ABC Radio Melbourne presenter Clare Bowditch talked to Steve Biddulph AM, Australian author, activist and psychologist about his new book on parenting and raising girls. This is an edited transcript of the interview.
Clare Bowditch: There are many things in life that we spend lots of time worrying about, but for those of you who have children I am assuming that you’re something like me and you spend a fair bit of your time wondering “How do I give these kids what they need in order to become the kind of adults that I know they can be?” It’s a question educators like Steve Biddulph have been asking for some decades now. You might know him as the author behind the million selling book, Raising Boys. He’s now turned his attention once again to the mental health of our girls. His belief is that perhaps they’re growing up too fast in these times. What can we do to support them in their growth and what are the 10 things, according to Steve Biddulph, that girls need most? That’s the title of his new book. …
Steve you have a lovely way of being able to simplify this complicated process called growing up. Now, you’ve been guiding parents through the process of supporting their kids in their quest to adulthood for many decades now. What have you noticed changing particularly in the life of girls?
Steve Biddulph: Okay, well it used to be Clare that girls were going great. 20 years ago they were flying ahead and that’s why I concentrated on boys for nearly 35 years because boys were the disaster area. But about 10 years ago my colleagues all around the world were picking up this really serious downturn in the mental health of girls. I had a teenage daughter in those times and I saw what she was going through and what her friends were going through and girls were just getting hammered. We just got more and more alarmed and so this new book is because I thought we needed some stronger medicine to give parents to help girls regain self-belief. All the things feminism was working for which seem to have gone out the window just lately.
CB: I think there is a new and interesting way of coming through but what you’re saying is girls were suffering. What was the evidence of this? What were you seeing Steve? How are they showing their suffering?
SB: The most clear cut and probably the core thing was anxiety. Now there may be people listening who’ve got daughters who are relaxed and confident and spirited into their mid teens. They may have loyal friends and are treated respectfully by the boys in their lives and that’s fantastic if that’s the case but for about two girls out of five, that’s just not so. They’re massively anxious and currently across the western world one in five teenage girls is on anxiety medication. They’ve reached a point where mum or dad have taken them to their doctor because it’s that’s scary and severe. Anxiety then drives the other things like self-harm and eating disorders and alcohol over use and risky sex … but anxiety, we think, is the core.
CB: Steve what do you think is behind this increase in anxiety because you’re painting a picture that’s very painful for people to hear. It’s painful to think that these girls are suffering. I wonder sometimes whether they’re admitting to it more or whether there is actually an increase in their anxiety. What’s your theory?
SB: … Well, what I want to tell you right at the top of the interview Clare is that the secret of family psychology is that the kids are not the problem. … It’s us! We’ve put them in this frantic life, with the hurry of our lives, the competitive nature of schooling and kinda the way they see the world it’s just the contest. Not just doing well at school but you have to look amazing and you have to be out there and switched on and then there’s the 24/7 saturation of the Internet. It’s a kind of a perfect storm and what’s different about our girls, and some boys are just as affected, of course, is that they have a more finely tuned radar and girls are more open hearted usually and so they’re kind of the ones that are showing up so clearly. It’s often the girls that often you really think are great. The ones caring about other people who are a bit sensitive and a bit finely tuned, are the first to fall.
SB: I think it’s us that have to get our act together so this new book, Ten Things Girls Need Most is kind of stronger medicine because it’s an interactive book. You go through it with a pen in your hand and you self-rate the calmness levels in your family and how well you were fathered and how well you were taught about sex and things like that. It’s for parents to start to be more self-aware so that they don’t pass these wounds on.
CB: Right at the start of this book you ask readers a really challenging question and it’s a profound question as well. It’s, “As your daughter’s parents, how well did stages go for you while you were growing up?” Is what you’re pointing to there that reactivation of our memories of being the age that perhaps our children are now? Are you saying to us that it’s almost a chance for us to go back and look at the things that were done well or not done well in our own childhoods and allow that to inform our parenting? How much does self-awareness play in our ability to parent well Steve?
SB: I think it’s everything Clare. I’m so glad you’ve been looking at those questions in the book because every bookshop now is crowded with books of quick fixes for things and as if that’s really how life is. But, of course, what brings us unstuck as parents, parents … read a lot now, they go on the Internet but what brings us unstuck is the stuff that’s lurking in the shadows of ourselves. The things we’re just not quite aware of. So when we lose our temper with our child, an example is say if a child is experiencing a little bit of bullying. Now, if we had bullying in our past it’s very hard to come to that with a nice steady balanced way. We can easily overreact and blast down to the school and demand suspensions or we can be immobilised with fear and not know what to do because maybe we had parents who yelled at us and were cold and difficult. I’ve been a therapist for nearly 40 years and when you get a handle of those things you can say, “Okay my parents never helped me with sexuality so I’m going to have to get a bit of a support for this and I want to do it differently.”
CB: In the book Steve you have a number of experts who add to the conversation and when it comes to the chapter on sexuality your advice is to start the conversations early. Well, your expert’s advice is to start the conversations early and to start them gently as well. What’s a question that you can ask and what age should we be starting having conversations with our young women about sex?
SB: … because I’m a man, I was very aware of writing a book for girls. There were things that weren’t really my domain or my place and so I got several of the best sexuality educators in the world that I’ve ever come across to contribute those chapters. What they were saying is to let kids know that you know about some of the things that they’re encountering. So you’re saying “Look, I’m sure people have shown you stuff on phones and pictures and things on the net that are pretty yucky looking and I want to let you know that love and sex, that’s not what it’s really like. That it’s a really great part of life and we’ll talk to you about that as time goes on and always be happy to talk about it.” And now you might then just back off. Your daughter thinks “Whoa, I didn’t even have time to get embarrassed!” And so just begin making those openings so when some idiot boy holds some picture up that’s really gross and really upsetting in the primary school playground your daughter thinks “That’s right, Mum knows about, that I don’t have to keep that secret from her. She’s okay with that.”
A little bit older into their early teens you’d be saying “Look, you know there’s pornography and what you need to know about pornography is that it’s really different and here’s how it’s different. People in real life talk to each other and they smile at each other and they’re kind and they’re not mean when they’re having sex.”
CB: So you’re decoding and making it real for them. … I have so many questions, but the core of it all is you make an argument in this book that our girls are growing up too fast. That they’re suffering from more anxiety than we did. At the very least that they’re able to articulate it and that they’re asking for our help. How do we anxiety proof our young girls? How do we support them so that they don’t have to suffer in silence with this stuff?
SB: Well, the way that the book works is it goes from babyhood right through and so we need to look at even their babyhood. Is it peaceful and are they times to be settled? In toddlerhood are they encouraged to be in nature and climb trees and explore and have animals and so they know what peaceful feels like? As they get older it’s a bit like the mothers alongside her daughters, we have to be willing to drive off the hyenas. Mothers and fathers, like in anytime in history, you have to wield a sword and that might mean saying okay we don’t have phones after seven o’clock in our house or we don’t just leave the TV on all the time because our daughters will get this wash of completely unconscious imagery that if you’re female you have to be thin and hot and sexy and young which is completely unconscious and we, as parents, have already caught that disease.
So if we talk around our daughters, does my bum look too big, and if we’re always dieting and if clothes shopping is our main family bonding activity, you could get away with that 20 years ago but now because she’s seeing thousands of images every day of women who look impossible. It’s no longer a healthy thing to do and so we’re persuading mums and dads to just walk away from that consumerist shopping fashion clothes scene.
CB: Steve I know this is your life’s work. You’ve been a parent, educator and psychologist for over 40 years now, the idea that you paint sometimes though, when I read this book, actually brings out the anxiety in me. I read things like we shouldn’t be drinking at all in front of our children and that we shouldn’t have televisions. That it’s our job to protect them from this media tsunami. Some of us get really overwhelmed by you know, this message that we shouldn’t busy. Do you think it’s ever too late for parents to .…?
SB: No, and in fact when we were field testing the book, we were working with mums in a very low-income suburb of Tasmania where I live and one of the mums burst into tears just reading the book and we were sitting in a circle and talking to her and I said what’s the matter? She said “I’m just realizing my daughter’s life is just like mine. There’s no stable man in her life, we fight all the time, just like I fought all the time.” So I really I want to send a message to parents [that] you need more peace in your life and please take the pressure down. You can perhaps stand this but your kids can’t … I’m a social change person, not a quick psychologist. I’m saying the way we live is crazy. I don’t think I said don’t drink in front of your kids or don’t have a TV but just …
CB: No, no, that was actually a comment in an article I read of yours.
SB: Yes, and so we always have to steer a middle path and if you can make a 5 per cent improvement. You know, have one night a week you just hang out without a television that’s great and the kids will just love it. They’ll say, can we do that again? One of my biggest impacts from my Raising Boys book is that tens of thousands of parents took a year off when their kids were in their teens and got an old four-wheel drive and took off around Australia and went and had a family year.
CB: That was one of the suggestions you made and I’ve got plenty of friends who’ve done that.
SB: Yes! And the kids will just cherish that memory and they just say “That was the best year of my life”. So we can stand up to the machine Clare. Machine says work and spend and earn and hurry and what I’m doing in my Facebook communities and with my books is saying there’s a better life. If that picture of your 14-year-old girl you know in the middle of the night coming across sobbing and shaking on the bathroom floor, that’s the thing you want to avoid and so give whatever it takes. I think that parents realise that and they’ll make those changes.
CB: You sound so peaceful Steve Biddulph … did you ever lose your temper as a parent? You sound like a peaceful man.
SB: Of course I did …
CB: You have an enormous Facebook community. You referred to them before. Very close knit. There are over 100,000 people on there. Tell me, you would have a great insight into this, what are the most repetitive concerns that they all share about their kids? What do you hear about again and again?
SB: Yes, well one of them will totally surprise you Clare. It’s that we think that primary school education and particularly the age in Australia when kids start school is doing enormous harm. No child should be doing sit-down schooling until they’re six years old. We’re doing that now with kiddies of four and prep isn’t prep anymore and kindy isn’t even kindy anymore and so this …
CB: It’s a German model really, isn’t it?
SB: Yes, German. In the Netherlands, Finland, you go to kindy and it’s usually part time. You can stay until you’re ready and I think this would be why we posted about it last week. People could go on the Raising Girls page and have a look. We posted about the Netherlands about how primary education works in the Netherlands and they don’t do any testing.
CB: They’ve got the happiest kids in the world too, apparently.
SB: That’s right!
CB: According to the World Health Organization.
SB: So I asked “Anyone out there from the Netherlands?” and 80 people from the Netherlands came online and said “Yes! Your education sucks.”
CB: And it’s not just about them getting chocolate sprinkles on their bread! That’s just one of the things that keeps Dutch kids happy. I’ve got some texts, Steve. Deb from Port Melbourne says …“I have two daughters and I’m startled by how early puberty starts for girls now. They don’t have the cognitive development to cope with the changes.” That’s her observation … Patrick in Brunswick makes his comment too: “I’m young, I’m obviously not a girl but I’ve got an idea why they might be anxious. Everyone saying there’s no job security, the ability to buy a house, etc. With all those delightful baby boomers telling us we’re not working hard enough from their houses that they bought for $1,000.” That’s one of his thoughts.
SB: Yes, these are good thoughts. And Deb’s point about puberty … it’s very common now for 8-year-olds to have their breasts starting to develop.
CB: Why is that? What’s the research behind that?
SB: The endocrinology of this Clare is that it’s a false puberty that starts because of a mixture of things. It can be stress, it can be obesity and also not having a father that’s very engaged has a risk factor of about 3-6 months in the onset of puberty so we’re very challenging to dads. My main thing in the world is to get dads to come up to speed and so to realise that if you’re a caring dad who plays with your daughter, who treats her like she’s intelligent and talks to her, you affect the chemistry of her body. That’s how strong your effect is. Real puberty, menstruation generally isn’t until around 12 and there’s a great chapter again written by women in the book about how to do that with our daughters. How to have puberty groups and rights of passage that are really bringing in other women, aunties and women that are significant to really celebrate them and say we’re going to be in your life forever and we’re going to support your womanhood, whatever. It shouldn’t all be on mums and dads to do this on their own.
CB: … Tell me about the warning signs that we should be looking out for in our teen girls. I don’t know if any other parents are the same but we think we’re hawks with it, we think we’re on to it but I reflect back on the things that I hid or tried to hide from my own parents as a child and it makes me wonder what are those signs?
SB: Yes, well, one of the things we say is that if a girl is going to go off the rails you’ll know it by 14. But, of course, the causes of it come much earlier than that. That’s because 14 is a tough age. None of us wants to go back to being 14. The thing is that the warning signs are always abundant. When you reflect back and …you’re close enough to your daughter that she can tell you and there’s a time in the day when you go in to her room to say goodnight or you’re just hanging out in the same space and you’re quiet enough and peaceful enough that she feels like there’s some bandwidth and you’d be interested. So not looking harassed.
This means you have to look like you’ve got all the time in the world and that’s never the case but they’ll look and say “Should I tell Mum about this?” It’s usually friendship angst in primary school, it’s hassles with boys and fitting in when they’re in their teens and things like that and so it means you have to have one-on-one time with one child at one time so that they can bring you up to speed. It’s only when we’re really rushing about too much you look back and think I’ve lost touch with her and perhaps we just need a day trip away somewhere, just the two of us or an overnight trip. It’s very good to just be one to one … leave your husband behind or dad and daughter go away, just the two of them. That way, whatever’s burning them up; they’ll have a time to bring it up. Sometimes it’s painful to tell you or they’re scared you won’t understand or you’ll overreact.
CB: Sometimes they’re also so cautious they really don’t want to upset us even though they’ve been [upset]. Some children they’re so careful about wanting to help keep that family equilibrium that they don’t feel there’s a space for them to be able to say “Things are not okay with me at the moment.”
CB: Viv from Carnegie has a question for you Steve. She says what if you’re a single mother who has no contact with the father or a grandfather?
SB: Yes. Now, don’t rush off and marry someone just for a male role model. It’s not an urgent overnight thing. It’s that in the course, she’ll be growing up for 18-20 years; that somewhere in there she meets men who treat her with respect. Whether it’s school teachers or activities or groups that you belong to, like an interest group or a group of musicians or the sort of circles where men speak respectfully to her and treat her like she’s intelligent and don’t see her as some kind of sex object basically. She needs to know men who are like that and so that she gets a feeling in her bones like “I just talked to a grown man for 20 minutes about my opinions about politics and he listened to me.” That’s the kind of figures that you want to somehow kind of engineer into her life and that’s all it take and it’s not a big thing.
CB: Steve Bidduph, thank you for your work over the last few decades helping Australians learn how to parent our kids in a way that brings our families together. Good for you.
SB: Thanks very much Clare. I can die an old, happy man, thank you.
CB: There are some lovely texts here: “Hi Steve. Just a big thank you for the work you do from parents of four girls under five. We have your books, they’re our bibles.” Also, …Sandra says: “We’ve got three daughters, 11, 9 and 6. I go away for four weeks at a time several times a year. I get criticized for being away from them but I find they are becoming closer to their father in this time. I find our eldest is being very challenging with me when I come home. She’s asking “Is that a consequence of my going away or just the natural development?”
SB: It’s really hard to know. It’s great that they’re getting close to their dad but I think four weeks is a bit long because there are things that only mums can talk about and that might intensify in the teen years Sandra. So if you could start to restructure that in the years to come it might just be a safeguard. I don’t know how free you are to do that but, yes, a month is a long time for a 12 or 13 year old.
CB: It’s kind of a hard job because you’re standing there having to spell out the ideal for us knowing full well that everyone’s trying their best and so on. Do you every get tired of that or get criticized for that? For standing for an ideal?
SB: I think people make their own minds up and it’s when you’re old you sort of kick backsides a bit more and people say “Well okay, Steve Biddulph has this thought. He’s not ramming it down our throats, he’s just out here saying this is what he thinks.” … People have misgiving in their own heart and if what I say strikes a chord with that, it gives them the courage to make those changes. If it doesn’t strike a chord, throw it away. Just don’t even listen. I’m perfectly comfortable with that.”
Clare Bowditch spoke to spoke to Steve Biddulph on ABC Radio Melbourne.