Parenting gimmicks: crushing the individuality of children and guilt-tripping adults

The mean and narrow-minded advice in Steve Biddulph’s “Raising Girls”.

Confession time: I own a copy of Steve Biddulph’s Raising Boys. To be fair, I didn’t actually pay for it. I liberated it from the book exchange shelf in my office. I thought it was better in my hands than in those of someone who might actually want to use it on his or her sons. Rather than try any of Biddulph’s techniques on my own knockabout, boisterous, really-good-at-imagining-what-shapes-look-like-if-you-turn-them-the-other-way-round little people, I fully intended to use it just for “research” ie the same kind of “know your enemy” wallowing in bile that drives many a self-respecting liberal to Mail Online.

Having snuck the book home, I opened it at a random page, just to get a feel for the genre. I happened upon a section entitled “Boys who want to be girls”. So what does Biddulph have to say on supporting children who are questioning the gender they were assigned at birth? Worse than sod all, it turns out. He refers to a study of three – that’s right, three! – boys and endorses the researcher’s view that it is “a delay in development – not a fixed problem”:

It is not connected with homosexuality, and the boys [the researcher] studied outgrew the ‘disorder’ by late adolescence.                                   

Or, in Daily Mail-speak, don’t worry, he’s not queer – it’s just a phase. But this isn’t the section that concerned me the most. Oh no, it’s this:                                  

Alison Soutter is unsure about causation, but the three boys in her study all had fathers who had disabilities or illnesses that kept them very passive in the family. It may be the good, warm involvement of a father in family life that works preventatively, ensuring that boys find the male role model appealing.

Now let’s just consider that for a moment. Dads, if the child who was identified as male at birth tells you he wants to be a woman, don’t think for a minute that this is okay. It’s because you’ve failed to show him how to be “a man”. What’s more, being ill or disabled makes you a seriously flawed male role model.

And this is coming from someone who is telling parents how to raise their children. Someone who is considered an authority. If Richard Littlejohn or Julie Burchill came out with it, we’d recognise it for the hateful bigotry it is. But it’s Steve Biddulph and he’s a touchy-feely parenting advisor. Hence this all seems to slip under the radar.

And hence with the release of Raising Girls, there hasn’t been a single headline screaming “Bigoted author now decides to tell everyone (except the disabled) how to raise their other kids – you know, the ones dressed in pink”. Certainly, Biddulph receives a good dressing-down from Dr Brooke Magnanti in the Daily Telegraph. But elsewhere Biddulph’s advice on how to raise almost everyone, based simply on the genitals they’re born with, is received with good humour, if not praise. I think there needs to be a far more vocal rejection of Biddulph’s whole project. I think the whole thing stinks.

Raising Girls was written because Biddulph started to notice that “today it is girls who are in trouble, in a world that seems bent on poisoning their confidence and trashing their lives” (an observation that’s never been made by any feminist, ever, over the last fifty years). It’s good to know Steve’s motives are honorable and not remotely related to some market segment analysis that identified a great big swathe of paranoid parent wealth that hadn’t yet been tapped. The book promises to tackle “all the issues – bullying, eating disorders, body image, alcohol, managing social media, and relating happily to boys”. Should I comment on the absence of sexism, misogyny and reproductive choices from this list? Perhaps it’s churlish of me to do so; it reveals my bias. But the fact is, I believe sexism genuinely exists. And while it’s all very convenient to airily blame eating disorders and body image issues on “the media” and “consumer culture”, I think you also need to look at the sexism underpinning these cultural messages. It’s not that distant from the type of sexism which leads to books telling you to bring up boys and girls in fundamentally different ways, or that men and women can’t really communicate with each other.

Books such as Biddulph’s – and John Gray’s, and Barbara and Allan Pease’s, and Simon Baron-Cohen’s, and Louann Brizendine’s etc. etc.. – seem to rest on the assumption that we’re only just emerging from a radical feminist phase in which the message was that EVERYONE IS EXACTLY THE SAME. Only now is it safe to stick one’s head over the parapet and say “actually, people are different. But only in two very strictly limited, non-variable ways”. So, everyone, do you remember this time of sexless beige uniformity? Because I don’t. I was born in the 1970s. When I was at primary school, they’d only just started allowing boys to do sewing (although they got to do practical pencil cases while we girlies had to settle for useless samplers). By the time I left secondary school in the 1990s, it was the start of Loaded culture and retrosexism. And then shortly after that neurosexism and evolutionary psychology began their steady rise to the top of the sexism tree. At no point have I experienced a gender-neutral world. Nor would I wish to. But it strikes me as bizarre that in a society in which gender stereotyping is rife – in which one day I’d have a “pretty, sociable baby” and the next I’d have a “boisterous little tyke” depending on whether the blue or the pink bib was in the wash – there is a massive industry devoted to finding new ways to justify and promote these stereotypes.

There have been some excellent, rigorous debunkings of the “research” that justifies “essential differences” – both Deborah Cameron and Cordelia Fine write with verve, wit and enough research to outweigh any wishful thinking (Baron-Cohen could learn much from this model). Yet the myth that we all need a helping hand with our gender stereotyping still persists. Sexism sells, and gender-based conditioning is miserably self-reinforcing. I have two children. One is chatty, sociable, a little show-off; the other is precise, quiet, with a brilliant memory and a love of building things. Unless one or both of them ever tell me otherwise, they’re both boys. I think they are amazing, but also very different, yet it’s me, the feminist, who’s meant to be in denial about difference.

Raising Girls is worse than most books of this type. It’s worse, I think, because it’s about children and how we respond to them. It’s also worse because it mixes enough anodyne fact with boorish opinion to convince. So much of the book is unimpressively correct that it’s easy to slip into acceptance mode and not notice the places where it’s Sid the Sexist hiding behind the language of The Modern Parents. The section on what happens in puberty might be lifted from one of those leaflets that’s handed out during “the period talk” at school. The bit on eating disorders probably comes from one of those “now for the facts” tables that magazines include at the end of someone’s personal account of anorexia hell. None of it is controversial, yet I can’t help thinking that if you want help with a particular parenting issue, it’s not a vague “parenting” expert you want; it’s an expert in the actual issue (Christopher G. Fairburn for eating disorders, for instance). It’s as though Biddulph has half-heartedly read up on a few of the topics covered in Cosmo, blended this with his own brand of willful essentialism, thrown in a few “caring” noises and hey presto! All you need to raise a girl! But let’s not forget the nasty bits.

To be fair, Biddulph has backed off from the explicit transphobia (“transgender girls […] are another category we haven’t addressed in this book” – I have to say, in this case it’s better than nothing, or should that be ‘better than something’?). But we have a whole chapter devoted to slut-shaming, charmingly called Too Sexy Too Soon (I don’t think this is a reference to Right Said Fred). For me, this part in particular stood out:

I couldn’t help smiling when a colleague who counsels sex-workers told me there was real annoyance among her clients that they could no longer be identified in the streets because 17-year olds dressed and looked just like them.

I don’t know whether or not this is true, but I bet Biddulph couldn’t help smiling, not least because he’s hit on a superficially PC-way to say “young girls today? They all look like prostitutes!” without having to acknowledge that setting such “humorous” observations in this context is dismissive of sex workers, not to mention strangely prurient.

The biggest disappointment for me (yes, I’m still capable of feeling let down by this) comes with the section on being a single mum. If you’re a single mum, don’t worry; Biddulph has “talked to hundreds of single mums”. He no doubt has whole binders full of you. All the same, he’s managed to boil down his wisdom to one page and two points, which are: one, for god’s sake, find some man who’ll be willing to do that “male role model” thing, even if he’s not sleeping with you, and two, don’t be such a man-hating harpy, or in Biddulph’s words:

If you are angry and disappointed with men, [your daughter] may be ambivalent, either feeling the same, or flipping to the other extreme and being man crazy. It’s important that you get help for any issues about being hurt by men, and that you relate to men with strength and dignity, but warmth too, so that she sees you get along with men.

Because that is, quite clearly, the main problem single mums and their daughters face in an expensive, exhausting, prejudice-filled, nuclear family-obsessed world: Mummy’s personal man-hate. So yeah, sort it out, y’hear? Otherwise your daughter will end up either a misandrist or the local bike.

This stuff makes me angry. It’s not supportive or caring; it’s mean and narrow-minded. And on a broader scale, what infuriates me is the short-sightedness of it all. Family psychologists can do incredible work. Yet to sell a book, to go on a tour, to become a world-renowned “popular” expert, you need a gimmick. But is it worth it? Crushing the individuality of children and guilt-tripping parents with double-edged “concern”? To me it feels a terrible waste.

I have known my children since the moment they drew breath, before they knew anything about male or female. Every day their horizons diminish, just a little, and so they should. My children’s beliefs need to be shaped by the world they live in. They need to know that not everything’s possible. But let’s try to stick to what’s necessary and nothing more. Imagination, identity, spirit, whatever you call these things, are neither pink nor blue. Let’s try to raise adults who are still capable of choosing their colours for themselves.

Family psychologists can do incredible work, but Biddulph's work is incredibly short-sighted. Photograph: Getty Images

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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After the defeat of Hillary Clinton, what should the US left do next?

For disappointed Bernie Sanders supporters and others on the left, the big question is now: should they work within the Democratic party?

For the majority of the US left, Hillary Clinton’s electoral defeat came as a surprise. Sure, they’d had doubts about her candidacy from the start. They’d expressed disgust at her platform, history, priorities and dubious associations – not least, at her campaign’s focus on cosying up to wealthy elites, courting the support of billionaires such as slum landlord Warren Buffett, at the expense of trying on to hold on to the party’s core working-class vote – but the general belief was that, however undeservedly, she’d still manage to pull it off.

After all, polling suggested she maintained a fairly consistent lead in key swing states even as Trump somewhat narrowed the gap, and there was reason to think that demographic trends would work against her competitor, who openly courted white supremacist votes.

Hindsight is 20/20, but many now feel they took their eye off the ball.  Leslie Lee III, a writer from Louisiana currently residing just outside Washington DC, argues that people “got so worn down by the polls that we forgot our message, that Clinton was the worst possible candidate to put against Trump”. For him, identifying what went wrong is simple:  “Trump promised people something, the establishment candidate was telling people America was already great. It doesn’t matter if he was doing it in a dishonest, con-artist, racist, xenophobic, sexist way – he said he’d fix people’s problems, while Clinton said they didn’t have problems”.

Leslie isn’t alone in believing that a wonkish focus on polls and data distracted from what was really going on. Everyone I speak to feels that the supposed ‘experts’ from the liberal mainstream aren’t equipped to understand the current political landscape. “We are witnessing a global phenomenon,” suggests writer Amber A’Lee Frost, who first got involved with the Democrats to support the Sanders campaign but voted Obama in 2008. “The UK offers the most clear parallel to the US. Nationalism, racism and xenophobia are festering.” Student and Democratic Socialists of America activist Emily Robinson agrees: “All across the world we’ve seen massive right-wing upswells, from Trump, LePen and May in the West to Modi and Erdogan in the East.” Whatever differences exist between these respective politicians, it’s hard to argue with the contention there’s been a widespread shift to the right.

US left-wingers argue that liberals fail to understand their own role in the current situation. From a British perspective, it’s hard to disagree. Repeatedly, I’ve seen discussions shut down with the claim that even acknowledging economy policy may have contributed to the resurgence of ethno-nationalist ideology amounts to apologism. Nor can faulty data be held entirely responsible for any complacency. In the run-up to the Brexit vote, polls suggested that the result would be too close to call; nonetheless, within the liberal bubble almost everyone assumed we’d vote to remain. The fact the value of the pound rose on the eve of the referendum was seen as evidence for this belief, as if currency traders have some sort of special insight into the mind of the average UK voter. Looking back, the whole thing is laughable.

Over in the US, the disconnect seems to be much the same. “People in the street weren’t following that stuff,” Leslie says of the finer details of both the Trump and Clinton campaigns. “Trump said he would fix their problems, Clinton said they didn’t have any. If we’d stayed focused on that it would have been obvious.” Instead, many of her supporters believed that it was Hillary’s turn and consequently dismissed substantive criticisms, sometimes claiming the vast majority of opposition was simply latent sexism. Even the campaign slogan “I’m With Her” seemed to be about what voters could should for Clinton, not what Clinton would do for them. As polls narrowed, party insiders continued to insist that Clinton was the rightful heir to Obama’s voting coalition, however little she actually did to earn it. 

A lack of message simplicity definitely seems to have been part of the problem. When I speak to Christian, who currently works in outreach and recruitment for the Democratic Socialists of America’s national office, he admits he was barely aware of the platform Clinton was campaigning on. “I’d ask my friends, and sometimes she’d talk about stuff, but it’s so vague,” he explains. “The average working-class person shouldn’t have to go to a website and read a 30 page policy document. It feels like it’s written that way for a reason, it’s muddled, neoliberal bullshit that lobbyists have written.” It’s true that media coverage probably didn’t help, with reporting frequently focuses on gossip and overblown scandal over substantive policy issues, but an effective political communicator must ensure their core messages cut through. Obama managed it in 2008, and however abhorrent we might find it, pretty much everyone heard about Trump’s wall.

It’s also hard to ignite excitement for the continuity candidate when many people don’t believe that the status quo actually benefits them. “I think neoliberalism no longer works as an electoral incentive to voters, especially working-class voters,” argues Amber. Emily tells me that prior to this election she’d worked on two Democratic campaigns, but before Sanders she’d been ready to give up on the party. “When they had the power to, the Democrats failed to implement policies that helped the working class, Hispanic, Black and Muslim communities, and women.”

She explains her disappointment during the early part of Obama’s first term, when the Democrats held the House, Senate and Oval Office. “They jumped away from the single payer option for healthcare, which would have helped the entire American population. The implementation of the DREAM act would have helped immigrant communities. There’s also a lot they could have done on policing and carceral reform, repealing federal use of private prisons, for example, and labour rights, by introducing federal protections for trade unions and effectively repealing so-called ‘right to work’ laws in many states. They did not mandate free, universal pre-kindergarten nor did they even attempt to work forwards free collect – or, at the bare minimum free community college.”

For Douglas Williams, a graduate student at Wayne State University, it was Obama’s relationship with labour unions that caused him to drift away from the party. “In 2013, Barack Obama appointed a union buster to a federal judgeship in the District of Columbia. I started to think, labour gave $1.1 billion to national Democrat party politics between 2005 and 2011, and labour got literally nothing from it.”

One left-leaning activist, who prefers to be identified by his blogging pseudonym Cato of Utica, campaigned door-to-door for Clinton. He explains in visceral detail his disillusionment with the party he’d worked within for roughly a decade: “I was heavily involved in North Carolina in places where the recovery never even touched. These were working poor people, and the doorbells didn’t work. If the doorbells are broken, what else is broken inside the house? What else isn’t the landlord taking care of? I looked at our candidates and none of the people I was pushing were going to address the problems in these people’s lives.”

Much ink has been spilled trying to pin down exactly what motivated people to vote Trump, whose campaign rhetoric was more explicitly xenophobic, racist and sexist than any other recent presidential candidate. Most of his supporters also voted Republican in previous elections, but two other groups are more interesting from a left-wing perspective: those who previously voted Obama but opted for Trump this time round, and non-voters who were inspired to make it to the polling booth for the first time. Overwhelmingly, both groups are concentrated in lower income categories.

“I think people voted for Trump because he acknowledged that there is something very wrong with America,” suggests Amber. “I obviously disagree with Trump voters on what is wrong with this country, and the fact that his campaign was fuelled by nationalism and racism certainly gave it a terrifying edge, but I know why they voted for him, even though he will ultimately betray his most vulnerable supporters.”

It would be absurd to discount racism as a factor in an election where the winning candidate was endorsed by the official newspaper of the Ku Klux Klan and its former leader David Duke, but Leslie disagrees with those who claim it was the primary motivation for the most Trump voters. His earliest political memory is from around 4th or 5th grade, when David Duke was running for Governor of Louisiana. “As one of the few Black kids in your class,” he recalls, “it really makes you realise how important politics is early on”. One of his closest friends was a previous Obama voter who opted for Trump this election, and the common factor seems to have been a message of optimism.

“Obama offered something more important than these people’s prejudices: hope and change, basically. He didn’t deliver it but he offered it. Romney was seen as the establishment. Obama said, ‘I’m an outsider and I’ll bring something new to the table’. There’s a line between Trump and Obama in that vein – and my friend will tell you the same.”

At a time when many people have a strong desire to kick out at the political establishment, Clinton was the ultimate establishment candidate. Leslie is scathing about the extent to which she actively highlighted this in her campaign: “She talked about being experienced – what does that mean? It means you’ve been part of the establishment. She attacked Obama with her experience in 2008 so I don’t know why she thought it would work. It’s not like being the local dog catcher, you don’t turn in your resume and if you have the most experience you get it. You need to have a message and get people inspired, and she didn’t have it.”

Most of the people I speak to believe that Sanders would have had a better chance of beating Trump, and many poured significant time, effort and money into his campaign. They note that polling showing Sanders had consistently higher approval ratings amongst the general public than Clinton throughout the primaries, and argue that people citing recently released unused opposition research as evidence he’d have lost don’t understand voter motivations. The idea that Sanders’ experience of being poor and unemployed would have worked against him is seen as particularly mockable. Whatever the truth, the more relevant question now is what the left does next.

Opinion is split between those who think working within the Democratic Party is the best approach and those who believe its unaccountable, bureaucratic structures make it a lost cause. Emily is in the first category. “I think leftists should, in a limited capacity, be running within what is now the desiccated carcass of the Democratic Party, rather than naively attempting to build a party from the ground up and risking splitting the left-liberal vote,” she tells me. “They should be prepared to run for elections with a (D) next to their name, even if they refuse to bend at the knee to the neoliberal, imperial tendencies of the Democratic elite.”

Particularly exciting right now is the work of the Democratic Socialists of America, an organisation which aims to shape the future of the party in a leftwards direction. Membership had increased by a third since the election – aided partly by support from celebrities such as Killer Mike and Rob Delaney. “We’re planning on Trump being a one-term president,” DSA representative Christian tells me. “We have a 50 state strategy, but right now we only have chapters in 31 states. It’s not just about elections, it’s threefold: electoral, workplace and community organising to win on all counts.”

Douglas is sceptical about whether it’s possible to restructure the Democratic Party in the way he considers necessary, but he agrees with the DSA’s focus on community organising: “Why can’t an organisation be like ‘we’re going to sponsor a little league team’? Why can’t we open a soup kitchen? We’re making noise, we’re out here, but we heard your aunt is having trouble with her roof. We’ve got guys who can fix that, and then we’ll leave a little sign saying it was us.” Cato of Utica references something similar that happened in Flint, where the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union visited people’s homes to make sure their water filters were properly fitted.

“We need to rebuild the labour movement,” agrees Emily. “Not only to carry out all the normal functions of unions, but also to provide a community, and spaces for education, child care and other forms of support. If we don’t build solidarity among the working class – not just the white working class, but the Hispanic working class, the Black working class and so on – we risk allowing another reactionary movement caused by cleavages promoted by the ruling classes.”

Left-wing organisations traditionally target places like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, where it’s easier to build support. Christian argues that the Democratic Party, and the DSA specifically, need to “focus on the Rust Belt, where the Democrats lost, and the South, where Bernie lost”. There’s a widespread belief that Southern states which have been Republican for decades now could be winnable in future presidential elections, partly because of demographic trends pointing towards increasingly ethnically diverse voting populations. As for the Rust Belt, it’s hard to argue with the claim that a different candidate could do better than Clinton – who didn’t even bother to visit Wisconsin, which swung Republican, in the months preceding the vote.

The DSA’s 50 state strategy involves creating a national framework, but with devolved power allowing local chapters to focus on the issues most relevant in their area. “In Texas our chapter is really strong and we do a lot of work on immigration reform, working with undocumented communities, whereas Boston obviously doesn’t have to deal with that so much,” Christian explains to me. “In places like Kentucky and West Virginia, coal country, Republicans like Trump will say coal is coming back. We say we actually need to transition to a new economy and create green jobs, and places where people live where they don’t get cancer from coal.”

Christian believes that the unexpected success of the Sanders campaign indicates there’s an appetite for the kind of politics the DSA is offering, and that a similar candidate could gain the Democratic nomination in four years time. “Having a candidate announce earlier than Bernie did, and with a good ground game in place, we could have 50,000 volunteers ready to go. We wouldn’t be scrambling around this time, we’d be ready to go to war with [Trump]”. Like many on the left, he thinks that Keith Ellison’s selection as DNC chair is a crucial part of the puzzle. Ellison was the first Muslim elected to Congress and is chair of the Progressive Caucus. “He’s a way better politician than Bernie,” Christian contends. “He understands the intricacy of talking about labour, poverty and unions very well.”

Others I speak to argue that focus should be on working from the ground up. “I’m not even talking about state legislatures,” explains Douglas. “I mean city councillors, school boards, things like that. This is going to be a long-term project and has to start at the absolute lowest level and work its way up. People don’t even realise, in some of these cities you can get elected to the city council on 500 votes. We want to start on the big stuff but it has to be an independent, left local movement. We can run all the candidates we want, but unless we’re out here informing people ‘it’s not actually about Mexicans or Muslims, it’s your boss, it’s his fault you can’t afford to save the money to send your kids to college,’ what’s the point?”

Whatever disagreements about strategy exist, the US left seems to be united by two things: fear of Trump’s presidency and a determination to succeed. Many members of the DSA are worried about their involvement with the organisation being publicly known. Unsurprisingly, this is more acute for members of groups attacked in Trump’s rhetoric. “We see apprehensiveness with some of our Latino membership,” Christian tells me. “People don’t want to out themselves because that's risking your own livelihood. We’re a working class organisation and most people have other jobs.”

With Trump associates making noises about recreating the House Un-American Activities Committee, some fear left-wingers could be targeted as dissidents as in previous decades. However realistic the threat of government persecution, there’s already a far-right website, KeyWiki, that keeps tabs on members of socialist organisations. Everyone I speak to agrees that groups particularly vulnerable to being targeted by Trump and his supporters – including Muslim, Latino and African American communities – must be defended at all cost. “The aim of the left should be to make it impossible for Trump to govern,” says Cato of Utica. “Establishment Democrats are already making conciliatory noises. If the Democrats aren’t going to do it in the Senate, the people have to do it in the streets through direct action.”

When I ask Amber what happens next, her response seems to sum up the mood amongst the US left: “To be honest, I have no idea. I’m terrified but I am ready to fight.”