They’re growing up too fast,” you’ll hear those words everywhere girls are discussed. Girlhood – before puberty comes along – can be a wonderful time of life. Unworried by concerns about the opposite sex – or totally dismissive of them – free in her body, bold in her actions, able to be creative without fearing judgement, loving the world of animals and nature, affectionate with friends of both sexes, enjoying her parent’s company. How we wish this time would last for ever. And there is no reason why it shouldn’t.
Mothers and fathers everywhere say that ‘14 is the new 18’. With the massive changes the brain undergoes in those four years, girls are ill-equipped to deal with it all. Their brains are not developed and their confidence is often just a veneer. So a big part of raising a happy girl today is making sure she has a childhood, and it isn’t cramped or curtailed by growing up too fast.
What a girl needs is to be strong, in tune with her own nature, trusting her instincts and feelings. And growing slowly, with her abilities – mental and physical – unfolding as they were intended to. This is where we can sow the seeds of a girl who enjoys being the age she is, and isn’t rushed into fake grown-upness.
Let’s be clear – most girls will turn out fine. We help them, support them and arm them against the excesses of the culture, and they turn into wonderful strong women. Three out of five girls still do this. But one in five will go so far off the rails, their adult life is really impaired. Another one in five goes through some sort of crisis, which galvanises her family to action, and she pulls through. But that still means way too many girls having way too hard a time.
We have to encourage and nurture a girl’s exploratory and wild self, so that it grows strong and lasts all her life. We have to fence out the toxic messages that have sprung up around girls in recent years. The age range from two to five is where this needs to begin, but it can be corrected at any age. It’s important to think about how great girlhood can be, and not settle for less.
During this time is where sexism really sets in. We teach them to be neat, clean, quiet, well-behaved and high-achieving (in ballet or music or schoolwork). We create uptight, cute, little conformity machines, and wonder why they often implode into anxiety, self-harm and binge-drinking by mid secondary school.
Writers such as Oliver James in Britain and JoAnn Deak in the US have expressed serious concern about girls’ growing perfectionism about their own performance – about being essentially, too good.
The ideal of the neat, tidy, pretty, domesticated girl of times gone by still seems to be hanging on in our idea of girlhood. And in fact it is being made worse by the new fashion-frills dressing habits of our crazy consumerist time. Dressing our kids up to be cute can be fun for adults, and a little won’t kill you, but it’s the razor’s edge of turning a girl (or boy) towards self-consciousness and focusing on how they look, which in this era of massive anxiety about looks can be harmful to their mental health.
At this age, your daughter needs to feel free. That the world is hers to explore, that it is a rich and beautiful place and she can gain competency to navigate it freely. A girl should emerge from this age full of energy and confidence, and bursting to get into the larger world. By the age of one or two, she will be ready to venture out into the world of nature and get in touch with her inner self.
This is what childhood is for. In the complexity and richness of the natural environment, a child’s senses begin to work at a significantly more redefined and detailed level.
When this begins to occur, then your daughter’s brain also perceives more holistically, and sees the relatedness of the environment. Girls need wilding so encourage her to be messy, uninhibited, and alive and moving about.
Try not to make a big thing of clothes shopping or make-up, or dieting. If her clothes are cutesy, pink and fluffy and cost a bomb, then she isn’t going to be playing in mud. Dress for action.
Choose clothing that is dirt-proof and damage-resistant, water-excluding or so sturdy it doesn’t matter. Do not fence her in with ideas of being neat, girly, cute or compliant. Never complain about the state she gets in.
Get outdoors into natural places and let her run free, even if it’s just for the holiday, weekend or whenever you can. A surprising number of the world’s best thinkers and researchers were immersed in nature to an unusual degree, and their brains are different and better as a result.
We also have to be choosy about what media we bring or let into our own home. To avoid this, stop the media tsunami right at your door. This means you must limit the amount of screen time your child receives. Toddlers and small children don’t even play properly if a TV show is playing in their earshot. Their attention span and their imagination both fail to develop. At home, people are not talking to their children enough. And watching TV, even though it’s all talk, isn’t the same. It’s not interactive. It doesn’t involve them responding. So they don’t learn.
With a TV playing, couples don’t communicate. Kids don’t confide. Topics don’t get discussed. News isn’t shared. There are kids coming to school who can barely speak.
The difficulty a lot of kids have in learning to read is now being reframed as an inability to actually string words together. Short utterances, that aren’t grammatical, don’t lead anywhere, and have no sequencing, are all that is left of the ability most five-year-olds once had to tell long stories and do so interestingly. And if a child can’t do that, they can’t think or reason either.
Media also affects how your daughter views herself. Advertising can accidentally impact our girls or be very deliberately targeted at them so we have to be alert about the media that floods our homes. Advertisers successfully focused millions of marketing dollars onto ‘pre-teen girls.’ As if being 11 is only about wanting to be a teenager, and not a worthwhile age on its own. (Children are not pre-anything. They are who they are, and should be allowed to be.)
Forty percent of 10-year-old girls now worry about their weight and actively modify their food intake in unsuccessful and harmful attempts to change their size and shape. Girlhood has lost four precious, creative, confidence-boosting years. You can see this everywhere you go – ‘adultified’ girls of 12 or 13 with cleavages self-consciously displayed and faces covered in make-up dressed to kill (possibly from pneumonia), stressing out over how boys might judge them. And being neither happy nor free.
With thousands of images of women looking pretty, decorative, cute, groomed, sleek and thin every day, a girl begins to make comparisons about how she looks. After quite a short time, the messaging of the ads mean that she sees herself as a product, and she sees products – the things you buy in shops – as being the key to being a better product yourself. She makes comparisons with how she looks, and slowly, gradually, feels despair. She decides that visuals – how others see you – matters more than how you feel, or act.
Along with fencing out these messages, we must have our own house in order. We have to think about how our own attitudes can affect her without us knowing it. In fact you may need to do some remedial ‘rewilding’ of yourself to be really happy as a mum or dad, and pass on this permission to your daughter as well.
One day your daughter might come to you and say “I hate my body”. You’re going to want to say “You are beautiful! You look great!” But you won’t have much credibility if she has seen you worrying about your own weight, skin, hair, looks and clothing all her life. So you must also abandon any looks obsession and start making your life about more important things.
If you demonstrate a free and exuberant nature, laugh, sing, dance, lovenature, love music, love life, then she will catch that as naturally as breathing. She will see a competent, caring, protective person who is nonetheless unfettered, unconventional, untamed. Who takes joy in the moment and draws her out of reticence into exuberance. If she has heard you say “I love my body”, she will say the same to any boy who calls her fat or ugly in the schoolyard.
She’ll already be so strong in her self-belief that she will be happier and more free, possibly for life.
Steve Biddulph is a retired psychologist. This is an edited extract from his book 10 Things Girls Need Most, published by Harper Collins.