Perils and pitfalls of raising girls
''Never before has girlhood been under such a sustained assault''
Steve Biddulph's warmth, common sense and easy style have turned him into one of the world's most popular parenting gurus. His book Raising Boys has sold more than 4 million copies and been translated into more than 30 languages. So it was perhaps only a question of time before he would turn his attention to girls. Raising Girls is his latest book.
When he says that ''Never before has girlhood been under such a sustained assault'', he is right. Young girls have become a soft target for big business; messages propagated through television and advertising tend to accentuate female sexualised imagery and their bodies rather than their brains. Consequently, everywhere a young girl goes ''she sees messages that make her feel that she is not good enough'', Biddulph says on a YouTube promotional video. Spot on, Steve.
The distress of young girls is clearly visible in the rising rates of mental health problems, binge drinking, eating disorders and the rampant growth of bullying in our schools. Girls are now expected to be all things - attractive, thin, good, successful, happy, kind, loving, self-sufficient; perfect, in other words, within an imperfect world that still does not give women the equal status they deserve.
Biddulph's advice to parents is full of common sense. Avoid toys that imply to a girl that looks and clothes are what matter. Dress young girls in outfits that are practical rather than too girly. Surround your daughter with other adults, aunts or friends to whom she can talk when she cannot talk to you, for the mother-daughter relationship can be notoriously difficult. All of which is good counsel that could equally well be applied to boys.
What worries me is that the wider context appears to be missing, in which girls are still socialised to be good and enabling of others, rather than competitive and capable of achieving their own dreams.
Most girls lack a grasp of basic feminism to help them understand that many of their experiences are the result of growing up in a profoundly unequal world, and therefore not their own fault. Parents can only do so much.
I am the mother of two daughters, aged 23 and 19. I am probably better equipped than most to cope, with two decades of research into family life and adolescence behind me, several published books on the subject and an upbringing steeped in feminism. Yet I still find it hard.
My daughters are intelligent, capable, beautiful, ambitious and kind people and I couldn't be more proud of them. But I also see how they cannot help but internalise the message that they are not attractive, thin or sexy enough, and need regular, repeated reassurances that they are, in fact, utterly stunning.
I see how hard it is for young women of their generation to be honest about who they are and what they want from life, to confront others and say what they think rather than what they feel they ought to say just to be liked. I see how girls are still socialised to be selfless, stepping back from opportunities with the presumption that ''she doesn't deserve it'', or ''isn't up to it'', whereas young men never think twice about their right to achieve.
And I see how so many young women still assume that their needs come behind those of the boys they form relationships with, absorbing the message that they are lucky to have been chosen at all, when they are the ones who should be doing the choosing.
I have no doubt that countless girls are growing up profoundly confused by the conflicting messages they are given. Take sex. On the one hand they are as entitled to sexual exploration and fulfilment as the boys. They feel sexy and are understandably interested in sex. They are encouraged by the boys to reveal body parts that can be instantly messaged from phone to phone. But the prevailing ethos is still that ''good'' girls ''don't''. ''Slag'' is the number one insult hurled at girls by both sexes and rumours almost always trash another girl's reputation. Boys are never tarnished in the same way.
Girls know they have to succeed, too, on their own merits. They are, on the whole, doing better than boys at school, according to exam results. But without a strong constitution, solid academic ambition, and a few healthy middle-class female role models who are also mothers thrown in for good measure, girls easily succumb to the notion that it is only the sexier and more attractive women who thrive.
Girls are human beings so they get just as angry as the boys but they are not allowed to express that anger. Research on siblings shows that girls fight just as much as boys when they are within the safety of their own homes. But when they get out into the wider world, girls fight half as much. So they ''bitch bully'', knowing how to wound each other exactly where it will hurt the most because they cannot express their rage and their impotence in any other way without compromising their reputations as ''good'' or ''nice''. Girls pull each other back when they strive to achieve, or in girl talk, ''get too up themselves''.
Raising girls - and boys - in a world that is still so profoundly unequal in the treatment of men and women requires a very particular kind of parenting. We have to work harder to help both our sons and our daughters understand how we are socialised to behave in certain ways according to our gender. Because it is only when we find the strength as individuals to chip away at those pernicious stereotypes that we can hope to change them.
It's funny how - if sales of Biddulph's previous books are matched by this one - it might only be once a man starts talking about these issues that their importance moves to centre stage. But if that's what it takes, then go Steve, go. In the end, every girl is somebody's sister, mother or wife.
Kate Figes is the author of Because of Her Sex: the Myth of Equal Opportunity for Women; Life After Birth; The Terrible Teens and The Big Fat Bitch Book.