Webchat with Steve Biddulph

This is an edited transcript of our live online chat with Australian parenting writer Steve Biddulph on September 28, 2000. Steve will be returning to the discussion area later this week so if your question wasn't answered or if you didn't manage to join the live session you can still catch him on our live events thread. Steve's latest book, written with his wife Shaaron, is Love, Laughter and Parenting (Dorling Kindersley). To buy a copy at the discounted price of £9.09 click here.

Steve Biddulph: A big hello to everyone listening. Its early morning here in Australia and
my brain may not be at its best, but I hope I can be of help.

Always remember you are the expert on your children, and these talks are
just to get you more in touch with your own heart and head so you can do it more in your own way.

Shaaron and I have been travelling and talking to parents for twenty years
now. We love to build community with other parents.

Our books - including the new one Love Laughter and Parenting - are about
sharing ideas from other parents, rather than some kind of expert advice (which we see as generally a bad idea!).

So having said that - lets get started !

Letter QJraven: My husband is a lovely Dad to our 2 year old daughter, the only problem is he works so hard, they hardly get to see each other. Half an hour each week day morning and one day at the weekend. He is as torn up by this as I am, but he's very ambitious and needs to put the hours in, if he's going to achieve his career goals. What I'm really concerned about is later when she's a teenager and she doesn't see her Dad from day to day - I'd always had this blissful idea of the whole family sitting down to supper each night and each discussing their various days. I work from home, so I'm around a lot and, as I say, he's really good with her on Saturdays and holidays. Do you think the fact that he can't be around more is a problem? Any suggestions on how I might convince him to be a teeny bit less ambitious?

Letter ASteve: Its very tough in Britain where men are seen as just walking wallets, but this is starting to change. More and more men are wresting back control of their lives. 

Many middle class men in Britain have fallen for the great lie of the 1990's - that you can have it all. You can't achieve all your own goals for yourself, and also raise healthy happy kids - its not possible.
Tens of thousands of relatively well off parents are now in their fifties and sixties and in great pain because they see their grown up
children using drugs, failing at school, in all kinds of troubles - because they weren't around enough in the early years. Kids need us in two peak times - birth to five, and the mid teens. But they always need you around for meals, chats, walks, and games. QUANTITY TIME.

Dads for daughters are the key to self-esteem - there is more about this in Love,Laughter and Parenting. If dad is busy, daughters tend to be
too affected by boys too young.

Ambition, after all, is kind of greed if its taken too far. Ask yourself -why do I want to succeed ? If you are telling yourself - its for
the kids sake - then think this through carefully. The kids need you more than fancy schools or clothes or consumer goods. You have to walk a middle road.

The research on this is very strong. Parent time correlates with a happy successful life. Good income without parent time leads to problems.

Time for some tough choices.

Letter QArthur: My 18 month old son has just begun to get upset about being left with other people. When he starts screaming all our instincts are to turn around and comfort him but my partner and I are worried we are making it harder and harder to leave him with other people. How can we stop him feeling that we are abandoning him each time we leave him with someone else?

Letter ASteve: Greetings from Australia. Do you often need to leave your 18 month son with other people ? Can you give me some background ?

Your instincts may be right - especially if you are having to rush off without him having time to settle in and feel safe.

The research is that boys are more sensitive to this than girls, and tend to suffer worse from separations at this age. That's why in the book we recommend not using childcare with boys till they are about three.

When you need to leave them, the main thing is to stay until they are really happy and relating well to other adults. And of course to make sure the adults you leave them with are utterly trustworthy. Always check there isn't a reason - especially if a child that was once okay about being left suddenly makes a lot of fuss.

Give me some more information if you are online this evening. What do you think of what I am saying ?

<Letter QArthur: Thanks for your reply Steve. Unfortunately, not leaving my son with other people isn't really an option since both my wife and I work (almost) full time. We have been leaving him with a nanny during the day for almost a year now but it was only recently, after a change of nannies, that he began to get upset about being left. From time to time we leave him with grandparents for a night or a weekend which he always seemed to be quite happy about but recently he has begun to get very upset when he guesses (and he always does) that we are about to leave. What do you suggest?

Letter ASteve: We spent a year in Britain recently living down in Sussex while we worked on the new book. Our kids loved it. But one of the things we noticed was that British parents are incredibly caught up in what we came to call the "cycle of earn and spend", and even when able to afford luxuries - like a nanny - see themselves as being under financial pressure to keep on earning and spending.

We know from all the child development literature that children under three need to be with someone who loves them, most of the time. A nanny can be successful, but only if she becomes as loved or more loved than the actual parents. So children can be very hurt by changing nannies, and of course in a creche situation its even worse - many carers changing all the time. This age is all about special relationships. This is all gone into more in More Secrets of Happy Children.

So my question is "Is this the life you really want for yourself ?" Is it possible to win back time for being parents when your child is so young. A couple of years can make all the difference. Don't answer now - take some time to talk it over and think it through. Many thanks for your honesty and how much you care for your child to be coming to the site like this and discussing it.


Letter QEve: In your book on raising boys (bought after I had one) you say (I think) that a Mother should stay at home until they are 3 as boys in particular suffer from being left.

I have been working 4 days a week since mine was 6 months (now 14 months) but this fact has stuck with me and causes me worry.

What can I do to compensate and what evidence is your statement based on.

Letter ASteve: In our book More Secrets of Happy Children (thorsons) we go into much more about the risks of putting kids under two into childcare. But you should make up your own mind, based on how your son is responding. The risks are mostly in receiving care from many different (and sometimes indifferent) strangers, that he will lose his sense of security and special bond with you. And you just miss out on so much closeness with him. But you may find that you have a strong enough bond with him that he doesn't react badly, and trusts that you will soon be back.

Have you noticed any ill effects ? Clinginess ? Naughtiness ? Being distant and hurt when you go to pick him up again ? Or is he just fine ? Every child is different.

Sometimes our circumstances are far from ideal, and kids still get through. But I feel a need in my books to indicate what is the best situation, so we know what to aim for. The reason boys are more vulnerable is not known, but seems to be their slower development socially and mentally. They have more trouble socialising, and creche's report the problem of the "sad/angry" boy who plays up because he feels sad.

Sorry this is all the room I have for this big topic. What do others think ?

Letter QLauram: My four year old boy has just started "big school" (he's been there only two weeks). He started going in very confidently but each day is getting more difficult. Today he was crying and had to be pulled off me. I know this is quite common, but have you got any tips on making the transition easier for him. He is a very eloquent, loving and happy child (your way of parenting has been our successful bible!), but keeps saying he wants to stay at home with us. His teachers say that he is working well, his concentration is excellent and he is beginning to make friends, but I think he is finding the whole thing rather daunting (and a bit disappointing!). It is an all boy school.

Letter ASteve: Hello - all our questions this evening seem to be from the Raising Boys book. We have worked with educators all over the world and strongly believe British schools start children at "big school" two years too soon - for boys, and for some girls too. I think practically your son will settle in, as you have given him such good self-esteem and security. An all boys school also is a bit more aggressive, but has its plusses too, which is why you have chosen it I'm sure.

I think your son will grow into it, but in general encourage parents to hold their boys out of school a year longer if they possibly can. I actually spoke in the House of Commons about the system needing to change there. In most of the rest of Europe kids don't start till six or seven, and go really well.

Thanks for your kind comments, love to your family.

Letter QDebs: My eight year old Daughter is extremely rude and cheeky to me but nobody else and as a full time working single mum I am finding this very difficult to handle. Punishments such as not staying up later on a Friday or Saturday do not seem to bother her. Also if I say no to one of her requests she either just goes ahead and does it anyway or lashes out verbally or physically. My friends who have same age daughters are experiencing similar behaviour - can you recommend a way of handling this?

Letter ASteve: So often these appear as parenting problems, but are actually lifestyle problems.

The very best book on parental stress and how it affects children is The Shelter of Each Other by Mary Pipher. I recommend this book to all parents. It argues that we are so busy, and our children learn their manners from their peers, which of course are selfish and thoughtless because all children have trouble thinking of others until they grow a little older.

So while you could "clamp down" on your daughter harder, part of the problem might be that she is not getting enough time with you. That's why she is rude to you but no-one else. I imagine you have no choice about working full time, and probably are pretty busy in the evenings just doing housework ? Is your lifestyle something you have any control over ? Please add a note about this ? Does anyone else on the site have similar experience ?

Letter QPetaselwyn: Your books are very welcome and I recommend them frequently to parent groups. Are you Adlerian trained? So much of what you say seems to fit with the Adlerian perspective. Do you ever run workshops over here?

Letter ASteve: When I wrote our first book Secret of Happy Children, some people told me these ideas were very similar, and I think Adler's influence had a strong effect on the thinking of the humanistic psychologists (the one's like me who think children are not rats !) But I hadn't heard of him until that time. His work is actually very important and set things in a much healthier direction than good old Freud had sent it earlier on.


Letter QUrsie:I hope that you can help me. I have two boys 2.5 & 3.5. They are regular boys, and they really behave that way! Our problem is that the older one is hard work and we feel that most of our time is given to him and that the younger one is missing out a bit. Do you think that this will cause a problem when he is older? He is such a lovely easy child that sometimes it is easy to forget that he is there.
I do not want him to grow up thinking we love our older one more, as this is not the case. We love them both equally, for different qualities that they have. It is just that the older one seems to need a lot more attention because of his behaviour, sleeping habits (which is no sleep at all unless he is in the same bed as my husband, which is beginning to cause us all problems but we cannot get him out of it) and so on.
I am starting to see that the younger one is seeking out his dad more and more, I think this is because Matthew took up so much of Pauls time and now Wills is beginning to notice this.
What do you think?

Letter ASteve: Your boys are very close in age, and you sound really stressed. If we had the time for proper discussion, I think I would be advising you and your husband to get some extra rest time, even if its just an evening a fortnight when the boys are minded by someone you trust so you can have a meal or a movie together.

When there is a feeling of "not enough parents to go around" it often means you have been working so hard at caring for the kids, and not had time for each other.

I think you are already very good at considering the children's needs, and quite skilled in parenting, so the problem might be more in self-care.

There is more about this in Love, laugher and parenting.

Sorry this answer is so brief. Does anyone else reading this have suggestions for boys close in age like this ?

Letter QCeleste: In your book "The Secret of Happy Children" you talk a bit about being assertive as a parent and not shying away from discipline. I was wondering when do you think you should start with discipline. My child is just coming up to 2 yrs old and is pretty wilful (as they all are), so far I've just employed distraction techniques, is it time for time-outs etc?

Letter ASteve: The discipline method we use, along with all the normal things like distraction, is called "Stand and think". Its described in More Secrets of Happy Children and in Love, Laughter and Parenting too. Its sometimes called "The Teaching Conversation"

The things that tell you a child is ready for a little bit of discipline are - that they have some language, they can speak a bit, (so you know they are able to understand)
they can see cause and effect (I poked the cats eye and it scratched me !)
and they understand "no". So usually we are talking about 18 months to two years of age, depending on the child. Once they can understand, you can begin to use these methods.

Sorry not to be able to detail them here, they take several pages to explain, though they are simple once you use them.

Letter QFlorence: This evening is such a great idea and it is wonderful to get your views on so many of your parenting issues. I just wanted to say that I agree with you about our hurried and busy lifestyles. My son is 17 months old and I chose to go back to work part time when he was 8 months old. I work 3 days a week but am very lucky because my sister looks after him when I work and so he is with is family and is very happy. It has taken some time for me to accept the fact that I don't need to dash around like a mad thing on the days that I have with him. Some of my most special and amazing moments with my son have been just 'hanging out' at home - reading stories, letting him 'help' with the washing up (I definitely came off worse and wetter than he did!), sitting on the kitchen floor with him making lots of noise with pans and wooden spoons, watching aeroplanes overhead. But why has it taken such a long time for me not to feel guilty about spending time doing these things?

Letter ASteve: It sounds like you have made some wise choices, and also you have managed to stay in close proximity to extended family so your sister and you are co-operating in this way. You have found a middle road. Don't feel guilty about "hanging out" with your child - this is precious time when you are giving him priceless mental health through a sense of security and serenity and love of life.

Letter QAnnies: My 15 month old daughter is just beginning to talk and her approximations to words are often hilarious. Often I the way she says something so endearing that I find myself referring to it by the same name for ages afterwards. My husband says this is bad because it will prevent her from learning the proper words for things but is it really such a sin?

Letter ASteve: Sounds like your husband is a bit of a grouch ! We suggest you tickle him and plan a holiday somewhere warm as soon as possible.

There is a really good section on language development in Love and Laughter - you can read it in the shop to save money, its only two pages. It mostly says - enjoy your children's funny sayings as part of the miracle of language acquisition. Mimic them, AND use the right words sometimes too.

Well, I better go bye byes now!

Letter QJools: Steve - (and daughter) hello. Just wondered do you ever wonder what your kids will make of your books when they're adults - or do you talk the books through with them at all? Has all the work you've done made parenting (and your kids) easier - or do you still sometimes despair of your children's behaviour (like the rest of us?)

Letter ASteve: I sent my daughter on out to get some breakfast - I wanted her to know what I was doing and feel a part of it, but we try to keep our kids out of it in general.

That way they can have their own lives.

The reason Shaaron and I got into this area, all those years ago (we're nearly fifty now) was that we were so ill prepared ourselves. Shaaron had a quite violent upbringing and her parents struggled to make ends meet, my parents were great but I was being raised in Yorkshire in the 50's which was a very negative culture, with lots of low self-esteem.

We both knew we wanted to find more loving and safer ways to raise kids. All our work comes from dialogue with parents, as well as reading (with a fairly sceptical eye)
the research, and training as therapists.

So we have an approach of "looking for a better way" together with other parents, and some certainties and directions emerge from this.

We love parenting and parents, and we still find it challenging and hard work.

We think the world we live in is not very parent or child friendly, so we have become especially interested in parents getting back control of their life from consumerist pressures and all the rubbish the culture throws at families.

Power to Parents !

Steve: Well, it looks like we have run out of time - phew ! We will revisit this site and try and give some more replies in the next couple of days. Many thanks for your contributions.

The themes seem to be very strong - parents in the UK have a lot of stress and busyness, and its important to win back some time. And little boys are starting school way too early for their developmental readiness. We will be coming to UK next May to campaign about this in the press and with a lecture tour on Raising Boys, because we think the rules should be changed so boys, and girls who need it, can start school a year later. This will prevent tens of thousands of kids having school related problems that are quite unnecessary.

Hopefully we can put news of these talks on mumsnet.                                                                                                 

Last updated: 9 months ago