the phrase as it applies to girls and young women, that they can have it all. Particularly related to parenting and career. What's your position on that?
SB: I don't think anyone can have it all. I think we're living in those infantile culture that's ever lived. And it's like we've been turned into feed lot animals and told to buy this, eat this, and consume this. The role models are people that swan about all day and do nothing. Like a world of babies. Only a baby would believe you could have it all. What an adult thinks is that things come at a cost. So what's the hidden cost of this? What do I lose if I take this choice?
And also the other thing is that we're not in this world for ourselves. What makes you an adult is when you decide to be in this world for each other. That that's what we're called to do is to be here for each other and girls I think, have a heart feeling of that and disillusioned if the adults around them and have something to look up to.
LH: Steve Biddulph I've long regarded your work as so important from my little corner of the world and so significant. So in the light of “Raising Boys” when do we see the “Raising Girls” book?
SB: Yes. If people could just be patient, it'll be out later in 2013. We're still writing and so hold your horses till next year.
LH: You're enormously important contribution. Steve Biddulph thank you so much today for joining us on Open House.
Steve: It's great to talk to you Leigh. Wonderful questions. Thank you.