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Month: March 2011

Bullying: It’s time to focus on solutions

Australia made a step in the right direction last week with the first-ever National Day of Action Against Bullying and Violence. Kerri-anne Kennerly took a huge personal interest in the cause and pushed to discuss bullying at length on her show.

I went along with my beautiful, brave and articulate 16-year-old step-daughter, Jazmine, who spoke about her experiences of being bullied, as did another teen, James. Tess Nelson spoke for her son, Dakota.

Kudos must go to Kerri-anne for extending the story to more than 9 minutes, which for breakfast TV is a double segment. The piece raised awareness of the seriousness of bullying and it gave voice to the experiences of the victims of bullying, which I think is very important.

But ever since the segment finished, I have been bursting to take the discussion further. In this post, I want to go beyond the “what, where and why” and discuss the issue that will really make a difference to kids’ lives: how to stop bullying.

What schools can do

We all need a whole-school culture that makes it clear bullying will not be tolerated. Steps that I have seen work in schools include:

  • strong peer-support programs, where older children buddy up with younger ones and look out for them
  • a zero-tolerance approach to any bullying incident
  • celebrations of difference, such as school multicultural days, gender awareness programs, anti-homophobia initiatives
  • getting the local police youth liaison officer in to discuss the topic with students, which the police are more than happy to do.

Bystanders, take a stand

I think the National Day of Action organisers got it right when they chose to focus this year on encouraging bystanders to do more to stop bullying. Let’s consider the video that recently did the rounds on YouTube of a NSW teen boy throwing another boy to the ground in retaliation for bullying. The teen had been subjected to bullying for years and tried to turn the other cheek—until on this day, in his own words, he “snapped”.

I was disturbed that many in the media portrayed the bullied boy as a hero for fighting back. A Current Affair noted that he had “finally stood up for himself”, as though up until then he’d been somehow morally weak and that the only true way to stand up for yourself is to use physical force.

I empathise with the boy who had been bullied, victimised and assaulted repeatedly before retaliating. But I think if we want to use the word “hero”, we should look at the girl at the end of the video. After the assaults, a friend of the bully comes forward to retaliate against the assault on the bully. The girl walks over and stands between them and assertively tells the bully’s friend to back off.

One of the things that alarmed me in that video was the number of bystanders doing nothing or, worse still, filming the violence. The standard we walk past is the standard we set. That girl was amazing. The fact that she came forward to stop the violence in a nonviolent way is to be celebrated—and encouraged in all schools.

Teachers are of course responsible for doing everything they can to stop bullying—but the reality is that in 85% of cases, bullying takes place when there are no adults around. That’s why it is so important to create a school culture in which bullying is not tolerated and bystanders are encouraged to step up and say “It’s not on!”

Get real about bullying

Even today there are still some people who think bullying is just harmless name calling. Bullying takes numerous serious forms:

  • verbal—name calling, teasing, verbal abuse, humiliation, sarcasm, insults, threats
  • physical—punching, kicking, scratching, tripping, spitting
  • social—ignoring, excluding, alienating, making inappropriate gestures
  • psychological—spreading rumours, glaring, hiding or damaging possessions, malicious texts, email messages or Facebook comments, inappropriate use of camera phones.

All are very damaging.

Know the signs

I interviewed the Police Youth Liaison Officer at Castle Hill in Sydney, Senior Constable Rob Patterson, to find out more about bullying. He told me that his number one piece of advice to kids who are being bullied is: “Tell someone, and if they don’t listen, tell someone else.”

That this advice is even necessary highlights the sad fact that few children who are being bullied actually tell an adult about it. In fact, the father of the boy in the video who retaliated against bullying told A Current Affair: “I didn’t realise how much trouble he was actually in until I’d seen that video . . . you poor little bloke, how many years did you put up with this sort of treatment?”

That means it’s important for teachers and parents to be aware of the signs, such as:

  • refusing to go to school
  • a drop in academic performance
  • changes in appetite or sleeping patterns
  • bruises, scratches and other injuries
  • changes in personality, e.g., becoming withdrawn or angry.

Call bullying what it really is

Senior Constable Patterson noted that the police and legal system tend not to use the term “bullying”, because it softens people’s perception of offences that may be very serious. The police call bullies’ offences what they really are, using terms such as “assault”, “intimidation” and “online harassment”. If we also begin using the correct terms for these offences, we will begin to acknowledge the serious impacts that bullying has on victims and send a clearer signal to bullies that their actions won’t be tolerated any more.

What parents can do

If you notice signs that your child might be the victim of bullying, raise your concerns sensitively with them. Most important of all, listen and get all the facts, then work with the school to try and resolve the situation.

If you feel that the school isn’t doing enough, go to the police. Senior Constable Patterson noted that the police usually contact the school as a first step and this may spur the school to take further action.

“Don’t forget that it is a criminal offence to make another person scared for their safety and the police can—and do—get involved. Daily,” Senior Constable Patterson told me. However, he stressed that it is important to have evidence, as one of the most common reasons that a school fails to take legal action is that they don’t have proof of the offence. In the absence of evidence, he recommends that parents encourage their children to ask witnesses of the bullying to write down what they saw.

Court action is not the only police solution. They may first seek another way of resolving the bullying—for instance, a talk with the police is often enough of a warning to a bully that they need to stop.

Ultimately, if you’ve tried everything, you’re not satisfied that your child is safe from bullying and they are still miserable—move schools! Many kids thrive with a fresh start.

Set a good example

All the anti-bullying campaigns in the world won’t make a difference if children are surrounded by examples of adult discrimination and bullying. This means it is important to remember to never make negative comments about other people’s race, gender, sexuality, weight, appearance, name, accent, voice and so on.

Bullies need us, too

I also want to emphasise another reason for putting a stop to bullying: the need to improve outcomes for the bullies themselves. There is ample research to show that bullies are more likely to drop out of school, use drugs and alcohol and engage in criminal behaviour. They have a one in four chance of having a criminal record by the age of 30. Bullies need intervention by schools, parents and the community to help them curb their aggression.

Helpful resources

Are we raising a generation of narcissists?

There are more narcissistic young people in this generation than ever before. That’s the finding of a long-running study by US psychology professor Jean Twenge, who was in Australia recently. She gave 16,000 university students across the United States psychological testing and found that 30 per cent were narcissistic. This is a doubling in the number of narcissists in just three decades.

Naturally her findings created a bit of a stir in the media, and I went on Mornings with Kerri-anne for an in-depth discussion about it:

The research potentially has major implications for this generation’s future, because narcissism isn’t just spending too much time in front of the mirror or being a bit “up yourself”, which is the way we often use the term in everyday language. A person is classified as narcissistic if they:

  • have an inflated sense of self
  • are arrogant
  • think they’re unique and special
  • believe they are entitled to be treated better than others
  • take the credit for others’ achievements
  • lack warmth and empathy
  • can’t form lasting relationships
  • are highly materialistic
  • continually seek attention and are very vain about their appearance
  • get angry or even violent when things don’t go their way.

Often, things initially do go the narcissist’s way, because they show great confidence and charm. But because their sense of self is built on a shaky foundation, the honeymoon—whether it’s in a new job, a relationship or a friendship—may end quickly and dramatically.

So then, what does Twenge’s research mean for our kids? How alarmed do we need to be?

First, let me say that while giving workshops in schools all over the country, I see far more under-confidence in girls than overconfidence, especially about their looks. I see less vanity and more anxiety. Rather than lack of empathy, I am usually overwhelmed by girls hugging me and saying “I love you” at the end of my session. In my experience, girls are often very keen to get involved in their community and help other people by doing volunteer work.  And even if girls are more focused on having the newest and best of everything than earlier generations were, let’s not forget that they are also the most marketed-to generation: they see between 400 and 600 ads per day.

Twenge’s research in fact backs up my observation that the majority of girls aren’t all that much more narcissistic than earlier generations. She points out on her website that “the average person is only moderately more narcissistic now than 15 years ago.” It’s at the far end of the scale, where a person could be diagnosed with clinical Narcissistic Personality Disorder, that there is an alarming jump: “There are three times as many young people vs. older people with the disorder. That means there are many more highly narcissistic people now than just a decade or two ago.”

There are things we can do to stop the trend. It comes down to modelling the behaviour we’d like our children to show; as I always say, girls cannot be what they cannot see. If the culture around them is all about having the newest and best of everything, getting plastic surgery and being famous for doing nothing, can we blame kids for being focused on those things, too?

Young people are bombarded with images of celebrities who make narcissism look like a desirable lifestyle choice. (I’m sorry to say that Charlie Sheen’s approval rating has gone through the roof with young men recently, according to a poll in The Australian.) They are bombarded with advertising and marketing for products that will make them look richer, thinner, hotter (and more like a celebrity!). You will never be able to stem that tide—but you can talk to them about the media they consume and support them in forming their own judgments and values.

Protecting the next generation from rising narcissism also means making sure that when we praise our kids it really means something. There has been a trend over recent decades to repeat to children that they are special and unique. Increasingly, medals are awarded just for turning up. Of course, this has been done with love and the best of intentions to boost children’s self-esteem. But to create self-esteem that has a solid foundation, we need to:

  • acknowledge real achievement
  • encourage children to be involved in their community
  • encourage them to explore which skills they are good at and identify those they need to work on
  • help them understand that while they see instant successes on reality TV, for most people achievement is the result of hard work and discipline; a good way to do this is to encourage teens to take a starter job.

Finally, here is a great piece of advice from Jean Twenge, who is herself the mother of two young children. When she was asked on Melbourne radio what parents should do instead of telling their kids that they’re special, she answered:

What most parents mean when they say that to their children is “I love you”, so say that instead. That’s a much better message.

It occurred to me that perhaps if the research had been done on Australian or New Zealand young people the result may have been different. What do you think? I would love to hear your perspectives, and your stories about the girls in your life and how they’re developing their own sense of self.

International Women’s Day – Keeping Feminism Relevant

Last night on ABC’s Q&A Janet Albrechtsen made the following statement on the state of feminism amongst our young women:

A few days ago at a Sydney girls’ high school, the girls were asked whether they were feminists. Of 90 girls, 30 girls put their hands up. Now, I think that’s quite unfortunate. These are girls who are obviously in favour of female suffrage. They’re in favour of equal pay and yet there is something going on here that a lot of young girls are not finding feminism attractive. The debates around quotas and discrimination are all part of a wider debate about feminism and we have to ask what it is that’s turning young girls away…

I’m not sure that I agree with Ms Albrechtsen’s assumption that this generation of girls are fleeing from feminism. Rather, I think they have a healthy interest in women’s issues, even if they do not necessarily relate to the terminology. Monica Dux, author of The Great Feminist Denial, argued in an article I was also interviewed for (“Putting Girls Issues Back On The Radar”) that a feminist consciousness is there but that we have just got to start claiming back the label.

And make no mistake, it is vital that we connect this generation of young women to the feminist agenda as the work is far from done.

Despite making up 45% of our workforce, the number of women on corporate boards is just 8.3% (an issue the Q & A panellists also discussed at length). Violence against women is a huge issue: one in three women has experienced physical violence since the age of 15; nearly one in five women has experienced sexual assault since the age of 15; and almost every week, one woman is killed by her current or former partner. One need only look at popular culture to see that misogyny and sexism are not only alive but indeed well paid (think footballers who choose to behave badly and Charlie Sheen). Meanwhile, for our sisters overseas, every day is an ongoing battle. The following extract from REFUGEES magazine, produced by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, is deeply shocking:

There are approximately 50 million uprooted people around the world – refugees who have sought safety in another country and people displaced within their own country. Between 75-80 per cent of them are women and children.

The majority of people flee their homes because of war and the proportion of war victims who are civilians leaped in recent decades from five per cent to over 90 per cent of casualties. Eighty per cent of casualties by small arms are women and children, who far outnumber military casualties.

Females are subjected to widespread sexual abuse. In Bosnia and Rwanda rape became a deliberate aim of war. More than 20,000 Muslim women were raped in Bosnia in a single year, 1992, and a great majority of the female survivors of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide were assaulted.

More than 300,000 youngsters, many of them female refugees, are currently serving as child soldiers around the world. The girls are often forced into different forms of sexual slavery.

More than 16.4 million women today have HIV/AIDS and in the last few years the percentage of women infected has risen from 41 to 47 per cent of the affected population. In sub-Saharan Africa, teenage girls are five times more likely to be infected than boys.

The majority of trafficked people are women, especially those bound for the world’s sex industries. Females are particularly vulnerable to trafficking because many have little individual security, economic opportunity or property or land ownership. Many victims are kidnapped or sold into slavery by their own families.

An estimated 1.3 billion people worldwide, 70 per cent of them women, live in absolute poverty on less than $1 a day.

Me and my PHD student friend and colleague Sarah Casey - rockin' Feminism.
Me and my PhD student friend and colleague Sarah Casey - rockin' Feminism.

The team here at Enlighten Education also investigated some of the reasons why young women are distancing themselves from the “F” word when designing our newest workshop aimed at inspiring girls to be proud Feminists – Real Girl Power. Some girls thought the work was done: “We have a female Prime Minister and a female Governor General.” Others thought that only those with “hairy legs” and those who hated men could join the club. Kate Ellis, our Minister for Employment Participation, Child Care and Status of Women, hinted at the latter misconception too when she revealed on Q & A that when she first entered politics she was advised to cut her hair and wear glasses (despite having perfect vision). Can we be taken seriously as female leaders, and indeed as feminists, if we have long hair, stilettos and wear lippy?

Yes.

We do not owe it to feminism to dress down. Nor, of course, should we feel pressured to dress up. Feminism surely must be about informed choice.

Sarah Casey, a friend and colleague, is currently completing her PhD at Griffith University. Her focus is on the relevance of feminism to the world today. Sarah argues that feminism will be revived for mainstream audiences through action rather than continual academic dialogue, which is often inaccessible to the majority of youth. “I believe that human rights violations against women throughout the world need to be addressed with urgency and focussed feminist organisation that takes into account and critiques youth culture. For example, we must tap into and explore new technologies, celebrity consumer culture and philanthropic capitalism,” writes Sarah.

In our work, we have discovered  that  when we inform girls about some of the struggles women are enduring in the third world, they soon realise that the feminist battles have not all been fought. A Western woman’s experience is vastly different to that of a woman in the developing world.  We remind girls that not only are they privileged to have choices, but that they also have powerful voices they may chose to use to effect global change. Sites like The Girl Effect and Plan International’s Because I Am A Girl are both great starting points and offer not only education but also practical ways in which we can all contribute to making a difference.

We also encourage girls to act on issues that do affect them directly. We distribute “Girl Caught” stickers (you may download a PDF with these stickers here: GirlCaught Stickers(2009)) inspired by the US Mind on The Media campaign that encourages girls to talk back to advertisers who portray women in a negative light. To say girls love these would be an understatement – every time we hand these out at school girls try to sneak extra copies from us!

GirlCaught_Sticker

We are now also distributing The Equality Rights Alliance’s postcards calling on The Hon Peter Garrett (Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth) to put the Voluntary Industry Code of Conduct for Body Image into force. An electronic version of this card may be sent from here.

I’d love to hear how you are connecting the young women at your school to feminism too.

Postscript: Thank you to Rachel Hanson for bringing this excellent TED Talk to my attention. Here young feminist Courtney Martin ( author of the insightful Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters) gives a personal account of how she reinvented feminism and connected with the movement.

Gender Equity – all the cool boys are championing it.

Sex Discrimination Commissioner and Commissioner Responsible for Age Discrimination, Elizabeth Broderick, listed a number of things she believes will contribute to gender diversity in leadership within Australia. I was particularly interested to see her note the vital importance of engaging men in the agenda:

I firmly believe that we will only see significant gains when men start working with men to solve this problem. After all it is men who dominate nearly every institution in this country, particularly in corporate Australia. If there is to be change, male CEOs and business leaders have to champion it…As the beneficiary of a number of male sponsors across my career I am a great believer in it.

Similarly, if we are serious about improving outcomes for young women, we need to engage young men and have them champion the cause. The potential that the “boy effect” has to initiate and support the “girl effect” was beautifully demonstrated by the students at  Sydney Boys High School. As part of their Community Action Project, they chose to “spread the word and change people’s thinking” and have been sharing their message with other high school students. I am hoping this video will inspire all schools who work with young men:

Want more ideas for inspiring young men? I have posted this moving video featuring Jonathon Walton before but I believe it is well worth revisiting. If a formal presentation does not appeal to the boys at your school, what about slam poetry or rap focused on championing the women in their lives? I’d love to feature more positive initiatives aimed at engaging boys and men – if you know of any, please share them here.

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