In a day and age where women are still forced to stage marches in every major city across the world to campaign for gender equality, how are parents supposed to ensure their daughters grow up to be strong, independent and confident young women who never feel inferior?
Parenting expert and child psychologist Steve Biddulph has shared his thoughts in a new book 10 Things Girls Need Most to Grow up Strong and Free. According to the Australian, these are: a secure and loving start, the time to be a child, friendship skills, the respect and love of a father, a spark, aunties, a happy and healthy sexuality, a backbone, feminism and spirit.
When deciding on the 10 components, Biddulph reflected on things that research show to be strengthening of girls’ development as well as working back after talking to women about what they felt harmed their childhood and development.
“The book is a kind of self-diagnostic guide, and so if parents have concerns about their daughter, they can pinpoint what might be missing,” he told The Independent. “Each girl is different, and the most important for one girl might be to have positive messages about sexuality and her right to choose what happens to her body and have it be a happy thing. For another, the interest and support of a dad might be needed - if he is too distant, busy or unsure of his role.”
The key pressures, stigmas and battles that face young girls and women today are recognised in the book and advice is offered on how parents can help their young daughters try and overcome some of this.
For example, Biddulph advises parents clear their homes of “the insane media pressures about how you look” and not to convey any of their own hang ups or insecurities about their bodies in front of their daughter. Similarly, the importance of strong female role models is stressed, including aunties, as is the open nature of talking about sex in a positive way while also stressing that she, and no one else, is in charge of her body.
In the book, Biddulph explains that a lot of girl's and women's individual problems are actually not that individual at all. They are often a result of the forces, pressures, inequalities, stigmas and abuses of women throughout the years. This is why feminism listed as one of the ten components for raising strong girl.
“It [feminism] matters because often a girl individualises,” Biddulph says. “She hates her own body, feels stressed around boys, or pressured to have sex when she doesn’t really like it or want it. She feels less free to move around the place, and may be bullied or told she can’t do the work or interests she wants.
“Realising that this has been a battle fought for over a century and in every corner of the world, that it is not just her, has been found to be a great mental health boost, because it makes you angry instead of frightened or inadequate. You feel part of something larger.”
This helps to explain why Biddulph’s parenting advice is gender specific. Previous bestselling books of his have included Raising Girls and Raising Boys. He says much of what is in the new book could be applied to boys but there are unique risk factors for girls such as being more prone to suffering from anxiety, depression or eating disorders. On the other hand, boys are statistically more likely to die, be violent or end up in jail.
“One day we think these differences may well disappear and that is a goal I have,” he says. “But we have to start with the boys and girls of today.”
However, the biggest problem facing children today, Biddulph says, affects both genders – albeit in different ways – and it is busyness.
“From babyhood on, people do not have or make time to really be peaceful, and be close in their families,” he explains. “We don’t protect or care for young parents enough for them to parent. Neo-conservative governments want everyone in the workforce and make us feel that parenting is an inferior activity…. I say that ‘hurry is the enemy of love’ and that our reflexive busyness has simply got out of hand. We are a herd animal, and it is hard to go against the tide, though people are starting to make that choice. When people are busy then connections are weakened, kids don’t tell us their problems, mums and dads start to get tense and unhappy for lack of peace or intimacy, and kids are managed and herded about instead of being really nurtured. It is the same in school where teachers all over the world tell me they don’t have time to care.”
Biddulph says the busyness starts from early childhood with aged four being too young for children to start school.
“We are rushing childhood and so even little kids are pressured and stressed. The result is one in five having diagnosable anxiety, and an incredible one in three self-harming, according to UK figures.”
Men are in no way excluded from 10 Things Girls Need Most. There is a section specifically for fathers on how they can help their daughters grow up to be strong, independent young women but not one for mothers.
“Dads are the good news story in this picture because they are much more engaged than a generation ago,” Biddulph explains. “We have trebled the time dads spend with kids in the last 30 years. Dads are coming through really well now.
“But they often don’t know their role with daughters, especially in the teens so we offer some very concrete tips for that. One is to have regular one-to-one outings with daughters, so they know and feel that they are special to us. To always be reliable and safe, not to be loud or scary, and to treat their mother respectfully and well. These are huge things for girls.”
10 Things Girls Need Most by Steve Biddulph, is out now, published by HarperCollins, £16.99
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