Tuesday, June 22, 2010

How Not To Parent Line-By-Line

The Times's family matter agony aunt "Professor" Tanya Byron (as far as I can tell her PhD is from The House of Tiny Tearaways ... only joking but I can tell you her PhD is about drug abuse and not about raising young children) needs stripping of her academic title and keeping away from children and families forever. And I will prove it. Exhibit A: Her response to a letter from a mother entitled "Why won't our daughter wear girl's clothes?" (you have to sign up to The Times now to read articles but I have pasted most of it below so I can critique it).

"We have a beautiful, bright nine-year-old who is taking being a tomboy to extremes and wears only boys’ clothes. What can we do?"

Do? When did "tomboy" become a bad thing? And not wearing dresses is hardly "extreme" is it? What about starting fights all the time, lying about her age and joining the military?

"When she was 5 or 6 she started to reject wearing dresses and skirts, which we were fine about, but for the past few years she has worn only boys’ clothes because, she says, they are comfortable and practical."

Well she's right. And how radical is it that your child wants to wear clothes that are practical and comfortable. Would you rather she wore clothes that hurt her and limited her ability to participate in activities with other children?

"I am concerned that she is taking this too far and now, probably because of arguments we have had, the idea of going clothes shopping fills her with dread and she can become hysterical."

Too far? Too comfortable and too practical? Yeah that could be an issue.

"Currently she has one pair of tatty ski trousers that she will wear and just a couple of tops. She finds only one pair of knickers comfortable, and buying school shoes is a nightmare."

How about buying her clothes that she feels comfortable in? Like some more of those comfy knickers? What are you trying to dress her in? Thongs?

"I have warned her that image is becoming more and more important to her peers at this age but, interestingly, she has made friends with a girl at school with similar “issues” about clothes. I am more than happy for her to be tomboyish but there are times when she needs to look smart — going out to dinner, for example — and every time a situation like this arises it causes big problems for us."

So she's not even the only girl at her school who likes to dress sensibly. How "extreme" is this behaviour - it sounds really smart and sensible to me. And I bet she hates going to dinner with her dreadful appearance-obsessed parents.

"Her hair is an unstyled mop and needs a cut but, after a dreadful experience for her at the hairdresser’s last time, the idea of returning puts her in a state."

Wow she does sound smart - she had a bad experience last time so she doesn't want to go back to the hairdressers. Who's fault that she had a bad experience?

"I am concerned at the problems this may cause in the long term, and confused about where these insecurities are coming from. She doesn’t seem to take any pride in how she looks, and reacts hysterically when her appearance becomes an issue. Should I seek professional help?"

Insecurities? She seems very secure and confident in her decisions. The insecurities are coming from her parents who seem to have confused "having a child" with "having a dress-me-up doll" and been caught out.

...No doubt Professor Byron will set them straight...

"When people want to wear clothes usually worn by the other sex, we call it cross-dressing. But this term comes laden with unhelpful stereotypes about gender and sexual orientation, and if used about children it often leaves the parents feeling very anxious."

Hold on. She's not trying to disguise herself as a boy. That would be different. She openly says she's choosing boys clothes because they're more comfortable. That's not cross-dressing, that's sensible, practical dressing. When I go skiing and I take my husband's waterproof trousers and thermal socks I'm not beginning a new life as a drag king, I'm wearing the most practical clothes for the situation.

"Children can feel deeply unhappy about being boys or girls. This can be a problem when a child continues to believe that he or she is, or wishes to be, the other sex. However, studies indicate that most children (almost 90 per cent in one study) who cross-dress and are unhappy with being their own sex do not want to be the other sex in adulthood."

How exactly does not wanting to wear uncomfortable and impractical clothes or go back to a hairdressers who was horrid last time make this child unhappy about her gender. Is she answering a different letter?

"There are many ways to think about this problem, and I want to begin by outlining some theories. As there have been arguments, I wonder if this issue represents a power struggle in which your daughter exerts her will (which reinforces her behaviour) and you, her parents, have been unable to keep authority and set boundaries. If so, a child clinical psychologist could help you (see bps.org.uk)."

Seriously - she won't wear dresses and you're advising taking her to a shrink? Go to your local high street now and see how many grown women are wandering about in dresses - very few. Are we all mentally ill?

"However, I think this is too limited an explanation in your case.Looking at family dynamics, maybe your daughter identifies strongly with her father and wants to emulate him. In families where the mother dominates, father and child(ren) may bond powerfully. This could be explored via family therapy (instituteof familytherapy.org.uk)."

Ok so footnote to readers - three things to be avoided AT ALL COSTS in your family: (1) Mum is main family decision-maker, (2) Daughter wants to be like Dad, (3) Dad and daughter have close bond. So here's the solution - maybe if Mum acts like a total doormat and Dad stops spending time with his daughter? That will definitely lead to the well-balanced family you've always wanted...

"What particularly strikes me, though, is that your daughter becomes “hysterical” at the prospect of clothes shopping, haircuts, etc, and I wonder if some tactile sensations are uncomfortable for her. She may have what is known as tactile defensiveness or touch sensitivity."

Yes I reckon that's is - she has this weird and bizarre medical condition called "Not liking being manhandled or wearing frilly scratchy clothes". Call a medical team at once. Next she'll be telling you she doesn't like being shoe-horned into a corset.

"Children with tactile defensiveness have a range of reactions that can include: disliking being stroked; refusing to handle dirty, sticky or slimy substances; needing labels cut out of clothing; refusing to wear certain fabrics, such as “scratchy” wool; and hating to have their feet touched or their hair brushed."

I have all of these things. I also don't like: nettles in the face, scalding water on my knees and motorised vehicles approaching me at over 60mph.

"Touch-sensitive people appear to feel discomfort or even pain from sensations that most of us find non-threatening or even pleasurable. It is thought that their tactile sensory system isn’t working properly, so they are constantly on alert for sensations that they see as a physical threat and traumatic, such as having their hair washed or nails cut. Such sensations feel to these children like fingers being dragged down a blackboard."

But if you look at the original letter it mentioned not liking having her hair cut (by a hairdresser who had previously caused problems), nothing about washing hair or cutting nails - and it's not like the letter suggested the parents might have been unobservant about such matters.

"The condition can lead to difficulties in concentration. At school, these children may lash out if they are bumped into. Sitting on the carpet may make them fidget. A draught on the back of the neck can lead to extreme discomfort. At the same time, such children may crave calming sensations such as firm pressure (eg, being held tightly or rocked, or being wrapped up at bedtime)."

The condition that is that this child simply does not have. Stop medicalising her desire to wear clothes she can run about in. She's a kid...

"It is hypothesised that this condition arises from neurological disorganisation in the mid-brain region — responsible for filtering incoming stimuli — such that sensation is heightened and becomes overwhelming and distressing."

Oh good cos I'd like to hypothesise that Prof Byron is a total fraud and should be struck off (and professional registers, the academic roll of honour and preferably the planet.

I'd also like to hypothesise that the correct answer to the letter was: Dear parents, very very bad news I'm afraid. Did the hospital seem busy and crowded when you went in to give birth. Did the nurses look flustered and tired? Did they anxiously keep your daughter's identification tag out of sight, insisting you didn't need to see it? You see your daughter even at the age of 9 is a bout ten gazillion times smarter than you both and the odds of that happening if she really is your child are very low. Get a genetic test (look it up) and start looking in the paper for stories about two really smart parents whose nine-year-old has been asked to re-sit kindergarten.

I stopped line-by-lining the piece there cos the rest of it (another whole page worth) is about how to treat this "touch sensitivity" issue that the kid just doesn't have. I will mention though that it does say at the bottom "If you have a family problem, e-mail proftanyabyron@thetimes.co.uk", so if for instance you and your family have a problem that you've read her piece and it made you all feel very angry and want to break things - do let her know!


Leia Organa said...

Excellent post Kate. Do you mind if I submit it for the Carnival of Feminist Parenting?

Cruella said...

Please do, thanks Anji!

Cruella said...

As a footnote I read through some of the comments below the article and they mostly said that making a fuss about how she dresses is much more likely to cause problems than letting her do what she pleases. Which seems reasonable. Worryingly though a large number of commenters refer to what the mother should do or what the mother has got wrong. Yet the letter is written "we..." and "our daughter", clearly by both parents. Clearly only Mums are actually parents in this country!

Unknown said...

It seems that in all her academic training, the Prof has never learned that what causes mental illness, more than wearing the clothes assigned to another gender, is other people, especially your parents, telling you from a young age that who you are is bad and wrong and should be changed.

I agree, Kate, the child does sound massively more intelligent than the parents. Sigh.

Isla Hart said...

I am female (and quite sure of it!) but I haven't worn a dress since 1992. Surely I must be sectionably insane by now?
Sometimes women who spend/have spent a lot of time in male-dominated environments seem to dream of having a daughter that they can dress up and do 'girly' things with. At least this is how my sister explains her compulsion to dress my niece in shiny, pink high heels at the age of 8. I think it could be partly due to a lack of imagination in finding ways to foster female bonding, dare I say 'sisterhood'. While dads facilitate 'male bonding' by taking their sons to the football, mothers are supposed to take their daughters shopping for frilly garments and glittery nail varnish. Or something like that...


Prof. Tanya Byron who obtained her Phd in drug abuse and not sociology clearly needs to read the website Pink Stinks. The co-ordinators of this website refuse to accept that 'boys are boys (sic)and girls are what??? Pink I guess and narry the twain must meet.

So any girl who refuses to conform to the patriarchal dogma of 'appropriate feminine behavour'
which excludes girls being allowed to dress in comfortable clothing rather than the sexualised skimpy handerchiefs girls are supposed to wear is a 'tomboy.'

Horrors mustn't have this must we Prof. Byron - but I don't blame you personally, I blame the male patriarchal owner of The Times because the days when newspapers were objective, neutral and just reported the news are long, long gone.

Now we have individuals such as Prof. Byron co-opted by the male-centric, male dominated media and used as tools promoting patriarchal myths such as boys are from mars and girls are from venus. Girls must all wear uncomfortable, ill fitting, skimpy clothing because malestream popular culture and The Times claim a female's sole worth and value lies in her being turned into males' sexualised commodity.

But there's rebellion in the ranks - some if not many girls are refusing to conform to patriarchal dogma and horrors are demanding good fitting, comfortable clothing and the right to be treated with dignity. rather than being pathologised. By the way patriarchy commonly pathologises women and girls - why? Because only males are human.

Mary Tracy9 said...

That girl sounds an awful lot like me when I was her age...

sianandcrookedrib said...


exactly! i went through a girly phase, then went into leggings and polo neck tops and ddn't buy a skirt until i was 17!
i hated blowdrying my hair and was happy how i was.

this girl sounds happy, healthy and fun. it is the parents who seem to be wanting to mess her up, putting all the attention on how she looks and not who she is.

Jilly said...

I am so glad my parents had no problems with me wearing trousers all the time when I was a child! I did have dresses but they weren't frilly or uncomfortable and I always had a say in what they were like because my mother made them. I grew up in the 50s and 60s when this sort of thing would not have been treated as a mental illness - are we going backwards?

Jane Fae said...

First off...Yay!!! Have just found this blog through a link from a friend and i love it. So beautifully written...

Otherwise, as a trasn woman in a relationship with a partner recently diagnosed as possibly suffering from tactile sensitivity this story does strike a chord.

We have, between us, had a long history of, um, misunderstanding over clothes, which has sort of resolved with the acknowledgment that the femmiest half of this relationship is me. My other half dresses for comfort. I dress for style...and the main source of disagreement nowadays seems to revolve around her (mostly futile) attempts to reclaim some of the prettier pieces of jewellery that she seems to think are hers by right.

(Mostly ironic here....with maybe a hint of truth).

I think there are two probs with Ms Byron's piece. First, she hasn't got the info - in the letter published - to make such a sweeping diagnosis. Worrying, really, that she now is so prominent in devising internet policy for gov'ment.

Second...and this i write about loads nowadays...is this bizarre idea that people (for which read girls and effeminate boys) need to be shoe-horned into "normal" social models. If you want something to make your blood boil, try here:


Amy said...

What utter nonsense, and what a fabulous takedown! :D

I'm emailing regarding this article right now.

I grew up in a conservative, southern, gender role-enforcing family. But luckily my mom was wise enough to realize that highly gendered clothing for girls was impractical, uncomfortable, and downright annoying. Most of the time we wore mostly gender-neutral clothing but occasionally got stuffed into horrible lacy dresses for pictures and church. We dreaded it and I'd have died if I had to wear that sort of stuff to school. Recess is no fun in skirts and dresses - you end up standing around instead of playing in order to be "modest."

I know I wanted to dress like that girl most of the time, and hated artificial scratchy pink clothing. And oddly enough, I'm a white, cis-gendered, straight woman...and am not yet a professional drag king.

Magalena said...

"What particularly strikes me, though, is that your daughter becomes “hysterical” at the prospect of clothes shopping, haircuts."
This is not at all complicated. Her parents are obviously displeased with what their daughter wears, so clothes shopping would be a nightmare. The child tries to get clothes she likes, her mother tries to talk her into getting clothes that don't fit with who she is. We don't know the nature of the hair cut situation, and it's wrong to assume it was the hair dresser's fault, cruella. Her mother may have once again been pressuring her daughter into doing something she doesn't want to do. I don't know about you guys, but I was very insecure at that age. I never wanted my hair cut and it looked terrible. My favorite shirts were all stretched out, and I wouldn't wear jeans. The mother should simply talk to her child and try to find a way for her daughter to look nice but wear what she feels like herself in.

Cruella said...

Yes actually when I asked whose fault the bad situation with the hairdresser was I did largely mean the parents. though later I referred to "the hairdresser who caused problems" when in fact at meant "the hairdressers at which there were problems". I agree though - the problems are likely caused by the parents. I had forced haircuts as a child when my father didn't approve of my hair style (or lack thereof) and actually I feel rather sorry for the hairdresser who was asking me what I wanted and being told "I don't want my hair cut" by me and then instructed to do so anyway by my mother.

Ranmara said...

Just want to say this is a really great article!

butterflywings said...

Well said. Jeeeez, I wonder if we are going backwards sometimes. My two sisters and I all went through a tomboy phase and refused to wear pretty much anything that wasn't jeans and T-shirts at about that age. So what? Grrrr this insistence on strict gender roles fs me off.
Probably she just doesn't enjoy shopping and haircuts due to the inevitable arguments with her mother; I certainly remember that feeling.
And yeah, I am suspicious of any 'expert' who makes diagnoses on the basis of one letter.