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Photo: Harper Collins Australia

Parenting expert warns: we’re “killing our kids”

Psychologist Steve Biddulph thinks girls have it tougher than they used to. His latest tome, 10 Things Girls Need Most, teases out what he considers to be the crux of girls’ issues: parental anxiety.

Biddulph calls it an “Anglo-Saxon disease” that’s “killing the kids”. Too much focus on achieving and not enough on growing and developing at a more natural pace. “You have to be achieving, get good marks to go to university to get good marks to get a good job to get lots of money, then you’ll be a success, and that’s a false goal,” he told Early Learning Review. “That’s the pathway to divorce, anxiety and sleep disorders. We have to take the pressure down in our whole culture. There are very smart countries like the Netherlands and Sweden where people just don’t do what we do. This is an Anglo-Saxon disease and it doesn’t have to be like that.”

I asked Biddulph about this and other issues facing young girls, and children in general, gleaned from his decades as a youth therapist, as well as from parents from around the world who contribute to his Facebook discussions.

ELR: Why this book, now?

SB: I had originally written Raising Girls about four or five years ago and the problems with girls are not going away. In fact, they’re getting worse. One in five girls, now, across the Western World, has an anxiety diagnosis. All of the problem behaviours – eating disorders, self-harm, problem drinking, sexual risk-taking – they’re all anxiety-driven. What I came to realise is we needed stronger medicine, basically.

For the under-sixers, this is where the roots of the anxiety comes from. The book makes a pretty big emphasis on getting those mental health foundations in with girls. They need a sense of being loved and secure and free and strong, before they go to primary school.

One of my understandings as a family psychologist is that the real, deep-down secret is the kids are not the problem. It’s what we’re doing in the adult world that is making girls so miserable and unhappy and stressed. The kind of anxieties and stresses of the parents are what’s impacting the children.

Can you explain the impact of parental anxiety on kids, particularly girls?

Hurry is the enemy of love. Love, in practise, is that capacity to really be close to a child and read their signals and be in tune with them. As we start to speed up our lives, all of our relationships get more tangled and we don’t quite hear what they’re trying to tell us. It’s exactly the same in a marriage…you’re just rushing in and out of the household at times, just managing life.

With a child who’s upset about something, sometimes you’ve just got to sit with them with a while. Just be in the same room. And eventually they’ll tell you what they’re upset about.

I think in Anglo-Saxon families in Australia, the UK and America in particular, people are very, very busy. What happens is, because girls are a little bit more sensitive or a bit more openhearted, which is exactly what we want in our kids, they’re the first ones to crack.

Fifty years ago, girls spent much more time with older women, including mums, aunties and mum’s friends. Now, the peer group has become all-powerful for girls. It’s often a very unkind place.

When it comes to caregivers like preschool teachers, they seem to be incredibly hurried. Can you explain the issue with this?

Preschool is being seriously eroded by the pressure to learn. The research is very, very clear that play is the only appropriate form of learning for little ones; kids under six. In a good childcare setting, there will be a lot of daydreaming and a lot of solitary quiet play. Don’t worry about that. That’s actually mental health time.

We think we’re going to topple our government in Tasmania because this is a huge issue in Tasmania. They tried to lower the compulsory school start age to three and a half.

Many of your readers will feel like, ‘I’m supposed to get the kids ready with these skills’, and so they teach them their letters or to write their names and that’s totally developmentally inappropriate. As educators, we have to fight that and because it’s sort of implied that we’re not competent because we’re not putting these kids to task.

There’s a chapter in your book called The chance to be wild and time to be a child. Can you explain more about that in the parenting context, including the role dads can play?

It’s really important to see that the human infant is a wild creature. Your daughter is a wild creature, and she needs the rhythms and the textures and the restfulness and the freedom of natural environments. We are working with a lot of playgrounds projects around the country, making them wilder and rougher. Where you can fall off things and get scratched and scraped. This is what kids need for their sensory development and, paradoxically, for their safety.

The 2-5 years age group is when little girls quite often get domesticated in the sense that they get this message, consciously or unconsciously, that a good girl is neat and tidy and quiet; that’s what teacher likes, and that’s what mummy and daddy like. We don’t do that to boys as much. It’s a very sexist, gendered thing.

Children in the care of their father are five times more likely to be hospitalised. We always tell dad to be vigilant and watchful, but the general thing is that dads will do more exciting things with children. That’s very good. We tell them to do this with their daughters, especially. Girls now need to have backbones and strength, and not be shaped into this sweet little helpless mould.

Your book mentioned that gendered toys could contribute to these stereotypes?

Yes. It’s very odd how things were better for girls 20 years ago, because feminism was in full flight and we just got to a really good place where kids played with the same toys.  It went horribly backwards because the commercial world, the Disney Princess kind-of-thing kicked in. Girls do lean a bit that way anyways. Corporations just magnified it way over the top, and in this culture, there’s so much visual media, which makes it worse.

My daughter was three and we had the TV on and she turned around and said, “Oh, mummy, isn’t that great? That lady’s husband will love her now that she’s thin”. She’d just seen a Jenny Craig ad. We were just horrified. We didn’t think she really listened to television. That was the end of commercial television in our house…

Have there been any positive developments for girls that you’ve witnessed lately?

Yes! I don’t want to be too gloomy. Young women are very articulate now. They get lots of good stuff from social media. They get into campaigns and they start activist groups. Your generation (Gen Y) of women have really raised their horizons. In some ways it’s going really well. I think we just forgot about the kids a little bit. Feminism got kind of corrupted by the corporate world. It became about self-promotion rather than how it was when it began: very much a collective thing. I think we need to go back to that.

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