Just when I thought I’d sussed out the whole parenting malarkey with my fifteen-year-old son, up pops the question of what to do about my eleven-year-old (almost twelve, as she never ceases to remind me) daughter.
Of course I’m joking about having come to the end of my (unofficial) degree in parenting. Especially with a teenager in the house. As any mum or dad out there knows, one of the unmentioned duties and responsibilities included in parents’ job specification is not to feel that you’ve arrived at the “Finish” line. Milestones along the way? No problem. Just don’t feel too smug or complacent about them. I’m none the wiser when it comes to raising children, even if I’m older. I get the hang of it one minute, and then the next one I have to learn new tricks because the knowledge I acquired a week ago is almost obsolete seven days after.
However, there was always an attitude I adopted the minute I became a parent and that was to treat my son and daughter the same way regardless of their age gap – three years, since you ask. Or attempt to. Believe you me, old habits die hard and the macho environment in which I grew up in Cuba sneaks back in occasionally.
This scenario played in my head recently as I read a very good review of Steve Biddulph’s new book, Raising Girls: Helping Your Daughter to Grow Up Wise, Warm and Strong. I am acquainted with Steve’s oeuvre. His was one of the volumes I read when preparing myself to become a father for the first time. Raising Boys became an invaluable companion for me alongside Fatherhood Reclaimed by Adrienne Burgess. Obviously, reading a book when embarking on a career as a parent is a wonderful idea. Just remember that you will need a book per child. That was the first lesson I learnt with both Raising... and Fatherhood... Children are individuals, even when they have a sibling, or more than one. The other lesson I was taught was that boys were complicated and maybe that’s why I’m freaking out slightly now that my daughter is growing up and showing similar signs to the ones my son showed at the same age.
Steve’s book about boys focused mainly on whether it was better for them to start school at a later age than girls and on the need to have male role models when growing up. He also addressed the absentee father or male carer who sacrificed his family life (especially if there are boys in it) for the sake of a career. His was a call to arms to stop somehow the rot that lack of a paternal figure could sometimes cause.
But now he comes back with a new title and it is girls that are his target. I confess that I haven’t read Raising Girls yet but it won’t be long before I head for a secondhand bookshop (I usually wait until the initial buzz dies down a bit) or amazon.co.uk to purchase a copy.
Biological determinism has a lot to answer for the ways in which we think about (and misjudge) girls. And again I put myself in front of the firing squad. Although I’ve always thought of my daughter as an equal, occasionally I act in a manner that undermines her independence. This is usually brought about by the way society dictates how girls and boys ought to behave and what they should like. Blue for boys and pink for girls (although it wasn’t ever thus, in fact for many years it was the other way around), dolls for girls and cars or guns for boys. Boys ride on bikes and climb trees. Girls stay home and play with the tea set. That was how I was raised but not how my wife and I have brought up our children.
Parallel to these attitudes there’s a new fear that female adolescents and young women are more prone to being found in the nearest A&E ward on a Saturday night than at home revising for their GCSEs or A-levels. Hardly a day goes by without the tabloids bringing us tales of female debauchery, drunkenness and loutish behaviour on the streets of Britain. That’s just one side of the story, however. The other side presents preteen and teenage girls as gullible victims of marketing predators who make them feel anxious and unsure about themselves.
Victims or perpetrators? When it comes to girls and teenagers, the jury’s still out. Part of it, I’ve realised over the years, is because we look at women still through the eyes of a male-dominated society. We tell them to look after their drink in a bar in case someone (a bloke, obviously) spikes it and takes advantage of them. We tell women not to walk along a dark road at night because she might be assaulted. How about telling men not to rape? This is what I think the problem is. The world in the last twenty years has developed incredibly and is moving at a very fast pace. But we still haven’t changed our mindset in relation to the (wrongly labelled) “weaker sex”. Whereas in days gone by a young woman throwing up in the gutter would be seen only by her companions and a few passers-by, nowadays, within seconds of being sick on the pavement, her photo will have made it to Flickr, Twitter, Facebook and Blogger. It’s not that teenage girls are drinking more; it’s that the image of them drinking alcohol has a wider and more immediate reach.
That’s not to say that advertising is a benign and passive force that has no influence whatsoever on an eleven- or twelve-year-old. Of course it does. But that’s where our role as parents comes in. My daughter has gadgets like everyone else, but they’re time-limited. Her mobile has to go in a special basket somewhere in the house before she goes to bed and at the moment her internet use is heavily monitored.
In relation to the supposed increased debauchery amongst teenage girls and young women, I can’t help suspecting a bit of the old misogyny creeping in. Women having fun, in control of their lives and deciding who to go to bed with? Ah, they’re just a bunch of slags! How about boys having multiple partners and playing the Lothario card? Ah, that’s all right then. Same old, same old.
As I mentioned at the beginning I’m none the wiser despite having embarked on this (still unofficial) parenting degree, that the University of Life very kindly put on my path, more than fifteen years ago. All I can say is that when it comes to raising my daughter, if she is having fun and it is all safe and legal, let her have it. At the end of the day, girls just wanna have fun.
Next Post: “Living in a Multilingual World”, to be published on Wednesday 20th February at 11:59pm (GMT)