Steve Biddulph’s latest book, Raising Girls, caused a bit of a stir when it was published earlier this month, and with reason: it is a very sensible addition to the literature on how girls grow up, and parents of girls should find it of genuine interest. Pressures on girls in our society are enormous – overwhelming, even, at times – and sometimes as parents we forget what it was like to feel a shifting mix of powerful emotions, deep insecurities, unbearable frustrations and great uncertainties, all within a short space of time. Moreover, some pressures exist today that did not exist in the same way for parents – pressures to appear and act in certain ways – and for this reason too, parents will find Mr Biddulph’s book helpful, and even, in places, possibly a revelation.
I was, however, struck by the – perhaps inadvertent – additional pressure that the book places on parents by concentrating on the role that they have to play in making sure that their daughters learn to navigate the minefield of teenagehood. Parenting is in any case one of the hardest jobs in the world; when parents feel that they alone are responsible for bringing up their daughters, it can seem even harder. Of course, parenting is essential for the happy upbringing of children, but we often forget the wise old notion that it takes a village truly to raise a child. In our society, there is an enormous pressure on parents to be ‘perfect’, to create ‘perfect’ children and to lead ‘perfect’ lives. If life in reality turns out to be less than this perception of perfection, then parents can feel failures, and books which attempt to show them how they should in fact be doing things, can simply add to this sense that they are not good enough parents.
In truth, parents who do their best are being perfectly good parents. What they need is the support of extended families and of wider communities to help provide the grounding that it is nigh impossible for individuals to provide for children as they become teenagers and young adults. For their part, these young adults also need to hear other voices and encounter other interpretations of our diverse world if they are to learn to make sense of it, and to grow to understand others. When other adults support parents, it spreads the load of expectation in bringing up a child, and it brings to that child fresh and valuable perspectives, not least on who she is, and who she can be. When schools – and the numerous potential mentors they contain – are brought into the equation, this spectrum of understanding, support and available guidance is widened further.
Schools exist to educate young people, but it is a mistake to think that this education is separate from, or at odds with, what happens beyond the school gates. Schools are about helping everyone associated with a child – her parents, her relatives, her friends, her teachers, and above all herself – to understand who she is: a multi-faceted, unique combination of talents and interests. The collective task of all those who surround a child, from infancy to adulthood, is to do something about this: to strengthen her strengths, to help her be resilient in approaching those areas in which she is less strong, and to grow her heart, her mind, and her soul.
Steve Biddulph may not spend much time in his book on this aspect of raising girls, but schools – and especially girls’ schools – are expert at this. Together we are preparing the girls of today to be the great women of tomorrow.