Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: The more aunts the better

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The Independent Online

Child psychologist Steve Biddulph has written books on child-rearing that have prevented many of us from total parental blowouts. Until 2003, his focus was on boys. Girls, he believed then, were psychologically in much better shape. Not anymore. In his latest book, Raising Girls, he finds that there has been a "marked plunge" in the emotional and mental wellbeing of girls.

Many of us had seen this before Biddulph did, but his stamp of authority is hugely important. He gives brilliant pieces of advice, in simple, clear language. And one of those is to ensure that daughters have "aunties", real and adopted, to be their friends, keep them safe from the malign aspects of popular culture, to be confidantes and provide practical help. At times daughters and mothers just can't get along, and so dear aunty can step into the breach to save them both.

In our Asian cultures these aunties have been the butt of many jokes: always interfering, often spinsters, not clever but very warm, plump and generous with big bosoms to snuggle into. In truth, these ladies have been, for many of us, buttresses, second mothers, irreplaceable protectors, shelters in a storm. Our family life was insecure, sometimes violent, always unpredictable. But my devoted mum always had this ring of aunties, to whom she could send me during hard times. Some paid my school fees and bought me clothes; others made me laugh when I was sobbing, which I often was. All but one now is gone and I dream of them often. My daughter has similar lovely minders, all friends I grew up with, who love her dearly.

Recently, I brought my only sister home for a late Christmas lunch. Older than me, she's severely mentally ill. I have no idea any more what she is thinking or feeling. It makes me weep. In the late 1950s, she was sent as a teenager to England by my wayward father and had to survive in a very different world and with little money. In those early years away from home, she never had a crowd of aunties around her. Now it's too late. Biddulph's advice is more important than he knows himself. Aunties can save young lives.