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Girl talk from Biddulph
7:00am Saturday 2nd February 2013 in NewsXtra
Steve Biddulph's Raising Boys was a worldwide bestseller that helped millions of parents to understand their sons. Now the leading psychologist is turning his attention to girls, in his latest book Raising Girls. He talks about his own childhood and warns of the dangers of kids growing up too quickly, social media, and other major issues of the 21st century.
By Hannah Stephenson
Having a 13-year-old daughter who prefers shopping to sport, spends too much time in front of the mirror and would rather read a celebrity magazine than a Harry Potter novel, I can hardly wait to hear some sound parenting advice from renowned child psychologist Steve Biddulph.
Some 15 years ago, Biddulph captured the mood of parents worldwide with his softly softly, common sense approach to bringing up boys, detailed in his bestselling book Raising Boys.
He was the voice of reason, penning ideas and solutions that everyone else had been thinking - that fathers have to be good role models but they have to also be present, that boys want your time, not your money.
Today, he is addressing the various problems of the fairer sex in his latest book, Raising Girls.
Listening to my plight, the softly-spoken British-born author, who now lives in Tasmania, advises: "I wouldn't treat shopping as a mother-daughter recreation or talk about weight in the house or buy fashion magazines. Don't show an interest in it."
The main problem with today's girls is that they are simply growing up too quickly, he reflects.
"The problem with girlhood in 2013 is that we've lost four years of childhood. What you and I were learning at 18 they now confront at 14. What we did at 14 they did at 10. But you can't navigate sexuality at 14. Our culture has robbed girls of four years.
"About one in five girls has a serious psychological disorder some time during her growing up," he continues. "It could be anxiety and depression, binge drinking, risky sex and eating disorders. It's an alarming crisis."
My own alarm bells ring when he starts talking about daughters having under-age sex.
"Statistics show that when a girl is 14, about one in five of her friends will start having sex with boys.
"The other four won't do that. They might have sex at around 16 with a boy they like.
"There's this divide. From research, it's the girls whose mums discuss things with them that fall into the second category [and have sex later].
"It's about gentle talking, not finger-wagging. That way, your daughter may get into more scrapes than you'd like her to, but far less than the girls who haven't a clue and are being allowed to do their own thing.
"You have to be involved and sometimes you have to be unpopular."
The book covers all sorts of issues which affect girls, including their premature sexualisation, the dangers of too much TV, social media, not enough sleep, alcohol and drugs, weight and food issues.
His advice smacks of common sense - talk to your daughters gently about their problems, limit screen time, encourage family activities and conversation, ensure they get enough sleep and make them feel secure enough to be happy with the way they are on the inside, not fretting about how they appear on the outside.
Most of all, it's about spending time with them and raising their sense of being loved and feeling secure.
Many of the problems come down to what Biddulph calls the 'toxic flood' of cues coming from the media - TV, movies, music videos and magazines.
"We adults use TV for entertainment, but our kids use it for quite a different purpose: to find out what is normal behaviour."
Images sold by marketeers to make girls feel insecure about their looks, clothes, weight and skin make those very girls want to buy the product solutions the companies are selling, he says.
He believes that the problems start much earlier than teenagehood.
"You can make girls strong if you start at the beginning and you know where you are going," Biddulph says.
"In recent years, parents haven't had a plan. In the old days people had character goals for bringing up their young. It really mattered that your kids were good-hearted, fair and generous and kind and strong in what they stood for.
"People worked on those personal traits. But in our consumer society, we feed them and clothe them and get them off to school. The deep down part of parenting has become lost. It's needed in ways it has never been before.
"We've never experienced Facebooking in the middle of the night and pornography on little boys' mobile phones. It takes a couple of generations for mums and dads to get a handle on some of these things."
Biddulph, 60, who is married to Shaaron - they've been together for 38 years and have a grown-up son and daughter - draws some of his advice from his own childhood.
The son of a draughtsman, he was born in Yorkshire in 1953 to a working class family and describes his parents as the first generation to show affection.
"They played with you and did rough and tumble, Dad more than Mum. Dad's parents were very poor and very rough. He was sent to work at 13 and put himself through night school to get an education."
Biddulph was nine when the family emigrated to Australia, after the British steel industry collapsed, and found himself in a strange new world in a suburb of Melbourne.
"It made my family more isolated. They were relatively shy people and we didn't have the network we were used to, no auntie down the street or grandma round the corner.
"It was a bewildering time for my parents. I recall my mum being in tears about moving. All immigrant mums were in tears. You couldn't go back because you were a £10 pom."
Despite this, it was a great move, he recalls.
"We could walk to a sunny beach and swim with dolphins and coloured fish. Compared with the terraced houses of Yorkshire, it was lovely."
Biddulph was a shy, quiet teenager, he recalls.
"I found the social world a bewildering thing. When I was a teenager I often didn't know how to converse with people. I was going to be a physicist - I thought that was a good subject if you can't relate to human beings.
"But what I really wanted was to be able to talk to girls, so I studied psychology to help me to be better with people. Amazingly, that actually worked."
More than four million copies of his books - which include The Secret Of Happy Children and Raising Babies - have been sold worldwide and translated into 31 languages, and these days he spends much of his time training therapists.
Despite all the problems facing girls, Biddulph remains optimistic about the future.
"The divorce epidemic has slowed down. People divorce better than they used to - they work it out now. And we'll slowly sort technology out. We will get the internet sorted and it will get to a sensible time. I'm optimistic."
Back at home, I chuck out the fashion magazines, prepare a cosy family dinner, cancel those plans for a shopping trip with my daughter in favour of an afternoon's cook-out with her - and keep my fingers firmly crossed for the future.
:: Raising Girls by Steve Biddulph is published by HarperCollins, priced £12.99. Available now