How I raised my girls without raising hell
Published 31/01/2013 | 06:00
Girls now grapple with issues that make bringing them up tough but rewarding, writes Joanna Moorhead
'Shall we have another baby?" I asked my husband around the time we conceived our youngest. We already had three children, but I really, really wanted four. "Why not?" he said gamely. "But you know, don't you, that it will be another girl?"
Nine months later, as Gary had predicted, our fourth daughter landed safely on our bedroom floor. I could not have been more thrilled: when people asked whether we weren't even a teensy bit disappointed she wasn't a boy, I honestly wondered if they were a few sandwiches short of a picnic.
By this stage, our older girls were 10, eight and three, and I was certain that life held no bigger prize than the joy of raising daughters. Bringing up sons may be just as good, for all I know – but the one thing of which I am sure is that raising girls makes for a wonderful, passion-fuelled, exciting, interesting and fun-filled lifetime.
The decade since Catriona's birth has done nothing to dispel my thrill at being the mother of four girls, but it has certainly brought more than a few frightening moments for Gary and me.
I don't want to invade the privacy of my elder daughters, who are now 20 and 18, by spelling out the gory details, but think alcohol, ambulances, hospitals, police officers and wild parties and you're in the right area – and that's only the stuff we know about.
I grew up with a sister and we were no angels, but my parents didn't have to deal with most of the situations Gary and I have had to deal with. Girlhood has changed over the last few years: it seems much edgier, more fragile, more frenzied and scarier than it was in my day.
The psychologist and author Steve Biddulph agrees. In 1997, he wrote a bestseller called Raising Boys. Back then, he says, the story was that while there were some worrying trends around boys (too much ADHD, exam underperformance, worries about excessive drinking), everything for girls was going rather well. Since then, things have about-faced radically.
"There's now a cluster of really serious problems that are hugely on the up for girls," he says. "One in five will experience a serious psychological disorder before reaching adulthood. They are a lot more anxious, they are more likely to self-harm, they are more prone to bullying, they are binge drinking and they are more likely to be at risk of promiscuous sexual behaviour. Girls are more stressed and depressed than they've ever been before."
So what's changed? Biddulph points to the big bad world of marketing and advertising, whose brightest brains worked out a few years ago that the pre-teen and teenage girl market was underexploited.
"They're perfect prey for the advertisers: young girls are socially very aware, very finely tuned to the cues in the world around them, and it's been easy for advertisers and marketing people to make them feel anxious or unsure about themselves, and to push items they can quickly be persuaded they 'need'."
In no time at all, says Biddulph, pre-teen and teenage girls were realising they desperately needed to be "cool", to have a certain look, to be a certain size, to wear their hair or their clothes a certain way. Instead of thinking, at the age of 10 or 11, 'what shall I do today?', they started thinking, 'how shall I look today?'.
Biddulph is right, and the commercial grip on the pre-teen and teenage girl market is well documented. As he says, we need to campaign against the way advertisers have been able to see our children as easy pickings, but we also need to believe that we, their parents, can still cut through the advertisers' seductive smooth-talk, that we can still – in essence – reach our daughters amid the frenzy of social media and texting and TV that surrounds them.
My girls inhabit bedrooms strewn with copies of Heat magazine, where their laptops and mobile phones are always within reach, where Celebrity Big Brother always seems to be blaring out of some screen or other. What hope, you wonder, has a parent against the media onslaught that has penetrated right to the heart of the home?
That's certainly how it feels when I tell Miranda (14) about Biddulph's suggestion that no teenage girl should have a TV in her bedroom, and that all mobile phones should be charged in the kitchen overnight, so they are out of reach, and no late-night texting or tweeting can go on.
"Yeah, right," she snorts, before turning up the telly, in her bedroom, which she bought herself with her own money.
At the same moment, she tweets the suggestion to her friends, who reply with "LOL"-type messages. Because that's the other thing about teenage girls these days: they move so fast, you can't keep up.
My hunch is that the best thing is to not even try. Unlike Biddulph – whose own daughter is in her mid-20s, which sometimes seems, in girl-history, a century ago – I refuse to stress about Miranda having a TV in her room, or the fact that she, in particular, and her sisters, in general, always seem to be plugged into some electronic device or other.
The bottom line, it seems to me, is that – however unpalatable this might be for the world of advertising – parents really do matter, and how.
Looking back over my first 20 years of parenting, I can see that – while it often felt as though my messages were being ignored or, worse, even ridiculed – they do seem, on the whole, to have made it through.
Take feminism, something I feel passionately about and have gone on about endlessly through the years. Many times my older daughters have told me I was old-fashioned, stuck in the 70s, "not in touch with the real world". Well, they are entitled to their views: but those daughters are now at university, where one recently wrote about patriarchy in architecture and the other has just started reading Kate Chopin's classic feminist novel The Awakening.
Had I heard of it? she asked. Heard of it? I said. That book changed my life. It may, or may not, change Elinor's, but I am proud to have raised a daughter who realises the importance of reading it.
Biddulph agrees that, even when we think our messages aren't getting through to our daughters, they almost certainly are. "Even when they are around 14, when they are desperately trying to be not like you at all, everything you say is lodging in there somewhere," he says.
In his view, mothers like me have three main ways of influencing our daughters. "The first way, and this accounts for about half of the influence you will have on them, is in your role-modelling," he says. "Think about not just what you do, but how you do it.
"Think about how to be kind, how to be patient towards others – your daughters are watching the way you deal with that other driver who just cut you up; how you respond to the assistant who serves you slowly in the shop. If you are unkind, or sharp, they'll learn that's how you deal with other people, and they'll go on to deal with other people in a similar way."
The second way we influence our daughters, he says, is in explaining why we do certain things. "Explain your values to your kids: that it's good to take care of yourself, that you also need to care for others, that it helps if people keep to their agreements, that most situations can be solved with some compromise, that everyone's voice counts, that honesty is better in the long run.
"You might see your daughters rolling their eyes, but a day or two later they'll be adopting your philosophy – often with friends, when you're not even around."
The third means of influence, says Biddulph, is in the other women to whom we expose our daughters. "You might need to do a bit of social engineering because you may feel there are role models she needs and you may need to seek them out," he says.
But it's not only mothers who matter to girls. "Eighty per cent of daughters are going to be heterosexual, so they will be interested in the opposite sex, and their confidence right through their life will draw on their first main relationship with a man – their dad.
"If he is kind, respectful and, most of all, interested in her, she will have been given a benchmark. It makes a girl know she's interesting and worthwhile, and it means that if some boy comes along who treats her badly, then she'll have the confidence to get out of that relationship."
The truth about raising daughters is this: it takes plenty of good humour, a lot of time, a huge amount of love, and the odd occasion when you have to just cling on tight and hope the road isn't going to stay so bumpy for long.
But when I think back to when our fourth daughter appeared, I can truly say it was the day that made me feel like the luckiest woman alive – and nothing that has happened since has ever dented that feeling for long.
Steve Biddulph's Raising Girls is published by HarperCollins, £12.99