So that Steve Biddulph MN webchat: WTF?

Because, honestly, it was a gigantic pile of nincompoopery. It is safe to say that I am not a very big fan of Steve Biddulph to begin with. His normalisation of gendered stereotypes in order to sell books just pisses me off. There is very little scientific evidence to support the nonsense that boys and girls are somehow inherently different; just lots of people claiming they “observed” gendered behaviour.  This ignores the very real evidence of the cultural and historical construction and contextualisation of gender. It also conflates biological sex with gender, as if there were somehow a hormone which decides what type of child likes playing with dinosaurs. It leads to Hannah Evans claiming, in the Guardian no less, that sticks are essential to the raising of boys. It’s possible Evans has never actually met a girl child, because I’ve got two and they most definitely play with sticks. In fact, I don’t think I’ve met a girl who didn’t understand the importance of sticks. It’s called imaginative play; something that Steve Biddulph should know about considering his work with Collective Shout.

I have a number of problems with Biddulph. The first is his apparent amazement that, after spending 25 years specialising in the raising of boys, he’s discovered, rather miraculously, that “its GIRLS who are in trouble“. Yep, as a man whose spent 25 years arguing that  boys are “different”, he’s now discovered that girls are “different” too and in TROUBLE! This would be more convincing if I thought Biddulph had spent the last 25 years living in a cave because I genuinely can’t imagine how any intelligent, well-educated adult could have missed the fact that the Capitalist-Patriarchy is toxic for ALL children; unless, of course, they were planning on financially benefitting from stating the bleeding obvious. After all, it’s not like there’s ever been a single book published about the toxicity of childhood on young girls, raising girlscampaigns on the sexualisation and sexploitation of young girls, or the fact that feminsts have been saying this for years. We know that our culture is deeply destructive for girls and girls mental health is suffering because of it.  We don’t need another “expert” jumping up to tell us. We’ve already figured it out.

The first odd thing about the MN webchat is that Biddulph tried to claim he was not an “expert”. Please credit us with a modicum of intelligence, he was clearly invited as an “expert”. His disavowal of that role in an attempts to “debate” rather than answer any of the real questions he was asked was, well, rather pathetic. After all, this was the introduction to the webchat:

We’re delighted that Steve is returning to talk to us about his latest book, Raising Girls. This was written as a response to the ‘sudden and universal deterioration in girls’ mental health, starting in primary school and devastating the teen years’. The book is both a call-to-arms for parents and a detailed guide through the five key stages of girlhood to help build strength and connectedness into your daughter from infancy onwards. Join the discussion and you will be entered into a draw to win one of five copies of Steve Biddulph’s Raising Girls.

There was NO reason for him to come on to a MN webchat if he wasn’t setting himself up as “expert”. The whole point of the Mumsnet chat boards is the sharing of information. Why would they have a paying guest on if the guest weren’t trying to flog something to us? In Biddulph’s case, this is both a new book called Raising Girls and the one day seminar he is running as part of the Mumsnet Academy. Mumsnet is a business. They have never pretended to be any different so why Biddulph is waffling about the issue is just perplexing.

Secondly, Biddulph didn’t seem to answer any of the questions. Several of the answers read as though they were written in advance without Biddulph reading any of the pre-chat questions. Also there is the pesky issue of one particular cheerleading poster on the thread who was rather upset at the criticism of Biddulph and who has only posted on that name on that thread. If I were to think charitably, I would suggest he fundamentally misunderstood how a MN webchat runs, which would be quite odd since he’s done previous webchats (and brought his wife along). His answers were vague, patronising, pretentious and, well, twaddle. He deliberately refused to answer one question which was asked repeatedly, first by MmeLindor:

In your book, ‘Raising Boys’ you state ‘At the age of four, for reasons nobody quite understands, boys receive a sudden surge of testosterone, doubling their previous levels. At this age, little Jamie may become much more interested in action, heroics, adventures and vigorous play… At five years of age, the testosterone level drops by half, and young Jamie calms down again, just in time for school’ 
I have often seen this used – both on Mumsnet and on other parenting websites and blogs – to explain why boys are aggressive at age 4 to 5 years.  

Despite extensive searching I have yet to find a scientific research paper that supports this theory. Could you please link to the evidence of this.  …  

I am concerned that falsely interpreted statement in your book may lead to parents accepting the aggressive behaviour of their sons, to the detriment of their daughters. 

It worries me because we are teaching our girls from a young age that the right way to react to aggression is to walk away, and we are teaching our boys that aggressive behaviour is in some way acceptable, and to be expected.
Could you please clarify your statement about this hormone surge.

I would have thought that anyone making such a claim would be capable of backing it up with links to peer-reviewed research. It’s ethically and scientifically unacceptable to make claims of this nature without any evidence. It’s an incredibly dangerous statement to make because it does imply that boys are predisposed to violence and, therefore, not responsible for their actions. Small boys are not inherently aggressive or violent. We live in a culture that expects men to be violent. We reward them for their violence; one only needs to look at the careers of Charlie Sheen and Mike Tyson for evidence. But, boys aren’t inherently violent. They aren’t born violent or aggressive. That is how our culture socialises them. 

Next up on the list of things that annoyed me was this little speech: 

Girls are usually much more wired for social awareness, and even as babies they focus more on faces and reactions. This is a strength except when they are very anxious and then friendship problems can tip them over. THEY NEED HELP WITH FRIENDSHIP because its the most complex thing we do.  

It all begins in babyhood. The secure attachment of mother and baby (or dad and baby) lays the foundations for being trusting, available to love and closeness with others. If your daughter was close to you, she will know how to be close to others. 
But its from 5 – 10 that friendship is the uppermost topic for girls, because this is their primary learning goal at this age. HOW TO GET ALONG WITH OTHERS.  

There are seven core skills involved in being a friend.  

1. Enjoying the company of others – lightening up and treating company as a chance for fun.  

2. Learning to take turns and share -you have more fun if you play together, but you have to give a little to make that work.  

3. Being able to empathize – imagining how you would feel in your friend’s shoes, and being happy for them when they “win” or “star” in the game. This is a more advanced skill, it doesn’t always come easily.  

4. Being able to regulate aggression – not screaming or clobbering your friends when you disagree. Not storming off because you are losing the argument.  

5.Apologizing when you are wrong, or have hurt a friend’s feelings.  

6. Being able to read emotions. Seeing when someone is angry, sad or afraid and adjusting your behaviour accordingly. You can even teach this with drawings of smiley, frowny, teary and shakey faces, helping your daughter recognize them, and applying this to situations when her friends have been upset.  

7.Learning when to trust or believe someone, and when not to. That people can be deceptive for reasons of their own. Your daughter will be shocked and hurt when a friend lies or deceives her. You will need to comfort her and explain that some people have not learned the value of being trustworthy. Don’t lose heart, just be a little careful.  

Each of these will arise often in your daughter’s day to day life. When she comes to you hurt or bewildered, you can pinpoint which skill is called for, listen to her feelings, but then talk to her about how that skill can be done. It will take a few goes to get right, so follow up with her over a few days or weeks. Even we adults often don’t get these right, so have respect for the hugeness of what she is having to learn, and praise and affirm her for even small steps.  

I hope this helps a bit. A just seven years of age, a lot of learning is going on, it takes years, and so calmly listening to her as she talks it through.

Ignoring the unbelievably patronising comment at the end, Biddulph has clearly not read his Cordelia Fine because this idea that baby girls are “wired for social awareness” is utter twaddle. And, if girls are really are “wired for social awareness”, then surely it should be boys who need help developing friendships? Or, are they so socially incompetent that they don’t know they are supposed to have friends? I can’t keep this crap straight. I mean, seriously, are we supposed to believe that boys don’t need help learning about human emotion or who to trust? Are they not affected by these issues to? Biddulph doesn’t even try to answer a question raised about “neuronal plasticity, experience and reinforcement as determinants of behaviour and observable trait” despite the fact that this research basically proves that these studies into “observable” gender differences are, at best, inconclusive and, at worst, inherently flawed making Biddulph’s gendering of children wrong.

And, honestly, I howled with laughter when I read this bit: 

In babyhood – to feel loved and secureIn toddlerhood and pre-school age – to be exploring and curious and have an adventurous approach to the world – especially important in girls, to not be restricted (by attitudes, or fussy clothes) and for adults to show and teach enthusiasm about the world.In school – aged five to ten – to learn about friendship and getting along with others. In the early teens – 10-14 – to find your SOUL, your true self.In the late teens 14-18 – to practice for being an adult woman. And finally to step into adulthood, take responsibility for your life.

These are the stages of “girl”. Now, maybe it’s because I don’t have a son, but I’m pretty sure these stages correlate to the development of boys. I like to call this process “growing up”; as I mentioned in a comment Mumsnet deleted (which seems a tad OTT considering I said worse on the Naomi Wolf webchat).

All this webchat made me want to do is reread Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender as she brilliantly debunks all this twaddle whilst being incredibly funny and missing the whole patronising, mansplainin’ thing. Delusions of Gender is worth the price just for the Daddy Rat story. Honestly. 

Do also read this piece by Glosswitch in the New Statesman and this post by SaltandCaramel.

But, don’t bother with Biddulph. If you feel you need support, ask the parents around you. After all, that line about it taking a village to raise a child is true. We just need to stop paying experts to spout shite and start taking advantage of our communities. 

9 thoughts on “So that Steve Biddulph MN webchat: WTF?”

  1. Very well said. This man is a disingenuous sexist spreading harmful stereotypes and pseudoscience. He needs to be denounced so that people are no longer lured into buying his destructive tripe.

  2. I think Steve Biddulph is the most over-rated ‘expert’ since Oliver James. I read his ‘Raising Boys’ book a year or so ago, and couldn’t be arsed after the first chapter. There was nothing in there that I couldn’t have either worked out for myself or asked other mums for advice on. And it was patronising. All this ‘trouble with girls’ stuff is utter attention-seeking. Girls have exactly the same difficulties in growing up as they ever have. His ‘advice’ is simply snake-oil.

    1. It’s destructive snake-oil which blames women without contextualising it within the patriarchy or even acknowleging men’s roles in perpetuating and perpetrating rape culture.

  3. Totally agree, I looked at the questions before he answered them just to see if MmeLindor would post after her blog the other week but I couldn’t be bothered to read his answers. Patronising toot to make him some cash.

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