Not since Dr Benjamin Spock has there been a male expert as influential in the field of parenting as Steve Biddulph. The Australian psychologist, whose book sales have topped the four million mark, has earned the right to be heeded.
This month he launched a strident attack on “pushy parents”. They were, he said, chiefly responsible for the epidemic of mental health problems afflicting teenage girls. These working mothers and fathers spend too little time at home. When they are there, it is not to unwind or have fun. Children are ‘‘over-scheduled’’; hurtling from ballet class to violin rehearsals. Or they are excessively ‘‘scholarised’’ – tutored to within an inch of their lives to pass exams and secure careers which amount to the only accepted measure of success.
This is not a new thesis. I have lost count of the writers who have taken to print to diagnose the ills of a ‘‘hurried’’ generation. It amounts to a formidable canon. These are not authors who believe they possess expertise simply by dint of having a child. Americans such as Madeline Levine (psychiatrist) and Amy Chua (Yale lecturer), as well as Britons Frank Furedi (professor of sociology) and Sue Palmer (former headteacher) bring intellectual heft to the subject.
But although there is widespread agreement on where parenting is going wrong, workable prescriptions for how to improve things (by making parenting more “free range”) are thin on the ground. Four years ago I spent a couple of days touring television and radio studios, not as an interviewer but as an interviewee, plugging my solution to the woes of pressure-cooker childhoods. My book Sticking Up For Siblings, published by the think-tank Civitas, asks how family size might worsen or mitigate some of the ill effects of modern parenting.
The starting point of the book was a conversation I had with Frank Furedi in his home in Kent a decade ago. I was there to interview him about an unrelated story, when talk turned to his book Paranoid Parenting. I had loved his analysis of a culture where adults heaped damaging pressure on children and themselves. Yet, it seemed to me, he failed to address the simplest remedy for things like “helicopter parenting”. In short, it is impossible to “hover” over our children, exposing them to crushing levels of scrutiny and encouragement, if they outnumber us and thus evade our most intense ministrations.
This month I thought again about that exchange in Professor Furedi’s kitchen as I read a review of Steve Biddulph’s latest book, Ten Things Girls Need Most. Because I think what girls need most is sisters, or a brother, or ideally both. My critics – and you’ll see some fairly spittle-flecked examples if you search for comments posted in response to my online articles – say I am being glib or insensitive to those who have no control over their family size. That was never my intention.
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