“Raising Boys”, and its sequel “Raising Girls” have been worldwide bestsellers for parenting author and psychologist Steve Biddulph. These books are about “differences” in girls and boys and how parents must adapt their parenting by their child’s gender. As I come from a family of girls, I keenly bought “Raising Boys” when Lil Bro came along. Yet, reading it made me wince and I didn’t even bother to get “Raising Girls”.
The indispensable mother
The notion of the indispensable mother is an example of the typical “Male authority figure tells largely female audience what they should be doing” parenting fodder of the past. Male anthropologists, male paediatricians, male psychologists, male psychiatrists all rushing to get their two-pennies bit in on how women should improve their maternal performance. Once women started to move towards professional work roles, the same male experts sought to keep women tied to their babies by citing pseudoscience to support the need of babies for their “mothers” as opposed to gender-neutral “parent”. Steve Biddulph (although he is by no means the worst culprit, as he at least tries to create a role for dads), is guilty of this by citing the specific requisite of maternal (over parental) presence in the early years of parenting in his book “Raising Boys”. A typical example of a phrase that gets my goat is this (page 11 of 3rd Edition):
“What all babies and toddlers need most is to form a special bond with at least one person. Usually this person is their mother. Partly because she is the one who is most willing and motivated, partly because she provides the milk, and partly because she tends to be cuddly, restful and soothing in her approach, a mother is usually the best equipped to provide what a baby needs. Her own hormones (especially prolactin, which is released into her bloodstream as she breastfeeds) prime her to want to be with her child and give it her full attention.”
Although I was motivated to be a good mother, I expect my husband was as motivated to be a good father and to form an equally strong “special bond” with our children. Much of the “willingness” and “motivation” to be a good mother (compared to father) is driven by guilt and social pressure, rather than being inherent or biologically mediated. Much of this guilt comes from the expectation to be “cuddly, restful with a soothing approach” perpetuated by books such as this. I’m not sure that Steve has encountered many modern mothers but “frazzled, shell-shocked and muddling through” are the more appropriate words that I would chose. He then tries to give scientific credence to his position by bringing in hormones. Even if prolactin were some magic love potion (which it isn’t), he probably doesn’t know that fathers and expectant fathers have increased prolactin concentrations compared to un-mated males (Nelson 2011) and clearly hasn’t seen the figures on the number of mothers that actually continue to breastfeed (<30% at 6 months).
There is no robust scientific evidence that maternal care is better than paternal care. Ben Goldacre aficionados will know that in order to robustly prove this, the scientific gold standard would be a blinded and controlled study with a very large sample size over time. i.e. following a large cohort of babies raised mainly by men and another raised mainly by women (matched for economic, educational and social factors) and then assessing the children blind to whether they were raised by mothers or fathers. Guess what? This has never been done, largely because there have never been a sufficient number of male primary childcarers. Even amongst widowers or male divorcees lucky enough to have full custody of their children, I am guessing that the majority remarry with stepmothers taking over the role of childcare, or some female relative swoops in like a fairy godmother to relieve “incompetent” men of their primary parental responsibilities. Naturalistic studies are only now becoming possible because of the advent of increasing numbers of same-sex parents. We should soon be able to scientifically compare two dads with two mums and be able to answer the question of the necessity of maternal care; but until the evidence is out, I don’t think that “experts” should inject so much gender bias and judgement in their advice. From my experience with working with same-sex families, men have made damn good primary childcarers. In my mind, there is nothing inherent in the Y-chromosome that incapacitates good parenting by men; it is society, perpetuated by the experts, media, and let’s face it, even you and I.
The myth of extreme difference
The concept of the “Raising Boys” and “Raising Girls” franchise is that boys and girls are inherently, “biologically” different, and therefore require to be “nurtured” in different ways. More likely, it is a marketing ploy to allow largely the same information to be repackaged and re-marketed. For instance, in his “Raising Boys” book Steve provides a handy list of questions that you should ask a school to evaluate if it will be any good for your son. This list includes: “What statistic does the school publish about boys’ progress?” and “Do teachers shout at children at this school?”. These are useful questions to ask, but like these examples, the whole list of questions is equally appropriate for girls – so why differentiate?
Yes, yes, I am medically trained (which can not be said of Biddulph) and am therefore well aware of the anatomical and hormonal differences between the male and female of our species. However, unlike Biddulph I do not believe that the biological differences are so great (asides for urination and reproduction, which are obviously different). Even for overt biological differences between men and women, such as musculature, although the mean strength/ speed of the average man will be faster than the average woman, the overlap will be great. Christine Ohuruogu can still run faster than most men. This will also be the case for any neural or psychological correlate that you wish to cite. Typical “male” qualities: aggression, high sexual drive, lesser verbal/social skill; are also found in many women. A sizable proportion of most normally distributed “male”/ “female” traits will be overlapping. Further, many of these supposed “biological” gender traits are exaggerated by society. The relative liberation of women in the last century has seen women freed to express their sexuality, aggression and turn to vices previously the preserve of men: smoking, drinking, ASBOs, fisticuffs and the like. At this point in time, we are unable to comment on pure “biological” gender traits as we have never lived in a gender-neutral society.
Even if you buy into strong biological gender differences, the fundamentals of human security, the stuff that makes a child flourish: warmth, love, praise, affection, guidance are universal not gender specific. Why would you need 2 different books to tell you this?
Perpetuation of gender stereotypes
Biddulph cites gender differences in child psychiatric disorders as a basis for his differentiation of the sexes. Higher levels of conduct disorders in boys being a reason for why boys are in crisis and in desperate need for particular parenting; followed by higher rates of eating disorders and self-harm in girls meaning that we must now fear for our daughters and treat them differently. However, any psychiatrist will tell you that all psychiatric diagnoses have biological and environmental aetiologies. This is why I love my subject area, it’s not simplistic; it is about the subtle interplay of biology with environment at all levels. Do boys have a genetic predisposition to fighting, stealing and getting into trouble with the police (components of conduct disorder), or do we as a society encourage this? Boys are encouraged in rough and tumble play; boys are encouraged to stand up for themselves, physically if necessary. Boys will be boys after all? Do girls have a biological predisposition to eating disorders? Or do we as a society encourage this? Girls are encouraged to care about their looks, from the day they are born and the first relative that describes her as “Beautiful”. Does drawing up specific parenting plans led by gender-based social pressures lessen or perpetuate old gender stereotypes? There is even a whole chapter in “Raising Boys” on “Boys and Sport”…need I say more?
Over the last decade, we child psychiatrists have been seeing increased numbers of male anorexics on our wards and females in youth offending units so times, and gender-roles, are-a-changing. Yet although changing social factors influence the symptoms, signs and behaviours that may vary between girls and boys, and with time; the loneliness, disconnectedness, anger, helplessness, frustration, despair and self-loathing that drives them is universal and unchanging. Promoting differential parenting strategies based on outdated stereotypes of what it means to be a girl or a boy seems backwards facing. Society is moving towards equality, why should parenting be any different? Drawing up parenting strategies by gender to me seems outdated and secondary to helping individual children build resilience and thrive.
If Steve is promoting the “male” and “female” off the peg M&S suits over the unisex overalls; I think we need to be moving on from this to bespoke Saville Row tailoring.
Nelson, Randy F. (2011). An Introduction to Behavioral Endocrinology (Fourth ed.). Sunderland, Mass: Sinauer Associates Inc. p. 438. ISBN 0-87893-620-3. (Apologies, this reference came from Wikipedia and has not been personally checked).