aunties is a plural form of auntie
aunties is a plural form of aunty
The 19th century was chock-a-literary-block with aunts. The Brontës were raised by one and Jane Austen adored hers, writing to her niece: "I have always maintained the importance of aunts."
It is a view about to be revived by bestselling author and psychologist Steve Biddulph, who is calling for an "aunties army" to help bring up our young girls, whose lives he says are in a "catastrophic" state of crisis.
After a professional lifetime concerned with how to rear boys – his book on the subject, Raising Boys, sold more than 3m copies worldwide – British-born Biddulph has now turned his attention to girls. His new book, Raising Girls, is due to be published here later this month and in it he will widen the net of parental responsibility to include aunts, saying they are the secret to adolescence.
Pointing out that no girl and her mum always get along and no mum can meet all her daughter's needs, he will say that aunts used to be the ones who talked to girls about things too embarrassing to tell their mothers. Aunts, whether trendy, maiden or embarrassing, can be fun and feisty, because mums have to provide security and you can't always be both. Biddulph believes there is a "catastrophe" unfolding for girls.
In an interview with an Australian radio station near his home in Tasmania, he said: "I'm much more aware now of girls having enormous problems with things like bullying and eating disorders and generally not liking who they are. We're noticing that even at primary school stage … There's no mystery in what is causing that. I think we all agree about the pressures and what has happened here, that the corporations around the world started realising they could sell to young women and pre-teens. They gave them the message that your looks are the most important thing about them."
He is calling for a new feminism to include aunts mentoring younger girls and keeping them safe from the "toxic" influences of advertising and celebrity. Aunts – they don't have to be actually related – can help by having nieces to stay sometimes, so there is a sense of another secure haven. Or having regular coffee or lunch get-togethers. Sometimes, Biddulph suggests, they may actually intervene – paying for lessons or a trip away that parents wouldn't be able to manage. Often a girl will ask questions she wouldn't dare ask her mother.
But yet another book putting pressure on families is not going to help get to the root of society's problems, said psychologist and author Oliver James. "It's a bad idea, a misreading of the evidence," said James, who also wants a new kind of feminism – a less American form – and who sees the root of some of the issues in education and in capitalism. He said that Danish children, who are not exposed to the same levels of advertising as US and UK children, were showing far less distress. "I think Biddulph's work on boys was excellent, but with the girls the weakness is that he has to look at the bigger picture. There is an epidemic of very, very serious problems in girls and that's what we should be looking at," he said, pointing to the 2009 Sweeting study that showed a leap in anxiety and depression in 15-year-old girls between 1987 and 2006. "They are probably the most mentally ill single group of people in the country: a staggering 43% of them are depressed or anxious and 27% are suffering a full-scale mental illness. And that was the more privileged girls." He has called it an "emotional apocalypse".
"We are in the process of making our schools an extension of the HR departments of big corporations and allowing into education the constant testing and pressures that are destroying girls' lives."
Many agree the breakdown of communities and the geographical spreading-out of families has cost children dear. Val Besag, a consultant educational psychologist, said she believed celebrity culture had come to replace older role models that girls would previously have found within the family. An older figure was vital, she said, to help girls deal with the confusing messages around them.
"Girls have lost a lot of pit props in their lives. You can see it even in all the damn programmes on television now about girls training in housekeeping skills, cooking, house decorating with Kirstie Allsopp. In my generation we learned those skills from our mothers; even if they worked there were no ready meals, so the poor things had to come home and cook from scratch. But for this generation they are growing up with their mothers who have to be out there at work. They used to leave school earlier and form bonds with older women in the workplace, and the community they lived in was a huge influence too, but now young girls get their influence from their peer group and from celebrities."
Going for a cup of tea with an aunt might not completely shelter Britain's girls from the pressures on their young lives, but it can help. If you have nieces, challenges Biddulph, why not step up in their lives, take a proactive role and join the aunties army?