Dr Firmlove

Steve Biddulph combines the best of British scepticism with the breezy optimism of Australia. He and his books are at once unsentimentally positive yet robustly, passionately realistic. Just moments before you begin to feel you are sinking into a slushy, Neighbours-like swamp of homely homilies, he points to the crocodile lurking beneath the surface.

Biddulph makes an undeniable case for mixing "firmlove", where no means no, with "warmlove", where unconditional hugging is a must - Gina Ford in bed with Penelope Leach, you might say. Biddulph, who is married to his sometime co-author Shaaron and has two children, put this in to practice in our interview. When I asked if it was all right to smoke - we were in a hotel lounge, complete with ashtrays - he told me, in the nicest possible way, that it was not. He made no apology for this despite the risk of alienating a nicotine-deprived interviewer (firmlove); yet he also seemed genuinely concerned that I should want to do something so self-destructive (warmlove).

Still, it was not easy to get him to apply his theories to himself - to explain how the care he himself received in childhood had created the adult childcare guru. And it made no difference what type of love I applied.

The main problem seems to be that he has reached a point in his "journey" - he sometimes slips into such Jungian, new-age lingo - where he feels it's time to put the past behind him. Rather than talk about his relationship with his parents, he wanted to tell me about his one-man mission to create a more "emotionally literate" world - he had just flown in from Brazil where he had been evangelising about his idea that about half of boys should go to school a year later, because they develop more slowly than girls.

Biddulph was born in Redcar, Yorkshire, 49 years ago; his parents did not emigrate to Australia until he was nine. His father worked as a draughtsman, a respectable, skilled working-class job. At that time, he says, "Yorkshire was the negative parenting capital of the world." His parents' main tools for punishing him were "disapproval and coolness - my parents' generation were only clear on what you should not do".

In other ways, though, his parents reacted against the prevailing norms. His father came from a violent family and was determined not to repeat his experience. "So we would have been only smacked once or twice as children. Dad wasn't into going out and getting drunk and coming back and throwing things around."

There was also plenty of "warmlove". "I had enough affection to know that it mattered but not enough to take it for granted," he says.

"My earliest memory is of walking to meet my dad home from work," he recalls. "Just when he was in sight from the gate, my mum would say, 'There's your dad,' and I'd run out to meet him. I got a lot of hugs and physical love from them. That was their counter-culture against the prevailing ideas of the time, to be loving and non-violent as parents. I took that and ran with it in my books."

Later in the interview, he tells me what creates an inspiring person: "They never had an easy childhood: they will have had a lot of tough conditions, but also it will have been very loving as well. They might have had to bring the cows in for dad to milk but there's also, 'You're fantastic and here's a hug' as well." Although not referring to himself, it may apply.

If his early years seem to have been pretty good, the move to Australia caused problems. A huge 6ft 10in tall, his father was shy and socially unskilled, as was his mother. They soon became isolated and withdrawn, and quite depressed.

Biddulph's own difficulties in making new friends at school were increased by an "administrative cock-up" which thrust him into a class a year ahead of his age (the origin of his view that boys need to start school later than girls). "The combination of being a migrant and very young meant I was socially right out of it," he says, "looking from the outside into a culture, not belonging, and using humour and wordskills to find a place in the scheme of things."

With adolescence came trouble. He went to university at 16, but was immediately unhappy. "I realised there was no charisma there, no connection with the teachers. I failed badly." He became very depressed.

"I don't want to make this sound melodramatic, because lots of kids go through these things, but I was not sure if I really wanted to be alive or not. Completely dropping out of education, feeling like a failure, I was turned in on myself." Luckily, a worker at the local Methodist church, where his parents were members, noticed his despair: "She really hung in there with me during that period."

"Both my sister and I, like escaping from Alcatraz, had to break free from our enmeshed family, explode out," he says. "Because it was the 60s, that meant running away from home and living in communes and hitching around the country. I was definitely an 'at risk' young man."

Yet he also benefited from the kindness of strangers: "I was wandering the country, sleeping rough, lonely ... but the funny thing was, I was always bumping into people who would let me have a bed for the night or would drive 500 miles out of their way to help. The reality was, it was a gentle time with good people around - enough ingredients for me to consolidate."

This account is a good example of Biddulph's tendency to mix the positive with the negative, the dark with the light. Just when you are all set to hear some grim Catcher in the Rye-type anecdote, he turns into Siddhartha (Herman Hesse's uplifting tale of a spiritual quest). The same polarity is found in his account of the reasons he became someone who has given his life to helping others. In his late teens, he worked as a teacher's aide with illiterate children.

"I wanted to help people who were less fortunate than myself but they were really hard to find," he jokes. "I was a bit like the child of the alcoholic family who's the cheerer-upper, or the teenager who does all the housework when they visit another house. I wanted to help other people so that they would like me."

Ah, the classic pathology of the do-gooder. But just as I am rubbing my cigarette-free hands, Biddulph claims to have put it behind him. "When writing Manhood, I was in the position most men are of being isolated and damaged," he says. "By the time I'd finished writing it, I had made the journeys I suggest: I had reconciled with my father, long conversations with both my parents, you reach a point of saying, 'That's done now.' I don't live it out in a compensatory fashion."

If writing has proved effective therapy for Biddulph, it has also made his fortune: every three minutes someone somewhere in the world is buying one of his books. So, if his motivation for jetting round the globe is no longer to be liked, then what is it? "I am there to voice what isn't being voiced," he says, "because I'm not intimidated by the intellectual fashion of the time. Being reasonably comfortable with the role of outsider frees you up a little."

And Biddulph can be contrarian. Among the reassuring positivity, there is often advice which many would prefer not to hear. The most dramatic example is his view of daycare creches: "All the people who work in the field tell you confidentially that, 'I would never put my child in my own creche. If this place caught fire I'd rescue my own child, not other people's.'

There is an underground truth that everybody really knows but which can't be said," he goes on. "A great raft of studies is suddenly coming out showing that daycarer-child interactions have none of the quality of the refined exchanges children have with their parents: daycare is an absolutely third-rate childhood.

"How crazy to be worried about seatbelts, vitamins and expensive prep schools when you consign your toddler to wandering like a zombie in a room full of strangers." Not quite finished, he adds, "Please write that - put that in your article."

Perhaps he is right about himself, after all: if once he said and did things simply to make people like him, he is evidently over that now. Instead, he has begun to move towards the political, to changing the context in which parenting goes on. "The world out there doesn't want you enjoying your family or your community; it wants you to be a work-machine which consumes madly," he says. And when he says "world", you realise that the man who has just landed from Brazil is serious about this - his is a global mission. "This is a community health challenge, to get the information about parenting out there in as accessible a form as possible. That's my lodestar nowadays and I just have to stay sane enough and fit enough to keep on doing it."

· A new edition of Steve Biddulph's Raising Boys is published by Thorsons at £7.99. The paperback edition of Oliver James's They F*** You Up: How to Survive Family Life is published by Bloomsbury, also at £7.99. Either book can be ordered p&p-free from the Guardian book service on 0870 066 7979.

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.


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