Father and son reunion

13th June 1997 at 01:00
"If you are working more than 55 hours a week," says Steve Biddulph, "I guarantee you are not being a good father to your boys. Working like that will be bad for your own health, it will damage your daughters, but it will cripple your sons."

The Australian Mr Biddulph, a family therapist for 20 years and author of the phenomenally successful The Secrets of Having Happy Children, is here on a lecture tour organised by Parent Network, a voluntary organisation that runs parent training courses nationally. His palpable niceness, sincerity and honesty is matched by his determination to keep spreading the message. British readers may have to wait a while for the message, since HarperCollins, despite the book having sold 900,000 copies worldwide, is not publishing it here.

And the message is? In brief, take the time to be kind, open and loyal to your loved ones, remember the difference between adults and children (the adult is the one in charge), express your feelings before they express you,take responsibility for your own actions but do not take on blame for misfortune, be part of the wider community. Above all, enjoy life. That's what it's there for.

It's a very attractive vision, sort of Christianity without the guilt, and Mr Biddulph - father of a 12-year-old boy - gives it an attractive glow. But can it really work? Are the forces of darkness, of racism, child abuse, unemployment, ignorance, adversity, really to be overcome by giving each other backrubs and listening to children read? Or is there more to it than that?

Yes, yes and yes, answers Steve Biddulph, whose huge and infectious enthusiasm springs, surprisingly, from a childhood in England dominated by English repression of any feeling at all - "intense negativity" - and in Australia scared out of his wits by school bullies. His Australian wife, Shaaron, was abused by a violent father.

Together they have vowed to try to stop other children experiencing negative childhoods. Their book is aimed smack at those who need it most, not the buyers of Penelope Leach - who, as Steve Biddulph says, "all have university degrees" - but at poor single mums in tower blocks and harassed families in supermarkets, at people who just can't take it any more and take it out on their kids. So why won't HarperCollins publish it here?

Biddulph himself is bemused by the publisher's reticence, while a spokeswoman couldn't, then wouldn't, say why. Could it be for the same reason that Parent Network runs so many courses? That English culture is deeply inimical to children and prefers to see them either as monsters, as in the popular Toddler Taming by Christopher Green, or as fantasy angels as in the Mothercare catalogue. "Secrets", with its practical tips of how to get out of arguing all the time and in to a calm and healthy order, offers justification to parents who want to respect their children's needs without being swallowed up in their wants. Their time, believes, Steve Biddulph, has come.

The time has also come to take a fresh look at how we are failing our boys. All over the developed world, young males are a problem. Under-fathering and a lack of understanding of how boys develop is at the heart of these problems. He has some concrete proposals.

As boys develop at a different rate and in a different sequence from girls, their primary education should take account of these differences. Many European countries only admit children to full-time education at six or seven. Even this may be too early for some boys, whose gross motor co-ordination matures ahead of their fine motor control.

For girls, it is the other way round. "At six, girls are ready to sit down with paper and pencil. Little boys need to move their muscles around more." Biddulph's prescription is to postpone boys' starting school for a year and have them in class with younger girls. Then girls need encouragement to develop their sporting, large motor, prowess; boys need patient teaching to overcome their physical delay in concentrating on smaller movements.

In their schooling, boys need the role models which abound for girls in their primary schools. Boys, says Biddulph, drawing on psychoanalytic theory, need heroes so badly that if they do not get them from older male authority figures, they will create them out of their own delinquent group and act tough to fulfil their need for drama. So, more male teachers,and teachers who are valued by the community at large, are essential.

Biddulph says that studies by occupational therapists have shown that boys are prone to episodic hearing loss, caused by the effect on the tiny Eustachian tube of the growth spurts which testosterone inflicts on their bodies. Temporary deafness leads to "switching off" in a big way, says Biddulph, especially when coupled with a vulnerability to language deficit.

It is known that the hemisphere of the brain which controls spatial judgment is more developed in boys. That which manages language is more developed in girls. The bridge between the two is underdeveloped in boys at birth. In a less information-led age, this mattered less: crudely put, boys could fix things and girls could talk. Nowadays, we have a feminised culture where talking IS fixing things.

To help boys cope, it is vitally important that from the earliest months and within the first three years of brain growth, adults talk to boys, listen to boys, encourage them to express themselves, and stimulate their language acquisition. Socially, too, adult men need to display themselves as reading and writing: reading is seen as a feminine activity. We are not talking Shakespeare, Martin Amis, or even Stephen Fry here, we are talking about the rapidly increasing proportion of boys who internationally are attaining less, not only relative to girls, but relative to 20 years ago.

Boys who are not talked and read to grow up poor communicators, and with poor impulse control, which can get them into trouble. But even a linguistically impoverished childhood can be rescued.

Another prescription is to switch off the TV. "You use less of your brain watching TV than you do asleep," says Steve Biddulph (remember he comes from Australia, home of Neighbours and Home and Away) pointing to the need for the brain to make its own pictures to the words it hears. That is why TV does not increase your vocabulary: you don't need to find a meaning for the words when the pictures are on tap.

Most of all, Steve Biddulph talks about the absence of fathering in western society. Where there is no father in the family, you need more male teachers in school to take more of a fatherly encouraging role, you need businesses to run mentoring schemes as already happens on a large scale in New Zealand and South Africa, and family members to take note of the young males in their surroundings.

Where there is a father, he has to understand that children need a father more than his money, that long hours at work providing may leave a boy unprovided for. "Seventeen-year-olds on street corners are following 19-year-olds because there is no good 30-year-old for them to follow," says Biddulph. He has worked with deviant teenagers in school by getting their fathers to agree to spend weekends with them.

Pointing to "the extraordinary collapse of maleness in cultures suffering racism", Steve Biddulph is fully aware of the damage done to ethnic minority adolescents by joblessness. None the less, he says, if a teenage boy has a single male friend outside the family who takes an interest in him, that is the biggest factor offsetting the risk of being led into crime, despite adverse social circumstances.

There will be plenty of people who will worry about the risk of paedophilia in this analysis. That is not a worry for Steve Biddulph. Parents who listen to their children and encourage them to express their feelings will not turn a blind eye to any disquiet those children express.

Children need parenting. Boys need fathering. And parenting is something, says Steve Biddulph, that you can catch. "The best investment we can make is to support emotionally new parents so that they get good at parenting and like their own children. Keeping fathers in touch with their children is best for the children - and best for the fathers. Men are afraid of drowning in that sense of responsibility, but I guarantee they'll have more fun than they expect."

- Steve Biddulph is talking at two one-day London conferences specially for teachers. "Boys at school - achievement and behaviour" is on June 19 (at Goldsmith's College) and 20 (at University College). Tony Sewell author of Black Masculinities and Schooling -- how black boys survive modern schooling will also speak. Cost #163;95.

Ring Gwynne Wilson-Brown on 0171 394 1843; or John Phelps on 0171 242 2708.

- Parent Network: Room 2, Winchester House, Kennington Park, 11 Cranmer Road, London SW9. Tel: 0171 735 1214

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