Review - Good advice buried in bad assumptions

29th March 2013 at 00:00

I like Sue Palmer. As an education consultant she is helpful, funny and extremely knowledgeable. But, within the first 10 pages of her new book, my back is so far up that a couple of vertebrae are threatening to break through the skin.

Palmer is the author of Toxic Childhood, which excoriated contemporary society for its treatment of children. Her latest book, 21st-Century Girls, looks specifically at how we, as society and individuals, are raising girls.

Two things, straight off, set my teeth on edge (to mix anatomical metaphors). Firstly, she attacks women who "embrace suffering", such as anorexia, self-harm or abuse. Three pages in and we are already blaming the victim.

Secondly, she announces that she has "serious reservations about feminism". I am sceptical of any woman who feels the need to distance herself from the feminist movement. But Palmer does so with unashamed expediency - later in the book she refers to "1960s women's libbers" as "we".

Back to the book itself. Essentially, Palmer's argument comes down to this: children are being damaged by over-exposure to technology and consumer culture. The way to counter this is to bring them up the old-fashioned way: with a parent (Palmer says "mother") at home, collective family mealtimes, no televisions in the bedroom.

Acknowledging that blanket bans are unhelpful, she suggests an 8020 split: 80 per cent healthy eating, balanced with 20 per cent junk food; 80 per cent "in the real world", countered by 20 per cent screen-based consumer culture.

And, actually, a lot of this makes perfect sense. But Palmer's choice of language often positions her midway between prophet of doom (a girl who acquires bad sleeping habits "will be programmed for a lifetime of insomnia") and conservative mouthpiece: Facebook is bad, so is Madonna, and so are nurses who give contraceptives to under-16s.

One could question why 21st-century girls need to be discussed separately from 21st-century boys, the subject of Palmer's previous book. Good child-rearing practice, surely, is relevant to both. Indeed, it is hard to read about mothers passing on "life skills, such as housekeeping, cooking, gardening" to their daughters as anything but sexist, even with "and DIY" tacked on the end. Ditto this: "Girls also need to know the importance of distrusting charm."

Besides - adding eyebrows to my catalogue of displaced body parts - I am sceptical of Palmer's insistence that, by following her advice, parents will raise confident, outgoing girls who are academically successful, immune to bullying and never argue with their parents. But maybe I am wrong and it really is that simple. In which case I will eat my words, at the dinner table, with my family around me.

21st-Century Girls by Sue Palmer is published by Orion Books, #163;12.99.

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