Something strange is happening to our daughters

Girls feel they must be rake-thin, sexually active, cocky, hard, indifferent to the mores by which we try to live, and cool, always cool
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The Independent Online

The much-publicised, apparently brilliantly acted filmThirteen is out this week. No thanks, not for me. I am afraid enough already of what the next few years will bring in our lives as my beloved daughter turns into a young teen. The film is based on a true story. Tracy, contented teen, good at school, close to her conscientious single-parent mum, is turned into a self-harming drug addict and criminal within four months of meeting a bad sort, another teenager who is vastly more street wild and powerful and therefore irresistible to the gullible Tracy.

I am being ridiculous (perhaps) and pusillanimous (definitely) but this fear is becoming hard to dispel. More muscular commentators or those with a breezy optimism imbibed in the Sixties seem not in the least worried about what awaits their own young daughters. Lucky folk. But then I was not here in the Sixties and have never believed with absolute certainty that I have what it takes to counteract the many forces of destruction and the whimsies of fate that may await my children.

As the images of Holly and Jessica appear night after night, as daily new warnings are delivered about drug addiction, binge drinking, smoking, under-age sex, truancy and mental illness among the young, I confess I am close to losing heart that our own efforts to bring up a loved and balanced child will succeed.

For two years now I have asked, and I ask again today, whether the purveyors of these habits and "lifestyles" ever ask themselves what they think they are doing (besides making money and fame for their companies) and whether they can safely predict the effects of their products and propaganda on young minds. The responses so far? Arrogant indifference to these questions, combined with mindless accusations that such queries are prudish and "right wing".

I find myself continually ruminating about parenting, what my daughter now needs, what good things she has inherited from the feminist revolution, and the effects of some of the commandments of that movement on our daughters, who constitute the post-post-feminist generation. From the hundreds of e-mails I get on the subject, I know this is what other parents are feeling too, particularly as their daughters come closer to puberty.

There is an abrupt, startling change in the girls themselves, the birthday parties, the clothes, the chirpy babble (like, they can, like, not say anything, like, without, like, saying "like" 13 times), the way they walk, their challenging eyes, the moods, the emotional intensities, the hurtful manoeuvres which determine who is in and who is out and the pain of the rejected. The one we invite to the party but not the sleepover, the one who didn't get asked to either, the one who was wrongly blamed for things who suddenly appears to feel depths of rage and sorrow not witnessed before. We have noticed this over the last few months as our daughter's friends turn 11 one by one.

Nothing new here you might say. Hormones of course, only getting up much earlier than before and causing that much more drama and insecurity as a result. As parents too we are only reacting with an age-old panic that the babes we once cuddled and dressed in soft pink and peach clothes, who gazed upon our faces with need and grateful adoration, are now turning into stroppy, autonomous beings, never again as compliant they were.

Dennis Hopper, he of Easy Rider, put this confusion nicely when he was interviewed for Blitz magazine in the early Eighties. "Well, let's face it," he said, "what right have you to a life unless you devote it to dispelling the confines that our parents worked so hard to achieve... although don't forget we're all parents now."

Life moves on, expectations too. And in the West, among the many, many good developments is this one - that most of our children now grow up knowing and interacting with their parents instead of merely fearing them, as was the case once in this country and still is in too many others (and among some British communities too). Children, daughters especially, as objects, as pawns, as silent receptacles of parental views, unable to express choices or their own ideas - that version of childhood is on its way out and a very good thing too.

There is no sense in overstating a crisis or creating an illusion that all was better when children had discipline, two parents who kept to their roles, real toffee and hopscotch on the sunny streets. Equally, no good comes out of insisting that it was always thus. It wasn't. Last week, the Nobel prize-winning black American novelist Toni Morrison (at the British Library, where she was recording an interview with Andrew Marr for Start the Week) spoke of her concerns about young children being sexualised to the extent they are in both the UK and the US. The media, popular culture and their peers make girls feel that they must be rake thin, sexually active, cocky, hard, indifferent to the mores by which we try to live, and cool, always cool. This never happened before.

Rudegirls, a riveting BBC2 programme to be broadcast this Tuesday, exposes the new brutal girl-gangs on our streets. They delight in harassing Hasidic Jews, they steal cars, they terrorise neighbourhoods. Again this never happened before. There were always molls who attached themselves to bad guys but this phenomenon is a product of our modern world.

Of course these girls have a tough life and are impoverished in all sorts of ways. Their mothers have no control over the children. But before we huff with disapproval and spurn these "feral" folk, are we so sure that we could rein our daughters in if they suddenly decided to go the way of young Tracy or these rudegirls? That wasn't possible even in the obedient old days. I had a best friend my father disapproved of, because her mother ran a bar. He roared; he threatened; he followed us; he drove me further into that friendship.

How many times can you say no to a child before she throws herself into destruction as an act of rebellion? How can you show her better ways to be cool? If any of you know please advise before our daughter hits 13 and turns into a creature we cannot recognise. I have raised a son, and know how that works. There were nightmare years with him - but girls are different and, I think, more vulnerable and needy as they grow up, even when they are outwardly confident and academically proficient.

Maybe one solution is for me to re-think the work/life balance. I am becoming keenly aware that young girls are not at all convinced that their mothers need to work all hours, or that this is what they would choose to do. They need us to be there more, not less, just when they are striking out and pretending to be grown up. When I can't be there for the afternoon show or meeting, the distress felt and well expressed by my daughter is much worse than before. It makes me think that the writer and culture critic Allison Pearson was right when she wrote that feminism was good for us, the women, but much less so for the children.

Now that we have (nearly) got what we wanted for ourselves, it's time to look their way. And pray for the best. Lots.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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