The forgotten years of girlhood

Helping girls become women takes guidance not space ...
Helping girls become women takes guidance not space ... Photo: Getty Images

If girls have lost four years of girlhood - which years are they, asks Steve Biddulph

We hear it everywhere - girls are growing up too fast. When I mention this to audiences of parents, their heads nod like they are going to fall off. Taxidrivers know it. Teachers know it. Doctors in emergency rooms almost weep when they say it, after dealing with twelve-year-olds who have drunk so much they aren’t able to breathe.  

"Fourteen is the new eighteen" sums it up. In a world that is barraged by advertizing, with intense visual media coming at our daughters from the minute they can sit up, all telling them that they are what they look like, and they’d better look hot; it's not surprising that some parents just throw their hands up and say “what can you do?”. Except that you can do an awful lot. Protecting our kids - boys and girls - from the hyenas has always been the job of parents. Its just that the hyenas these days have soothing voices and live in the TV set in the living room. And they want your daughter to be worried.  

Luckily there are powerful things we can do to take back our influence on our children’s well being. For example - if girls have lost four years of girlhood - then which years are they? And what exactly should happen in those years, if we want to win them back?

When I was researching my book Raising Girls (which took about twenty years if I include raising my own!) I found that with all our focus on the early years, another critical age was being totally ignored. It turned out that the make-or-break stage for daughters was one that often gets overlooked. Of the five stages that make up girlhood, ten to fourteen is the time when girls most develop who they are and what they think and believe in. Its the age when they “find their soul”.

If girls rush into worrying about weight, looks, boys and fashion at the age of ten, you know you have missed something important. We have to follow nature’s cues more closely. The onset of puberty sets the clock,  it makes girls go very inward. They think a lot, seeming to know that adulthood is on its way. (Puberty in boys is slower - it arrives a year or two later and doesn’t finish until about seventeen.) In girls, its often all done by fourteen. And girls seem to instinctively know this. They want to learn about how to be a woman.  

The problem is - they won’t get this from other girls, at least not in a wise calm way. According to Professor Deborah Rickwood of Brainspace, girls who discuss their problems among themselves can often make each other worse not better. They need to be around adults. Thats the thing we have most misunderstood about teenagers - especially the early teens - we shouldn’t just leave them alone. Your daughter is putting together the kind of woman she wants to be. That will include a fair slice of you, unbelievable as that might seem, so it helps if you aren’t a frantic anxious overburdened mess. The great paradox of parenthood is kids can only be as calm as their parents, while we are so worried about them we become frantic! But if you can slow down, ease off on commitments, simplify life, and be available for long soulful talks with her when the chance occurs, it will make these years go so much better.

And, since our daughters also have a healthy dose of not wanting to be like us, and just by the dice throw of genetics may be very different to us, they also need to meet eccentric, interesting, different and original kinds of women. Of all ages. Women who do stuff that breaks the boundaries - explore, create, innovate, fight for what they believe in, women of every size shape and kind. That way your daughter can borrow and steal all the great aspects of being a woman that she wants from a wide and wonderful palette. She needs real or surrogate aunties, people who stick around, tell her home truths, talk about topics we would blanche to even mention, but she needs to know about.  

Finally, a girl has to find her spark. Spark is the name given by researcher Peter Benson to the fact that in every girl, and boy, there is an interest or passion waiting to burst into full flame. It could be animals, music, art, science, saving the earth, healing, sport or creativity of any kind. Its what makes a young person want to get up in the morning. Your daughter has a spark, somewhere inside her, and its up to you and her to find it and give it wings.

Ten to fourteen is when she becomes the person she was born to be. Then she can withstand the growing up years of boys, school pressures, peer groups and separating away from you, already strong in what she thinks is right and wrong, important and trivial, wise and stupid. Give your daughter more of you from ten to fourteen, and watch the difference that it makes. 

Steve Biddulph is an Adjunct Professor of Psychology, and the author of the bestsellers Raising Boys, and Raising Girls.