Parenting Matters – Steve Biddulph talks to Juno about his priorities for family life

Steve Biddulph, psychologist, author and “stand-up parenting activist”, has been there forever. His book The Secret of Happy Children first came out in 1984, but you can still find it in most bookshops. His best-known book, Raising Boys, is in almost 2 million homes, and is published in 27 languages. In recent years, Raising Babies caused a storm with its straight-talking exposition of the research into nursery care and the under-threes. It was part of a successful campaign by child-development experts to win parental leave in the UK and stand up to the government’s efforts to have every parent in the workforce, like it or not.

Steve is ‘on about’ love. It’s a word he uses all the time, and his books aim to help parents get more in touch with their hearts, with stories, non-prescriptive maps and guidelines for growing closer to their children and to themselves. He couldn’t be further from the formulaic ‘top tips’ style of most parenting writers, yet his books remain the ones that people keep at their bedsides to help them remember why they became parents in the first place.

JUNO caught up with Steve at his home in the Tamar Valley, Northern Tasmania, “on the edge of the world, but still at its centre”, as he jokes.

 

Steve, can you say in a nutshell what you are ‘on about’?

It’s a great question, because at my stage of life it does get down to the bedrock in a way. As a trainee psychologist 35 years ago, I started off learning about families in remote New Guinea villages, and later in the slums of West Bengal. I was hugely struck, and still am, by the fact that these communities were so much more loving, patient, kind and warm to their children. They enjoyed children in a way our culture rarely does. I think that for all our progress – and it’s real progress I wouldn’t want to turn back – we were losing the art of loving connection, with each other and our children. It was this that I wanted to bring back.

The Secret of Happy Children was all about that?

Yes, that book came out of my work with struggling ‘blue collar’ families in Launceston, which is a mill town in Northern Tasmania. We were one of the first family-therapy clinics, in the 1970s, treating the whole family when a child had evident problems. It was clear that these parents loved their children deeply but often were not able to convey that. They had that terrible working-class legacy of putting their children down, calling them idiots, sluts, useless, no good – with a caring intent, but out of a pattern of low self-esteem going back generations. It was very familiar from my own childhood in North Yorkshire, which I once called The World Capital of Negative Parenting!

You were raised in that way?

My own parents were actually very affectionate – real pioneers, in fact – and there was a tangible sense of community in those small towns in the 1950s, but it was hard for them to completely break that terrible sense of being worthless that permeated the culture. So I think I experienced both the promise of the new and the pain of the old ways of child rearing.

Secrets of Happy Children gave parents ‘permission’ to be affectionate, to say positive things. Then it went deeper into how to listen to children’s feelings. It told parents that it was OK to have boundaries and ask a lot of their children, but to do it in a non-aggressive way. Interestingly, the book took off not just in the UK and Australia but also in Germany and Japan, countries where parenting had been even more negative than ours. A new generation – JUNO readers’ generation, in fact – who wanted to have more humanity and connection and trusted their hearts more.

You have an especial concern about boys and men – that’s been your focus in recent decades.

Yes. The ethics I was taught, and believe in, are that you should take your skills where they are most urgently needed. Boys were a disaster area – three times more likely to die before the age of 25, nine times more likely to go to prison, and far less likely to complete school or make it to university. The culture was becoming afraid of boys and could not see their good side. Yet at the same time we were still being told there were no gender differences. As a science-trained person, I could not believe the rhetoric. Boys are VERY different. They develop their fine motor skills up to two years later. They reach puberty two years later, on average. They have a strong need to move and use energy. Some girls do, too – we shouldn’t box people in, but neither should we homogenise them.

Teachers and parents who are understanding of boys’ needs work with their energy and don’t make them bad because they don’t want to hold a pencil and do ‘neat work’ at age five. If we are proactive, we can raise boys to be safe, caring, confident and life-affirming. But you can’t raise a boy by being weak-minded, or hands-off. They have to be loved intensely, especially in the first six years. They need to be taught to be good. They need a father or a father figure to emulate from six to fourteen. They need uncles and elders, as well as Mum and Dad, to help them from the mid-teens into adulthood. I began a twenty-year campaign to get people caring about boys.

Then, as my daughter entered her teens, I began to also look into the world of girls. She and I are currently researching a book about girls (she is now a student in neuroscience). Many of us in the child-development field have got re-activated and very concerned about girls’ mental health. There is a ‘war on girls’ as advertisers and corporations have realised what a soft target they are. The social insecurities of girls – from as young as five or six – are easily exploited so as to sell them clothes, make-up, hair products. It’s an assault on children, adultifying them, sexualising them, making them insecure about things that would never have concerned them thirty years ago. Parents are getting very angry about this, and rightly so.

What can we, as parents and a community who care about children, do about this?

It’s a huge plus if you don’t have TV around in the early years. And when you do have one, only watch a selected programme and then switch it off. It’s the relentless imagery from TV and magazines that overwhelms girls – be pretty, be slim, be sexy. Second is to have more aunties and other women around girls during the pre-teen and teen years, reinforcing their worth and passing on a savvy and streetwise approach to life, and a sense of the joy and sacredness of being female.

What power do you think families can have as part of a community/society?

Parents are much more human and more alive than when they were singles or couples. Parents’ brains change, and grow new abilities, it’s like an advanced stage of development. We grow up; the key sign is that we put the needs of another person before our own.

There is this weird idea that parenthood – especially at-home full-time parenthood – means dropping out of life. It’s the complete opposite. We get into life when we have children – community involvement becomes essential, world politics more concerning, activism more urgent, and friendship more intense and needed. You can sip drinks with anyone, but friendship when you have little children is vital, and you need people you can really trust.

Parents can be very passionate and powerful. It’s an untapped force, I think.

What does family mean to you?

Well, family is the arrangement we have found for emotional and practical support in living and in raising children. But often it’s way too isolated. It needs multi-generations, so that means aunties and uncles and grandparents flowing in and out, and other adults like neighbours who help you and cheer you up. Lately I have thought that we get too serious and task-oriented as families. There is a buzz, a banter and happiness possible while making a meal in the kitchen, or standing about in the morning before it all gets busy, or at night when we get home. I am starting to take joy in my children just being there, as I know that soon enough they won’t be. Creating a vibe, a mood, is more important than money or success, I think.

What next?

I am quietening down my life, doing less of the big shows that I used to do all over the world. I want to care for people close up and am running healing retreats for those who do ‘good work’. Many health professionals, activists and campaigners are terrible at self-care! I have been very involved in refugee campaigns and the environmental movement and have seen people burn out so often. I want to offer psychological and spiritual skills to those movements so people have joy and a light heart even as they fight these terribly serious battles.

I am still writing and teaching about “the new manhood” and the idea that men are meant to be life-givers; that you only become a real man when you have found a cause to believe in bigger than yourself. It’s a balance, because mental and physical health mean embracing life’s pleasures, remembering to dance, sing, love and be in Nature every chance you get. But joyful, purposeful manhood is my goal, both personally and in my message to the world. We need good men standing alongside the women to turn this world around. That seems a worthwhile goal.

 

Steve Biddulph is one of the world’s best-loved parenting authors. His books include Secrets of Happy Children and Raising Boys. With over thirty years’ experience as a psychologist and family therapist, Steve uses powerful stories, and also campaigns for the rights and importance of parents. He has two grown-up children, and lives most of the year in Tasmania, among a large extended family.