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How Female Minds Develop, How to Raise Bright, Balanced Girls and Why Today's World Needs Them More Than Ever
by Sue Palmer
A bout 10 years ago Sue Palmer was a guest at a party given by some lecturers. Once her hosts realised that she was a researcher in child development, they switched from bragging about how brilliantly their teenage daughters were doing at school to confiding their fears that, in fact, their girls might have anorexia. Had the pressure put on these high-flying girls somehow converted itself into physical self-punishment, Palmer wondered.
Parental anxiety about daughters and how to raise them seems to be everywhere in 2013; this is the second book on the subject this year, and it's only March. In January the Australian parenting expert Steve Biddulph published Raising Girls, whose most memorable advice to mums and dads was that they should cultivate a network of benevolent aunts to help guide a daughter safely through her formative years. Now Palmer weighs in with some rather overfamiliar warnings - that in their quest for perfection in the high-tech, fast-paced modern world, girls risk falling prey to a host of nasties, from eating disorders and self-harm to underage sex and participation in online porn. Even five-year-old girls are now worrying about what they look like, she says, as she rages against the tyranny of pink toys, clothes and bedroom furnishings. And when they grow up, they are still not smashing through the glass ceiling.
Toxic Childhood, of course, was the book that made Palmer's name. Published in 2006, it argued that the way children were being raised - spending five hours a day watching television or on computer screens; rushed from place to place; left with childminders or nurseries as their parents went out to work - was hindering their acquisition of motor, speech and cognitive skills and damaging their development. What children need to become healthy adults is what they have always needed, Palmer claimed - unconditional love, play, discipline, language, education.
Palmer's new book seems in many respects simply to have taken the thesis of Toxic Childhood and applied it to girls. Quite a lot of the book feels muddled, and some of the generalisations are simply fatuous - "Boys are straightforward, girls so complicated," she writes at one point.
For Palmer, the way to ensure that girls are raised to become happy and healthy adults is to reclaim motherhood and train women to become better at it. She draws a distinction between E-type thinkers (people who can connect with and understand others) and S-type thinkers (people who can explore and understand the world). E-type thinkers are mostly, of course, women and the best of them are hugely empathetic people able to respond intuitively to a baby's needs. Instead of mums rushing back to work as soon as a baby is born, Palmer asserts that "girls need one-to-one care for the first two years at least to have the best chance of leading a happy fulfilling life" and that it's impossible to get that care in a nursery, "no matter how well equipped or regulated".
This is the contention that is likely to be most controversial. It's not new, and Palmer cites other researchers who have argued it before. However, it's still powerful in an age when the government seems intent on encouraging women back to work soon after they give birth.
So what of Palmer's own parenting? This is the bit of the book I found most convincing. Palmer gave up her job as a primary head after her daughter, Beth, was born so that she could spend more time with her. Then, 15 years ago she got interested in the world of child development. She describes her own moment of maternal guilt when, during her research into why today's children are slower to develop speech and language, she realised she had pushed her own daughter in a buggy facing the wrong way, had left daytime television on and had plonked her in front of videos of nursery rhymes instead of singing them herself. By the age of four Beth was severely dyslexic.
Ironically, given Palmer's argument about the importance of mothers, when Beth was 10 she turned round and told her mother she wanted to be in a boarding school with other children like her. And there's the rub - you can spout all the parenting theories you like, but you can't really raise a child according to a manual. For the one thing you can guarantee is that kids never turn out quite as planned.
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