Raising Girls vs Raising Boys

The comparison between raising girls vs raising boys is one that I have been making these past years. My children have conformed pretty well to the ‘gender stereotyping’ by being sensitive, artistic and the peacemaker (my daughter) vs rowdy, maths and science fan and dominant (my son). 

A friend recommended the book by Steve Biddulph, “Raising Boys” a few years ago. I glanced through it, but really didn’t get on well with it. I can’t remember much about it, or why I put it down, but was interested to hear that Steve has followed up with a book about girls, called (predictively) Raising Girls.  

On Radio 2 this morning, the presenter remarked that it was ironic that the book criticises the way in which young girls are put under pressure by the media, yet the Guardian illustrated their article with a picture of two very attractive actresses. The book has not been released yet, but the article focuses on this issue while giving the reader a list of ‘star aunts’ including Beyonce and Sierra Miller. 

I found it more troubling that Biddulph has only just recently discovered that young girls face massive societal pressure. From this article on the Girl Power Generation:

Professor Steve Biddulph, a child development specialist and author of bestselling books about the challenges faced by boys in modern society, recently turned his sights on girls. His Raising Girls, is also published this month. “I have been starting to get worried about girls recently,” he says. “Girls used to be doing fine but have recently started to have much more trouble deciding who they are. “It was an awakening for me. I was very clear that there was a boy-catastrophe unfolding. Part of what I assumed was that girls were doing fine, but about five to six years ago we started getting research and statistics coming in from around the world that girls were, in fact, the ones in trouble.”

Only 6 years since Biddulph noticed that girls were in trouble? In 1995 the UN Bejiing 4th World Conference on Women noted that the portrayal of women in the media was damaging, 

The world- wide trend towards consumerism has created a climate in which advertisements and commercial messages often portray women primarily as consumers and target girls and women of all ages inappropriately

In 1998 the BBC reported on the media’s portrayal of girls (accompanied by this suggestion that girls should be shown as ‘buxom wenches’ !), and the New York Times reported in 1997 that women were more likely to be portrayed in film and TV roles talking about romance than careers.  Geena Davis’s foundation was created in 2004, Natasha Walter’s book Living Dolls has been on our bookshelves for some years, and widely discussed in the media.

Funny that a ‘child development specialist’ missed all of that.

In an interview with an Australian radio station near his home in Tasmania, he said: “I’m much more aware now of girls having enormous problems with things like bullying and eating disorders and generally not liking who they are. We’re noticing that even at primary school stage … There’s no mystery in what is causing that. I think we all agree about the pressures and what has happened here, that the corporations around the world started realising they could sell to young women and pre-teens. They gave them the message that your looks are the most important thing about them.”

Ok, so he was a bit late to the party. Never mind, as long as we are all talking about this issue, then all is well. Right? 

Well, no. This is where I part company with Steve. His ‘solution’ to this issue – or at least the one that the Guardian reviewer has picked up on – is that girls need aunts. Not that the media needs to change, but that we need:

‘a new feminism to include aunts mentoring younger girls and keeping them safe from the “toxic” influences of advertising and celebrity’

 Isn’t that pretty much what feminism is? Women helping and supporting women and girls?

Biddulph points out that no girl and her mum always get on, and for this reason it is good for girls to have an aunt – even a honorary one – in her life. While I agree that it is great for girls to have a positive role model in their lives, I don’t see Biddulph advising that my son should have a fun uncle in his life to compensate for him not getting on with his dad during puberty.

It is a natural part of puberty, for both boys and girls to ‘reject’ their parents. Children become adults and in doing so they have to assert their independence.

As I mentioned, the book is due out later this month, so at present I can only go on what is being reported in the media. Perhaps this idea of aunts is only a part of Biddulph’s solution for our girls, and I will be interested in reading the rest of the book. I researched his previous work when writing this blog post, and came across a review of his Raising Boys book, which leads me to believe that I may not agree with Biddulph’s findings.

I also found a thread on Mumsnet, in which one of the posters asked about the scientific research on which the book was based. Specifically she asked about the often repeated statement that a surge of testosterone around the age of four years is responsible for a rise in aggression. When I searched for information about this, I came up lots of anecdotal tales on parenting websites, basically the same urban myth being repeated and strengthened. Often the source of this assertion was Biddulph’s Raising Boys, which this blogger  remarked upon some years ago. 


This research paper (PDF)  is very interesting on the reasons for an increase in aggression in toddler boys, but does not find a link between hormone changes and aggressive behaviour

The testosterone surge  Increasing testosterone levels in young boys might affect the development of aggression. However, a link between testosterone and physical aggression in early development, although demonstrated in other primate species, has not been clearly shown in young humans (van Goozen, 2005). The postnatal testosterone surge in  humans appears to be correlated with sex-specific morphological change, not with behaviour.

The author also makes this important point 

Thus it becomes important to study the extent to which socialization pressures are applied to the early aggressive behaviour shown by girls as opposed to boys (Fagot & Hagen, 1985).
Are parents and other adults more likely to ignore or even admire boys’ aggression? Are they more likely to encourage boys to defend themselves in conflict with siblings and peers ?
Observations of young children reveal that parents are more likely to tolerate aggression when it is shown by a boy (Martin & Ross, 2005). Girls, as opposed to boys, are more likely to be required to relinquish their claims to an object in dispute (Ross et al. 1990). Perhaps because of such pressures, in conflicts with mothers, siblings and friends, girls are more likely to show submissive behaviour (Dunn & Herrera, 1997). Thus, girls are under considerable pressure to desist from aggression. Such social pressure may force overt aggression underground.It is important to recognize that girls and boys start out with similar levels of aggression. Unqualified acceptance of the common wisdom that aggression is a normative part of boyhood impedes detection of those highly aggressive girls and boys whose problems persist into later life.

I find it worrying that we are excusing our boys’ aggressive behaviour as something that they cannot help, a result of a hormone surge that has not been scientifically proven. At the same time we are telling our girls that they should just walk away, ignore the annoying boy, he will stop if we ignore him.

It worries me because we are teaching our girls from a young age that the right way to react to aggression is to walk away, and we are teaching our boys that aggressive behaviour is in some way acceptable, and to be expected.

This is a terrible lesson to teach our children, and leads to trouble in later years. Our daughters should be protected from aggression, whether it is a male toddler, a teenager or an adult man.

Over the years, I have read a few parenting manuals, and have taken bits and pieces from various books, websites and online discussions. My main gripe against such books is that they deliver a one-size-fits-all approach to parenting, and are based on the author’s opinion rather than on scientific research.

Parenting ‘experts’ tell us how to raise our children. What to feed them, how to discipline them, how to prepare them for school, how to make them happy, or successful, or obedient. If we don’t follow the current phase, we are made to feel guilty, somehow lacking as parents.

My daughter doesn’t need an aunt to teach her that looking like a celebrity is not something to aim for. When she read an article in a pre-teen magazine, ‘How to Look Like Selena Gomez’, she remarked, ‘Why would I want to look like her? I look like me’.

It was her frustration that led me to start Jump! Mag.  Over the past year, I have discovered hundreds of girls like her, who love to read about inspirational women, science, nature and games – and much more. They enjoy writing for Jump! Mag, and they love to read the writings of other girls. The development of girls has become a focus in my life – and I am learning more about how to inspire and support girls.

We constantly underestimate the intelligence of our girls. How often have you said, ‘Isn’t this incredible writing, for an 11 year old?‘. It is incredible writing, that is for sure, but why are we amazed? Our girls ARE amazing, and we need to tell them so.

What is the best way to raise the confidence of a child – boy or girl? It is to tell them that they have done something well, to express approval and admiration. Then they won’t feel that they need to emulate a pop star or actress, because they are happy being themselves. 

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