Raising boys is just as tough as raising girls
Parents of girls; be afraid, very afraid. Be worried, because your daughters are “in trouble”. So much that we need a “call to arms” and “a movement to end the trashing of girlhood”.
Certainly that seems to be the message in the PR for Raising Girls, the latest from parenting guru Steve Biddulph.
A decade back, when Biddulph released Raising Boys, it was our little sons under siege by an education system - and a society - that didn’t get them or their gender-specific needs.
“Today, things have changed. It’s girls that are in trouble. . .There has been a sudden and universal deterioration in girls’ mental health, starting in primary school and devastating the teen years,” says Biddulph.
This is certainly alarming. And I don’t doubt that the pressure on kids’ self-esteem and mental health has increased during the lifetime of my eldest, a son, 14.
But are girls really the new boys - that is, are they now more difficult to raise into healthy adults? And is there really much merit in suggesting that it is harder than ever before to raise a balanced daughter, and by implication that such a task requires different skills or more concentration than raising happy sons?
I have children of both genders, and while Raising Boys was a key plank in my (and my partner’s) understanding of how to be the best parents we could to our boys, I don’t like this new idea that girls are suddenly more difficult to bring to a safe maturity, and nor do I believe it.
Biddulph, a psychologist, is right to highlight the contemporary threats posed to our daughter by sexualisation, bullying, dangerous body-image messages and social media.
But any girl-mum or dad not already well aware of these evils would have to have been living under a family-sized rock. And other than social media, I do not think they are new, nor do I believe any of those factors mean I will need to focus more on my daughter’s wellbeing than my sons’.
And I don’t think yet another cry of “fire!” in the marketing material for yet another parenting book is terribly constructive.
Scary tactics aside, as a boy-mum, I can’t see how I need to be any less vigilant about the threat to my sons’ developing identity of being made to feel not good-looking enough, not thin enough, or not popular enough by messages in pop culture, advertising and social media.
Take weight anxiety: girls still dominate eating disorder admissions, but increasingly the fat-fail message is hitting both genders.
My sons are just as aware of how uncool it is to be fat, thanks to the saturation anti-obesity message. All the talk of terrible obesity leads them to the following conclusion; “if you’re fat, you’re a loser”.
And the buff body and emotion-free toughness ideal for young men is only reinforced by the prevailing physique and demeanour of all the Hollywood hunks and sports stars, shoved at boys as heroes.
Girls are bombarded with be-dumb-but-sexy-and-submissive pressure, which I hate and work very hard to insulate my sparky nine year-old girl from, but boys must be hot AND sporty (still) to reach the top of the school-yard pecking order and not risk being left on the social bench.
Boy-parents must work just as hard to ensure their young sons realise things other than abs and pecs define success, as girl-parents must to enforce the idea that enhancing your brains, not your boobs will give you the best chance of life success.
And both genders feel the pressure to be precociously sexual. Why should I take the approach that this puts more pressure on my girl than my sons?
Every time I hear about yet another teen boy dying in a car crash or a party fight, or at Schoolies, my blood runs cold. It happens too frequently. I am certainly not convinced there’s any less of a need to work diligently to manage risk-taking or potentially self-harmful activities, or mental health in our boys than there is with our girls.
I don’t buy the “it’s girls who are in (more) trouble” schtick, even if it helps sell books. And I don’t like the idea of a competition to see which gender is in more peril.
I can clearly remember my alarm when, with boys aged five and three, I read the just-released Raising Boys.
The thing that hit me hardest was the picture painted of the serious handicap boys face in the education system. The take-out message for me was that the way conventional education is structured in Australia puts boys at a serious disadvantage because they process information differently and have distinct learning styles that are most often not catered for.
This gives girls a strong advantage, which is demonstrated in VCE results.
Anyone who reads my Herald Sun blog, The Perch, will know I am a huge girl-power advocate and am thrilled that so many girls are flying academically and finding their place across the professions.
I am deeply frustrated by the gender pay gap and the woeful work-life balance options - and child care options - currently available to many working women.
But I also seriously doubt that in the last decade the factors that Biddulph outlined so eloquently in Raising Boys have turned around to the point where it’s an equal playing field for my boys and daughter in education.
On this ground alone, I do not want to be told that it is more difficult to help my daughter become a well-adjusted and successful adult, or that we should focus on her needs over those of boys. And nor do I think it’s useful to be told so.
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Raising Girls by Steve Biddulph, Finch Publishing, is listed for release January 17
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