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The following post was first published by the Daily Telegraph’s new online site RendezView.

I was also asked to discuss my work on installing gratitude in young people on Radio National’s Life Matters program this morning with Natasha Mitchell. It was an animated, enjoyable discussion which you can listen to here:

Dannielle Miller discusses “Gratitude – A positive new approach to raising thankful kids” on Radio Nationals’ Life Matters program, 2/7/15

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I recently did something incredibly selfish.

I was in Western Australia speaking at an education conference and had the most charming taxi driver on my trip to the venue. He was an older Croatian man. We spoke about his kids who are studying at uni, how hard he’s worked to get them there and how much he loves Australia.

He was so pleasant and professional that I asked him to collect me after the conference to take me back to the airport. Sure enough, five minutes ahead of schedule, there he was. Smiling and rushing to help me with my luggage.

As we resumed our conversation, I asked him if he’d ever had any frightening experiences as a driver. He told me he is often abused by drunk passengers who resent his accent. And that once, when a couple convinced him they would pay him when he got them an hour out of the city home, they then threatened his life and did a runner. He told me this with no anger, “It’s not worth my safety to make trouble. I wanted to get home for my kids. So I just drive back to the city. No fare for two hours that night.”

He certainly wasn’t trying to illicit my sympathy; he was merely sharing. He told me a few times how much he appreciated me just taking an interest in him and his family; “I work from 3am to 3pm. It can get lonely. Not many passengers want to talk to the driver nowadays. Most ignore you. Some talk but only to be rude.” Again, no resentment. Merely a look of resignation.

Yet I started to feel so sad for him; this hardworking, proud man. And sad for us. That we’ve become so busy, so judgmental, so insular that we no longer truly see others. There’s an old adage, “Never trust anyone who is rude to a waiter.” Or a taxi driver.

It was then that I decided what I would do.

When he dropped me off, I gave him a $100 tip. I wanted to pay the fare he’d been robbed of. I told him it was for me — not for him. So that I would smile all day and know that I’d shown him people can be good too. That not everyone wants to curse, belittle or take.

He was shocked. At first he refused the money. So we bargained. He finally accepted $50 when I told him that if he didn’t just take it I’d miss my plane. Then he cried. And then we hugged.

And I felt bloody amazing.

I often wonder if half the problem with our current understanding about acts of kindness, or demonstrations of gratitude, is the fact that the emphasis is usually only placed on how good the person being supported will feel.

But in all my research on gratitude it’s clear; it’s an absolute win-win. Giving helps us learn that everyone is interdependent. No matter how independent we are, we still have other people to thank for much of the good in our lives. And when it comes to what drives happiness and a healthy mental attitude, the research also clearly shows the standout is gratitude.

However, I don’t need data to know I received far more happiness from that $50 than I’ve ever felt from spending cash like that before.

Yes. A thankful heart is a connected, happy heart. And isn’t that all we ever really want? Belonging and happiness? Sometimes we get lost and think we will find what we need in buying more stuff. Or in our busyness. Or in telling ourselves that we matter more than others.

But the truth is, thankfully, far simpler.

 

I recently posted the following on my Facebook page. It quickly attracted over a hundred shares so I thought it worth sharing with you here too.

Sometimes I see things marketed towards teen girls under the guise of “empowerment” that make me feel deeply uneasy. It’s fine if girls want to dabble with cosmetics, or focus on styling. These things can be enormously fun (getting a pedi or having my hair blow-dried are amongst my favourite “me-time” things to do). But they aren’t by any stretch of the imagination going to “empower” you or genuinely improve your sense of worth long term ( just make you feel pampered perhaps, and help you to conform to a narrow definition of beauty). Besides, I’d argue that girls are already bombarded with messages about what defines beauty in this culture; the average young person sees between 400-600 advertisements every day and at least 50 of these will provide girls with a direct message about what size, colour, shape and look they need to have to be considered “worth it”.

Obviously I believe in my company Enlighten Education‘s approach. It focuses on the whole girl ( positive body image, managing stress, fostering positive friendships, money management, navigating cyber world, establishing and reaching career goals, making healthy dating and relationship choices, feminism). Enlighten is also non-commercial, non-denominational and strategy based; a program developed by experienced educators. And it’s incredibly engaging! We’ve been doing outstanding work in this space for over 10 years and have won numerous Awards for our work ( including being a Finalist for an Australian Human Rights Award twice).

But I also strongly believe in the work others are doing in this space. There are some books for teen girls that all young women should have on their book shelf ( apart from mine of course!). Emily Maguire‘s “Your Skirt’s Too Short: Sex, Power and Choice.” Rebecca Sparrow‘s “Find Your Tribe” and “Find Your Feet.” Abigail Bray’s “Body Talk: A Power Guide For Girls.” Kaz Cooke’s “Girl Stuff.” Melinda Hutchings‘ “It Will Get Better.” For younger Christian girls Sharon Talbot Witt‘s books.Local bloggers / writers to follow include Rachel Hansen: Good Talks on all things related to sex education, Nina Funnell for brilliant analysis on culture and ground-breaking work on respectful relationships, BodyMatters Australasia for support with eating disorders, and lots of the stuff at Birdee ( which is written by young women) is very interesting – although the language can be strong so it’s for an older teen reader. Internationally, A Mighty Girl and Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls are brilliant. Intensive in-school workshops on cyber safety by PROJECT ROCKIT also look very good (I’ve not seen them deliver, but hear wonderful things).

Let’s demand GREAT things for our girls!

In keeping with the goal of expecting great things for girls, I want to share with you here an extract from a new book from one of the authors I mention above, Rebecca Sparrow. Bec’s newest title, “Ask me Anything” will be in stores this November ( University of Queensland Press). I was thrilled when she asked me to respond to a couple of the very real questions she had teen girls ask her in this title as I couldn’t love this book anymore if I tried. Bec’s writing for young women is exactly what they need and deserve; it is positive, authentic, highly engaging and, above all, wise. Listening to her voice here is like being embraced in a warm hug isn’t it?

More of this for girls please. More.

Bec and I.

Bec and I.

Q. I’m ugly. So how will I ever get a boyfriend?

Define ‘ugly’ for me.
Ugly in what way? Because let me tell you what ugly means to me. Ugly is someone who is racist or homophobic or sexist. Ugly to me is the person who belittles others to make themselves feel better. Ugly is the person who mocks others, who celebrates at the misfortune of those around them. Ugly is disloyalty and unkindness. Ugly is the person who is verbally or physically abusive to others.

But I don’t think that’s what you’re talking about.

You’re calling yourself ugly because you have too many freckles or big ears or chubby thighs. You think you’re ugly because you hate your stupid flat hair or your boobs, which are too small (or too big) or that scar above your left eye.

Darling heart, that’s not ugly. That’s called you learning to love yourself. Nobody is perfect. We all have things we dislike about ourselves – even supermodels like Megan Gale and actors like Jennifer Lawrence. Life is about loving what you’ve got. And it’s about putting your best foot forward. If you’re feeling like one big hot mess (and everybody does at least once a week!), there’s nothing wrong with reading up on how to dress to suit your shape. There’s nothing wrong with talking to a hairdresser to get a great haircut that suits you to a tee.

But it’s not your face or your cute skirt or your haircut or a thigh-gap that someone falls in love with. It’s your spirit. Your personality. It’s the way you really listen when people talk. The way you always nail the art and culture questions when you play Trivial Pursuit. It’s your kindness, your patience, your famous lip-smacking chocolate cake. It’s the joy you bring with you, your compassion, your empathy. It’s the way other people FEEL when they’re around you. It’s your ability to see the good in others. It’s your glass-half full attitude. It’s the delight you take in laughing at yourself. It’s your passion for human rights OR saving the orang-utans OR student politics. It’s your confidence when you walk into a room with a smile that says you know you belong there. Confidence is magnetic.

You’re ugly? No you are not.

And the boyfriend will come. Give it time. Wait for the person who loves the quirky things about you that make you special. Wait for the person whose eyes light up when you enter the room. And that person who loves you madly, deeply will arrive. There is a lid for every jam jar, as someone once said to me.

And PS you don’t “get” a boyfriend, dear girl. YOU get to CHOOSE someone. If you wanted a boyfriend (or girlfriend) that badly you could have one by now – you and I both know that. You could nod your head at the next desperate teenager you come across. But you’re talking about someone special. And maybe you’re not quite ready yet anyway? Because if you’re sitting around thinking you’re ugly, if YOU can’t appreciate how awesome and magical and beautiful YOU are – then how can someone else see it? Fall in love with yourself first and that then gives permission for others to follow your lead and fall in love with you too.

The general consensus on why young women in particular seem to be preoccupied with taking and sharing pictures of themselves (“selfies”) was best summed up in a post today on women’s website Mamamia by author Susan Carland;

… for most of us, selfies are about validation and acceptance of others. It’s a vanity that is paradoxically self-doubting. Far from being about confidence, the toxic combination of selfies and social media feed our worst insecurities about our appearance because they are entirely reliant on the approval of others. While social media in general exacerbates this sentiment, with the whole value of every tweet, status update, or article anchored entirely to the number of likes, RTs, favourites or shares they get, the selfie is by its very definition superficial. It is a loud and desperate shout into our own ponds: please validate how I look.

I’ve never been entirely convinced by this line of argument. Yes there are posts that seem to seek attention and validation ( and is that really so hard to understand, or to provide anyway?) but I also see girls post plenty of pictures of themselves that are rather genuine attempts to capture their mood or feelings in a moment. These posts do not scream of vanity or a need for reassurances; these pictures speak of wanting to share and connect. “Here’s me looking relaxed after studying all week”. “I have a new dress and I feel so happy about that!”. “Look guys – I have glasses now. They’re actually really cute. Huh?”

Today I want share a post by a young Canadian feminist blogger, Anne Theriault. I think she offers something more than the usual criticisms. And I agree with Anne – I love seeing my Friend’s selfies too. It’s reprinted this here with her permission.

A few of my "selfies" - excited to have received flowers from a client, relaxed in Byron Bay, with my teen daughter, heading out as a Finalist in the InStyle magazine Awards ( charity and community category).

A few of my “selfies” – excited to have received flowers from a client, relaxed in Byron Bay, with my teen daughter, heading out as a Finalist in the InStyle magazine Awards ( charity and community category).

Dear Friends Who Take Selfies,

I want you to know that I love it when you post pictures of yourself. I know selfies get a lot of bad press, but I think they’re rad. They give me a little window into your life, and you’d be amazed at how much I can get out of one little photo.

I love your pictures because I love seeing what you’re wearing – the outfits you build give me ideas about how to mix it up with my own wardrobe, and seeing you work your shit gives me courage to try clothing that I otherwise might have thought was too outlandish or revealing.

I love seeing how you do your hair and makeup. You look like a hot babe and I wish you would make YouTube tutorials explaining how you get your eyeliner just so. I want you to post pictures every time you change your hair, because seeing you cycle through all those neon colours gives me great ideas about what to do next with my own hair.

I love when you take selfies in your house. It’s neat to see where you live. When your place is cluttered, it makes me feel better about my own messy apartment. When your house is neat, it encourages me to get my shit together and do the damn dishes already. I like seeing the things you own and the art you put on your walls, because those things tells me so much about who you are and what you care about.

I love when you take selfies while on vacation. I don’t get to travel often, so your pictures allow me to live vicariously through you. The excitement on your face when you take a selfie at the Trevi Fountain or by the Arc de Triomphe is perfect and beautiful. I’ve seen a thousand pictures of the Louvre Pyramid, but the most interesting ones are the ones with you in it. If I wanted to see a picture of the Great Wall of China all on its own, I could just google the damn thing. You’re what makes those pictures special.

Mostly I love your selfies because I love seeing you feel good about yourself. I love how your face glows when you look like a million bucks and you know it. I love when you celebrate yourself. You deserve to be celebrated.

It’s easy for people to roll their eyes at selfies and make jokes about girls who just want attention, but the truth is that for lots of women – especially women of colour, trans women, disabled women and all the other women who see their existences erased in mainstream media – posting pictures of themselves is a way of challenging our culture’s narrow beauty standards.

Selfies are a way of saying, “I love myself, and I will fight anyone who tries to change that fact.”

Selfies are not a question. They’re not asking “Do you think I’m pretty?”

Selfies are a statement: “I am here.”

I see you.

I love you.

You matter.

Your selfies are inspirational. That might sound corny, but it’s true. When I see you love yourself, it helps me love myself. I suspect the same is true for lots of other people who see your pictures.

So please keep taking selfies. Please fill my Facebook and Twitter feeds with your wonderful face. Every picture you post fills me with so much joy. I love seeing you.

 

I find unpacking stereotypes fascinating and important work. The following post was first published by RendezView. 

As a teen girl I swapped secrets with my friends; they were an essential form of currency in girl world. The more I knew about another girl, and the more she knew about me, the more entwined we became. Sleep-overs were often mere excuses for giggling combined with frenzied disclosure.

Know me. Accept me. Align yourself with me.

Afterwards came the betrayals. Secrets that had unintentionally slithered out, or were later swapped with others in a calculated move aimed at gaining status within our group. Tellingly, although I recall feeling deeply betrayed when my tokens of truth were revealed, I also recall knowing this was just the way of things. And admitting to myself that I too was capable of leveraging what I knew if I thought it meant I could gain popularity.

Know what I know. Accept me. Align yourself with me.

It’s always puzzled me then that we tend to look at the furtive whispering of young girls and dismiss these as mere Mean Girl machinations. To do so is to fail to understand the way we all solidify friendships, and practice social manoeuvring.

There are actually very complex sets of rules which govern friendships and the telling and banking of secrets; girls have to be quite sophisticated to master and maneuver themselves within those rules. Watching Olivia Newtown John’s character Sandy in the musical Grease excuse herself from the sleep-over action at Rizzo’s to go and brush her teeth left me gasping as a teen – what a rookie mistake! She’ll then leave herself vulnerable to becoming the object of analysis! Cue the mocking “Look at me I’m Sandra Dee.”

There is plenty of research to show that close friendships, the sort developed largely through the sharing of hidden truths, also serve vital functions in promoting a sense of self-worth and belonging. Many researchers in fact believe gossip is an evolved psychological adaptation that enabled individuals to achieve social success in our ancestral environments. In the paper “Who Do We Tell and Whom Do We Tell On? Gossip as a Strategy for Status Enhancement” researchers Andrew, Bell and Garcia argue that; “ Gossip can be an efficient way to remind group members of the importance of the group’s norms and values; an effective deterrent to deviance; and a tool for punishing those who trangress.”

And it seems it’s not just young girls who instinctively are drawn to information sharing. Professor of Applied Pscychology Niobe Way in her book, “Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection,” argues that boys relationships in early to middle adolescence rely too on sharing “deep secrets”; “Boys openly expressed to us their love for their friends and emphasized that sharing “deep” secrets was the most important aspect of their closest male friendships…. I realized that these patterns among boys have been ignored by the larger culture…”

Way goes on to explain that due to cultural pressures to become a “man” during late adolescence (and thus be emotionally stoic and autonomous) boys begin to lose their closest male friendships, become more distrustful of their male peers, and in some cases, become less willing to express their emotions. “They start sounding, in other words, like gender stereotypes.”

It seems secrets may well be timeless fundamental building blocks in building positive, strong friendships; for both genders. Adolescents with close friendships have lower rates of depression, suicide, drug use and gang membership and are more likely to stay at school. As it is in fact young men that seem to struggle most with feelings of isolation and a lack of belonging during late adolescence, could it be that we need to stop demonising the sharing of secrets and labelling this act as solely the domain of gossip girls?

By now, I have learned, as most middle aged women do, not to give away quite so much quite so often, to so many. However, I still know that it is the sharing the secrets that lubricates my close friendships. Now our revelations tend to take place via text, or via Facebook. There is no time for lengthy deep and meaningful exchanges; it’s secrets-via-shorthand. The stories we swap, however, are still just as real and raw. Feeling like a fraud at work. Worrying that our once-predictable bodies seem to be turning on us in new and entirely surprising ways. Deciding there are days when being a parent feels impossible and we dream of running away. Fat. Ugly. Bored. Sad. Angry. Resentful. Scared. Scarred.

My friends not only listen to this confessional, but know me well enough to know that my feelings shall pass. They know these moments of doubt and anger don’t define me– they are often not even the real me. And I listen to them purge too. And often? Rather than being a bitter or despairing exchange it becomes funny. Side-splittingly funny. There is much humour to be had in facing the dark when one does so holding a friend’s hand.

It is through these exchanges that we feel known, understood and connected.

And it is no secret that these are the feelings all young people deserve, and urgently need to feel, too.

Whisper on.

This week I am sharing a guest post by my colleague Nina Funnell. Nina is a freelance writer, social commentator and author. This post was originally posted by RendezView.

Nina Funnell

Well this is depressing.

Lily James, who plays Cinderella in the latest Disney remake of the film by the same name, has admitted that she had to go on a liquid-diet in order to fit into the corset she wore for the part, adding that the outfit was so physically constricting that “if you ate food [while wearing the dress] it didn’t really digest properly”, causing her to burp continuously while trying to deliver lines.

Disney has already defended itself against claims that the actress’s waist had been digitally manipulated to appear smaller, stating that “Lily’s waist hasn’t been altered – she’s wearing a corset.”

Yes, indeed. A waist altering corset. A corset worn so tight that not only does it change its owner’s normal physical appearance, it also interferes with the functioning of her internal organs too.

In response to criticisms about the depiction of her character’s tiny waist, Lily James has hit back saying “why do women always get pointed at for their bodies? … I feel like I’ve got to go: ‘I’m sorry I’ve got a small waist’”.

And you know what? Ordinarily I’d be right there with you, Lily. It sucks that women’s bodies get scrutinised and judged so mercilessly by the media and others. And it sucks that actresses of all different shapes and sizes are subjected to such endless criticism about their looks.

But right now people aren’t talking about Lily’s body as it naturally exists. They are talking about what’s been done to her body. By Disney. By the wardrobe department on the film. By the dress itself. And what’s been done sucks the big one.

Because while I agree that we should all take care not to skinny-bash celebrities, it’s not skinny-bashing to point out that an item of clothing which is so restrictive that it stops a woman from digesting food properly is not something we should be parading around in front of small children and holding up as the defining standard of beauty.

This issue hits close to home for me. Over the past couple of years five of my friends have given birth, all to girls. And while it delights me to no end to think that pretty soon we’ll have enough to start our own junior girls soccer team, I also know that what I want for those girls is for them to grow up in a very different world to the one I grew up in.

I want them to grow up feeling strong and happy in their bodies. And I want them to grow up seeing a wide range of female bodies being positively portrayed in the films that they watch.

Because I was six years old when The Little Mermaid came out at the cinemas and I remember it like it was yesterday. I remember catching the 506 bus into town. I remember going to George Street Cinemas in Sydney. And I remember sitting in my seat and staring up the giant screen. And what I saw – and what I yearned for in that moment- was the skinniest waist I had ever seen.

In fact Ariel’s waist had such a profound impact on me that when my brother later teased me that if I ate a big meal, my stomach would look like I swallowed a soccer ball, I had to hold back tears of despair. And I remember everything about that moment too – where I was, the exact words that were used, and how I felt at the time.

And no matter how much we might talk to girls about image manipulation and corsets and photoshop, nothing can ever truly erase the power of an image.

Perhaps the images we should really be showing to girls are those which capture the disfigurement which results from extended use of a corset. (While we’re at it, we could also show them the disfiguring results of foot binding, since the story of Cinderella was originally adapted from a Chinese tale about maiden who slides her foot into a tiny slipper, thus proving she has the smallest foot in the land, and is therefore the most virtuous and kind woman for the Prince to marry.)

And we could also show girls these images of Disney princesses with realistic waists and hair.

But what we shouldn’t be showing them is complacency in the face of Disney unnaturally shrinking down its female stars, through any means, including the old fashioned ones.

 

What is the one thing teen boys say they wish adults better understood about their lives?

Forget raging hormones, academic angst and peer pressure. When my team and I run our personal development workshops with young men the thing they tell us they feel is the cause of most inter-generational misunderstanding is their passion for computer games.

“I wish my parents knew that just because I like gaming doesn’t mean I am a loner or that I’m going to become a serial killer.” “I wish the adults that mock me for the games I play would at least learn a bit more about them, and how skilled I am at playing them, first.”

The very fact that we tend to only ever target in on young men when fretting about gaming highlights how misinformed we tend to be. The reality is that almost half of those who play are female, and approximately a third are aged over 35 years old (yes, it seems that we have already had a generation of young game-loving people emerge as adults, and yes most are happy, well adjusted and productive members of society).

The reality too is that gaming is actually highly social; players work together to solve problems, share tips and tricks, compete with one another. My biggest complaint when my son plays?

There’s too much noise as he’s animatedly chatting via Skype to the mates he’s teaming up with online.

And make no mistake. Gaming does develop valuable skills. It is a fluid intelligence mega-booster, encouraging participants to seek novelty, challenge themselves, think creatively, do things the hard way and network.

There are many surprising socio-emotional benefits associated with gaming as well. It has been shown to be helpful in alleviating depression (it is believed games distract people from negative thought patterns), in developing intrinsic motivation (gamers learn to overcome one obstacle after another), and in developing the type of 21st century skills that employers require (not only the familiarity with computer operating systems, but the ability to work and collaborate virtually).

As for the notion that games are violent, whilst it is true that some of the most popular games like Minecraft are not, many do have violent elements. While this doesn’t thrill me, it also doesn’t surprise me. Children’s games have long explored such impulses; be it through playing with toy weapons or soldiers, or through role-plays such as Cowboys and Indians.

The real question is whether playing these types of games leads to more violent behaviour, and on that point the findings are mixed with most studies concluding that whilst for a person predisposed towards violence this might be triggering, for well-adjusted individuals it is not. In fact, some young men I talk to say that when they are feeling angry, playing a game that is aggressive can be a helpful way of channeling that rage safely.

All this is not to say we should white-wash the very real issues that need addressing in gaming such as the sexist and abusive way in which some female players and game developers are treated (something my son thinks is shocking) and debates around ratings. Games like the Grand Theft Auto series, which tend to attract the type of media interest that may have contributed to the current culture of fear and misunderstanding, are rated R (18+). They will, of course, like all forbidden fruit, appeal to younger kids as well and just like when they wish to view films that are not suitable for them, it is then that parental boundaries need to be established.

Leena van Deventer, a game narrative lecturer at RMIT and Swinburne Universities, argues parents have actually never been in a better position to engage with the games their children play, and setting boundaries is aided not only be the games rating classification system, but by better parental restrictions that can be set on game devices. “We don’t have to play every game before our kids get it, these days either”, she says. “We can jump on YouTube and watch a complete play-through of the game and decide whether it’s the sort of game we want our child to play.”

It is true that like anything a young person becomes passionate about, gaming can become addictive. However, It seems odd to me though that whilst we wouldn’t dream of shaming a young person who was obsessed with locking themselves off into their room to read books, it tends to be open season on the gamer.

The way to connect with our children about anything is to open ourselves to their interests, instead of reflexively dismissing the things they love as harmful or trivial. Rather than policing and patronising, we need to empathise with, and understand the world of, young people. Only then can we positively engage with them and effectively support them.

We need to be prepared to get in the game.

This article was first published by RendezView. 

Beyond Victimhood

On Sunday I woke to the news in the Telegraph that teenage girls were “riddled with fear and anxiety” and, overdosing on paracetamol.

Was this behaviour really impacting on an entire “generation” as the article claimed?

Screen shot 2015-02-19 at 9.07.36 AM

The reality is that although the data cited from the NSW Health Report on the Health of Children and Young people Report (2014) does show self-harming behaviours have increased from between the periods 1993-1994 and 2012-2013, even now, at its peak, hospitalisation rates for intentional self-harm for females aged 15-24 effects 0.46% of the 100,000 surveyed. Hardly a generational scourge.

Yet even one girl resorting to self-harming behaviours is a girl too many.

We should be concerned about the mental health of all young people. And if we are serious about concerns over self-harming behaviours in young people, then we should be taking to the streets in protest over the very high rates of self-harm reported in children currently in detention. The recent Australian Human Rights Commission Inquiry found from January 2013 to March 2014, 128 children aged between 12 and 17 engaged in actual self-harm and 171 threatened self-harm in detention.

But there’s something else we should be concerned about  too. And that’s the way in which we discuss young women. Because it is really not helpful.

If the times we live in are toxic for girls in many ways — think of the huge pressures on them to be not only thin and hot but to be smart and successful; to be everything, all at once —then equally toxic is the way in which the media and our society often chooses to engage with them.

When we are not reducing them all to damsels in distress, we are shaming them as viscous vamps, obsessed with taking “selfies”. There is a salacious pleasure taken in critiquing their mean girl cyber exchanges. In lamenting the length of their skirts. In hyper analysing their every mistake.

Even those who should have teen girls’ best interests at heart, the people who write parenting books, often describe teen girls in terms that are less than kind or generous of spirit. Walk down the parenting aisle of any bookstore and you’ll find plenty of covers depicting adolescent girls as sluttish or surly. As one girl said to me after a seminar, ‘If I came home and found my mum reading a book that presented girls in the way some of these books do, I’d be so hurt. We don’t read books entitled Parents are Pains in the Arses, do we?’

The reality is that whilst certainly girls do live in changing times and are learning to navigate and make sense of the always –on cyber world, the beauty, fashion and diet industries’ obsession with pushing a narrow ideal of what makes a woman loveable, and increased academic and workplace pressures, so too are we all. 

And you know what? We mustn’t loose sight of the fact that many girls are doing remarkably well despite all this.

Case in point? The incredible teen Sophie Delezio whose story also appeared in the Telegraph right under the expose on teen girls and self-harm in my news feed. Ms Delezio is one feisty female; after surviving both horrifc burns and later being run over by a car, she is now thriving in Yr 9 at a girls’ school and setting a goal to compete at the 2020 Paralympics as a rower.

More generally, here in Australia teen pregnancy, cigarette smoking, illicit drug use and alcohol drinking rates and all down. Meanwhile school retention and academic performance rates have significantly increased for girls.

It seems too we have a generation that are also not as self-obsessed as we’d like to paint them as being. 80% of Girl Guides over the age of 10 commit two or more hours each week to volunteering; almost double the amount of time contributed by adults.

Anecdotally, as an educator who works with thousands of teen girls every year across Australia I’ve observed that girls are doing remarkably well in a culture that often doesn’t seem to like them very much, or have much faith in their decision making capacity.

Stories about girls in crisis are valid and valuable for they alert us to the challenges they face. But make no mistake, for every media report of girls in crisis, there are statistics and stories aplenty of remarkable young women doing extraordinary things.

Let’s not be blinded by the numbers.

Let’s not be blinded either to the strength and resilience of girls.

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I shall be the opening keynote speaker at the Critical Agendas Girls and Education Conference in August, Melbourne. My talk will expand on these ideas: 

“Beyond Victimhood: Why girls need to reclaim their agency and how many young women already are.”

Sexting, cyber -bullying, dieting, drinking. Whilst it is vital to acknowledge the issues that some girls do struggle with, so often the dialogue veers towards labelling girls as victims or shaming them. How can we move towards empowering girls to respond resiliently when faced with life’s inevitable challenges and a culture that doesn’t seem to like them very much? How are some girls already speaking out and reclaiming their girlhood? 

What can schools do to further empower young women?

Hope to see you there! 

 

The following extract is taken from the book for teen girls I co-wrote with Nina Funnell, “Loveability: An Empowered Girl’s Guide to Dating and Relationships.” It is published by Harper Collins and may be purchased here. 

Loveability Shareable 6

I had been single for six months when I was writing this chapter. Most of the time, I felt genuinely excited about what the future might look like, and I knew it would be grand, with or without a partner. However, there were some things that sent me falling into a spiral of self-despair, such as when I saw a card in a newsagent that read ‘Happy birthday to my darling wife’. What if no one ever bought me a card like that again? I had received my share of romantic cards in the past, from my ex-husband and ex-boyfriend, but I wanted more! Was I doomed to a card-less life? Curse you, Hallmark! *Danni waves her fist in the air.*

Well, take that pain and multiply it to the power of ten and you get Valentine’s Day for singles. True? Suddenly the world is filled with playful cards for cool couples to giggle at together, and mushy cards for the old-school romantic types. Oh, it’s a day for lovers.

And don’t they love sharing their love (read: flaunting it)? When I used to teach in high schools it always amused me that many girls relished carrying around their cards, flowers and teddy bears all day. They didn’t leave them in their lockers — oh no, half the thrill was in showing them off. And it seemed that the bigger the bear, the bigger the love must be.

I really don’t begrudge those who are struck by Cupid. Love is a beautiful thing worth acknowledging — every day, not just on Valentine’s Day. I really am a romantic at heart, too.

But when you’re on the outside of it all, it can sting.

I called Nina after the ‘no cards for me’ incident and she gave me such great advice: receiving a card like that never makes someone feel as wonderful as it makes those who don’t receive one feel worthless. ‘It’s a whole big mind mess up,’ she said. ‘Don’t fall for the Hallmark moments.’

See why I love Nina? See? Gold star for relationship advice!

And you know what? One of the best Valentine’s Days I ever had was when I was single. I decided to tackle the day head-on. I invited all my single friends over for dinner and encouraged them to bring each of the other guests a card, chocolate or flower. We ate, laughed and were merry.

And in addition to the very funny and thoughtful gifts I received from my guests that night, I actually did receive amazing bouquets of flowers from two guys who liked me but understood all I could offer them was friendship. They just weren’t quite right for me, and I wasn’t going to compromise.

In my experience, the more you have going on in your life and the more comfortable you are being single, the more other people will want to be with you. You will also be less likely to just jump into any old relationship so you can have the ‘Hallmark moment’.

Apart from throwing a ‘Single and Fab!’ party like I did (or as one friend likes to call it, a ‘Galentine’ party to celebrate your best gals), you might like to try the following ideas for coping with Valentine’s Day when you’re single:

• Focus on all the love you have in your life. Give hand-written notes (or cards and flowers if that’s your thing) to your best friends and favourite family members. I always feel better when I am loving towards others; some of the love definitely bounces back.

• Be daring. Send a note or a card to someone you have a crush on. (Do it anonymously if you prefer; Valentine’s cards were traditionally meant to be sent by secret admirers.) It will be quite thrilling — trust me. A friend of mine and I did it when we were in the senior years of high school, and writing out our notes, hunting down our crushes’ addresses and then mailing them off was such delicious, laugh-until-you-snort fun!

• Author Emily Maguire offered me this top-shelf suggestion: ‘Young single women who love all the hoopla associated with Valentine’s Day … could consider embracing it all for a good cause. Like organise a red velvet- swathed, heart-shaped, chocolate filled, white-teddy-bear-decorated, rom-com screening fundraising event for a related cause such as marriage equality or safe-sex education.’

• Go totally Grinch and have an anti- Valentine’s Day party. I’m talking about getting together with your friends and watching horror movies rather than romantic comedies, wearing your PJs rather than party frocks and making the talk a relationships free zone!

• Take some time out to do a loving kindness meditation. It’s an ancient Buddhist practice in which you sit quietly and wish love, peace and happiness on the people in your life, including yourself and even people you dislike. People who do it regularly boost the feel-good chemicals in their brains and make themselves more likely to experience loving moments in everyday life — basically, they become their own love factories. After studying this effect, the psychologist Barbara Fredrickson believes it’s time to rethink our whole concept of what love is. The passionate, romantic, Romeo and Juliet type of love may be more of a myth, while true love is all the little moments when you have a positive emotional connection with another person during your day. Sure, you might have such a moment with a romantic partner, but you just as easily might have one with a good friend, your little sister or that random person who just held the door open for you because you had your hands full. ‘If you don’t have a Valentine, that doesn’t mean that you don’t have love,’ says Fredrickson.

From "Loveability: An Empowered Girl's Guide to Dating and Relationships."

From “Loveability: An Empowered Girl’s Guide to Dating and Relationships.”

The following post was first published by the Daily Telegraph newspaper 2/1/15. 

Sisters Chloe Joy and Emily (my inspiration for this post) before and after a "Frozen" singa-along movie session.

Sisters Chloe Joy and Emily (my inspiration for this post) before and after a “Frozen” sing-a-along movie session.

I’ll let you in on a little secret. Princesses? They are often far more resilient than we give them credit for being.

Over the course of the Christmas holidays I had the opportunity to watch a gaggle of little girls, aged between three and five, at play. They were a blur of bare-feet, tousled long hair and flowing Princess gowns.  Apparently, a 200-piece ribbon and hair clip set left under the Christmas tree was urgently required to be opened for immediate distribution. There was much plotting, and then rounds of relentless lobbying of parents, until this wish was granted.

Nearby an exhausted little sister, still in her pink swimmers from the beach, was curled up asleep cuddling a doughnut. This dessert obsessed “Sleeping Beauty” was quite literally growling at any would-be-stylists who ventured too near, or tried to wake her.

It struck me that despite our concerns over the tyranny of pink and it’s feared innate capacity to render girls immediately docile, none of these little women were in the least passive or afraid of displaying leadership qualities.

How very interesting that whilst the grown-ups spent most of “No Gender December” worrying about the dangers of pink and blue, and what toys to permit poor Santa to bring, the kids just got on with the job of playing.

That’s not to say I think initiatives that raise awareness about how gendered the toy shelves are don’t have merit. Yet education is key – not attempts to ban.

I find young people fascinated when I explain that the segregation based on hues that is now so common is in fact a relatively modern phenomena.  Up until the introduction of chemical dyes in the mid-late 1800’s, children predominately all wore white. However, when colour was used, pink was frequently chosen for little boys; particularly those of high social standing. Early renaissance art depicts baby Jesus frocked in pink, whilst Queen Victoria’s third son Prince Arthur was depicted in both pink and white.

In fact, we see this pink-for boys trend popularised even in the 20th Century. A 1918 editorial from Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department stated that pink was:

“…a more decided and stronger colour…more suitable for a boy; while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for a girl.”

Today, however, marketers have firmly latched on to pretty-in-pink for females, using this to sell everything from pens to tool boxes (and then adding a hefty mark-up for the pink privilege).

Meanwhile the types of toys on offer don’t seem to have changed with the times at all. Kitchen sets are still frequently depicted with a girl on the packaging, whilst the dress-ups featuring the professions that are urgently attempting to recruit more women (such as construction and the sciences) are plastered with pics of little lads.

It is helpful then to call into question such stereotypes. But it’s not helpful to panic or worse still stigmatise those children, like the girls I witnessed, who want to embrace their inner pink-glitter-ribbons-sparkly-trinkets self.

Smart parents get this. Growing up I was very much Team Barbie. And that was ok. My sister meanwhile was pro-The Lone Ranger, Tonto and Steve Austin The Bionic Man. And that was ok. My parents didn’t seem in the least phased by our different tastes and we certainly never quarrelled over this; rather it seemed to us incredibly convenient for it meant we had dolls of both genders ready to animate.

Smart celebrity parents Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt get it. When their daughter Shiloh started requesting to only wear traditionally male clothes and be called John, they respected these wishes and recently publicly announced their decision in order that the rest of us might too.

Rather than closing the toy box lid, and our minds, the key is to be open when it comes to issues relating to gender and identity. And to realise as well that what our children see modelled in their homes matters most.

All the budding royals I saw at play had smart, ambitious mums and dads who both actively parent them. Within that social circle too are an incredibly loving gay couple, and happy and successful singles. A virtual rainbow of grown-up possibilities. It is this Kingdom that will shape them. The rest? Mere props.

This post was first published in The Daily Telegraph, December 26th, 2014. 

Educator, author, media commentator, cause for great concern. It seems at various stages in my career I’ve been all of the above.

Last year I received a call from the management team of a company who had booked me as the keynote speaker at an education conference. They were nervous as apparently another prominent figure working with youth had called them questioning my suitability to speak at this event. My crime?  The fact that I had once posted a picture of my daughter on my Facebook page in her school uniform (something the other professional deemed dangerous and irresponsible).

Whilst publicly posting images that allows our children to be too easily identified is certainly not advisable, I had to giggle to myself at how misguided the concern was for it is this anecdote; me explaining why I had done this (“Look! My big girl’s first day of high school!”) and then retelling why I subsequently took it down the next day (“Bugger! Probably not that safe…”) that parents and educators I talk with relate to best. After all, what can be more comforting than hearing that the so-called “expert” got it wrong too?

And let’s just clear the air once and for all. I’ve made plenty of mistakes. Screaming at kids when frazzled? Check. Failing to hand in school notes on time? Yep. Serving up beans on toast (with a side order of exhaustion) at dinner? Guilty; truth be told? I’m actually a repeat offender.

In fact, I am always amused when I am described in the media as a parenting “expert” as the title assumes a level of perfectionism I simply don’t have – nor want. Sure I have formal expertise and qualifications but I think of myself as more an avid explorer. I am intrigued and delighted by young people, and keen to work with them and listen to them. I also love learning from others who devote themselves to education and nurturing. I then relish working out how to best report back my findings. More tour guide than know-it-all.

The other types? The dictatorial parenting experts?  Well they’ve been responsible for some really dodgy advice over the years. Everything from rubbing alcohol on teething babies gums, to letting unattended babies cry it out indefinitely, to using the rod to discipline, thus avoiding spoiling the child (a common theme seems to be we should raise quiet and compliant kids).  But worse still, I think they’ve disempowered many parents who feel that perhaps it is in fact all too hard and that they really aren’t capable of raising their own children to be happy, healthy adults.

As I walk into my home painted in huge letters at the entrance is a quote that helps put things in perspective for me. It is from Julian of Norwich in the late 15th Century, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” These words, considered to be the first on record written in English by a woman, speak of hope and compassion. At the time in which they were written, however, they were considered heretical. Julian was speaking of a God who she saw as being forgiving and loving. The Church back then was all about prescriptive rules; do it this way or be doomed!

Whilst I am not particularly religious I have always found Julian’s message comforting.

And all was indeed well. I did speak at that particular conference. And I shared what I do that works, and was honest about what I could do better.

My favourite piece of feedback from the day? “Parenting teens is not rocket science is it? You reminded me that I’ve got this.”

Yep. You have. This doesn’t mean you should ignore the wisdom of those with years of research and experience under their belt who speak with common sense and a genuine affection for children and families. Rather, it means you should tune in to those who also make you make you feel empowered and hopeful. Know too that although your child may occasionally stuff up (as may you) it will be ok.

Love, laugh, listen, learn, forgive.  And know that in this expert’s opinion? There is much beauty in imperfection.

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