Society Magazine

Sugar and Spice and All Things Nice… In Response to Steve Biddulph on Woman’s Hour 22nd January

Posted on the 25 February 2013 by Weekwoman @WeekWoman

- This article was submitted by Emma Finamore in early Feb; apologies from Week Woman for taking so long to put it up.

“I wrote the definitive book on boys across the world…to produce a better kind of young man” proclaimed Steve Biddulph on Woman’s Hour a few weeks ago. He was being interviewed by Jane Garvey about his new book, Raising Girls: Helping Your Daughter to Grow Up Wise, Warm and Strong, a follow up to 2010’s Raising Boys – the “definitive” guide.

raising girls

A quick internet search told me that Biddulph was voted Australian Father of the Year in 2000 for his work in encouraging fatherhood, and has been instrumental in the introduction of parental leave here in the UK.

A firm believer in protecting young girls from becoming sexualised at a young age, and wary of gender stereotypes, Biddulph certainly has many views which I hold dear. During the discussion he made an interesting point about the way we speak to young girls – “Look at the pretty bunnies, aren’t they cute?” – compared to how we speak to young  boys – “Look at those rabbits! How many of them can you count?” – can ingrain gender expectations in children from an extremely early age, and warned of how deep this impact can be on them.

Biddulph also pointed to the roles of media and advertising in damaging young girls’ self-esteem,  and how they set age-inappropriate examples and expectations of their bodies and behaviours. His mode of parenting promotes limited access to television and the internet, which one could argue may (and the emphasis there is definitely on the may) go some way to protect daughters from what he describes as the “toxic” influences in society.

In many ways Biddulph seems to be fighting the same corner as the brilliant women behind the Pinkstinks campaign (, whose mantra is “There’s more than one way to be a girl.” This is a distinct breath of fresh air in our heavily gendered world.

Progressive and traditional? Is Biddulph some sort of Parental Guidance superhero? Could he be just what modern parents need to help navigate the tough journey of childhood?

Although this does definitely seem to be a view that Steve himself subscribes to (note the decidedly smug reference to Raising Boys …I mean, I’m all for self-belief, but that’s a bit much), how do some of his parenting tips stand up to scrutiny?

In the Woman’s Hour interview Biddulph claimed that “Men don’t turn out well by chance…if parents don’t have a very clear idea of what kind of man they want to create and be working on that from the minute he can open his eyes then we do get some terrible things happen with boys.” So, according to Raising Girls, not only must a parent be ‘on’ at all times, but they must also be moulding their child into a very definite shape from the very start.

Is this really the case? Anyone who has read I know why the Caged Bird Sings by the incredible Maya Angelou, who battled through intense hardships to become (warning – this will make you feel hugely inferior): a poet, civil rights activist, dancer, film producer, television producer, playwright, film director, author, actress, professor, will see how this is simply untrue. Angelou didn’t even see her parents between the ages of three and seven, let alone spend quality time with them. How would Steve explain the woman she became?

As well as “working” on your child “from the moment he can open his eyes”, Biddulph endorses keeping girls out of childcare as long as possible, and told Jane that “the next wave of feminism will be about taking care of the youngsters”. He claimed in an interview on Mumsnet in September 2000 that “Ambition, after all, is a kind of greed if it’s taken too far.”

Children and a career? Think again ladies! Unless, of course, you don’t mind throwing your daughter’s future into the gutter…

Biddulph piles pressure onto mothers to be calm and perfectly measured at all times, claiming that a little girl will then achieve “that calmness, a mental health resource, developed from babyhood in order to ‘burst out’ at about two or three, into loving and exploring the world”. What about those red-blooded, spirited women who teach girls about passion and standing up for ones beliefs? I doubt that these girls grow up to love and explore the world any less than daughters brought up in the Biddulph-ian manner.

And hang on a second, guys – you don’t get off lightly either! According to Steve, in the same interview on Mumsnet in 2000, “Dads for daughters are the key to self-esteem… If Dad is too busy, daughters tend to affected by boys too young.” So, Dads – clear those diaries for 18 years. Single mothers and lesbian couples? May as well shut up shop and go home.

While I am by no means attacking the nuclear family, and of course for many girls a relationship with their father is a wonderfully enriching part of their childhood, I think that other ‘types’ of family unit should be acknowledged and valued. Surely Biddulph can’t believe that all girls have a father in their lives? Why are these children omitted from his model of parenting?

In the Woman’s Hour interview Steve also observed that “parenthood is about putting children first, there’s a selfishness in British society (…) that is really rampant”. Is he mistaking choice for “selfishness” here?

I am immensely proud of my mother for working when I was a child. Far from harming me, this gave me a strong female role model to aspire to, and taught me about work-ethic, about how a marriage can be equal in terms of bread-winning, and above all about how families all work in their own individual way. It is important to acknowledge that domesticity may be one woman’s dream but another woman’s nightmare, and in doing so we will allow for happier parents as well as happier daughters.

I have grown up in the knowledge that there is (at least to some extent) a choice in how I can live my life as a woman, which for all his talk of feminism, Steve seems to have brushed under the carpet.

Kate Figes, who was part of the same interview on Woman’s Hour, suggested something that seems far more applicable to real life, and spoke to my own childhood far more than anything put forward by Biddulph: “We’re hard on ourselves and perhaps that’s the wrong image to be giving girls: that we’re not being the ‘perfect’ mothers that we’re supposed to be.”

I suppose what bothers me the most about Biddulph’s approach – and any kind of prescriptive child-rearing guide – is that ironically the child themselves is often left at the end of the equation as a sort of ‘result’, neglecting the fact that children are all inherently different. Girls respond to their families, their friends, to their experiences, to good times and hardships all in an unpredictable and unique way.

We are not passive, dainty cupcakes to be baked to perfection. Even Nigella couldn’t write a fool-proof recipe to “cook the perfect” girl.

Even though I agree with much of what Biddulph says, I cannot subscribe to such an identikit approach to something as complex as forming a human being. In the same way that children respond to their parents, parents should also respond to their children. Love, kindness, openness and adapting your approach to fit your child’s own character, must surely be the best way to parent, regardless of gender.

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