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

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

A young boy swings on a climbing frame in Brockwell Park, London.
Family psychologists can do incredible work, but Biddulph's work is incredibly short-sighted. Photograph: Getty Images

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.