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Category: Disadvantaged young people

We must eradicate harassment from our schools

Were you surprised the recent Plan International survey on Sexism in the City showed that for most young women, experiences of street harassment are common?

If so, there’s a good chance you’re a bloke.

Because every woman I know has been catcalled, or followed on the street, or perhaps had a man lunge at her.

The first time I recall being sexually harassed in my community was when I was 12 years old, and just starting high school.

As I walked across a bridge with my friends, filled with nervous excitement about the new girls I might meet, and the stationery I had so carefully selected and packed in my shiny new sparkly pink pencil case, I noticed a man waiting under the bridge for us to pass.

He was masturbating in front of us.

I was so horrified that I ran straight to the local police station to report him. I’m not sure why the police never pursued this — although I do recall them laughing at me when they asked me what exactly I had seen him do and I replied, “wanking”; they hadn’t expected this ponytail-wearing schoolgirl to be quite so blunt. Their amusement only added to my feelings of powerlessness and humiliation.

But “The Wanker”, as all the girls at my school soon named him, remained waiting for us each morning for months. And eventually it became a game to run past him, yelling out our disgust. Shockingly, it no longer shocked me.

For many girls, high schools are a place of learning and harassment. (Pic: iStock)

This was by no means an isolated incident. Plan International’s Report confirms that despite all the education campaigns aimed at reducing sexual harassment, most young women first experience intimidation when in a public space between the ages of 11 and 15 (I sometimes wonder if the very same men who find it amusing to yell out “show us your tits” to school girls as they drive past them at bus stops are the same ones who rant on social media about how paedophiles should be castrated).

In my work as an educator of teen girls, I often hear stories about intimidation and harassment. And I hear the type of advice given to young women in order to help keep them safe, “walk in groups” “follow your instincts and move away if you feel unsafe …”

These offerings are not designed to make girls feel that they are somehow to blame for a culture that often doesn’t seem to like them very much, nor to limit their freedoms. But rather because short-term, while we work to help change the type of culture that allows sexual harassment to flourish, providing our girls with scripts and strategies for keeping them safe feels essential.

I’ve had emails from three different school principals in the years since we have been running our in-school courses thanking us for giving their students the information they needed when they were in a potentially dangerous situation. On all three occasions, not only had the girls known how to respond to stay safe, importantly, they also knew it was not their fault that they had been targeted. As one principal emailed: “They felt angry rather than ashamed which is just as it should be.” Any protective advice given must be carefully framed within a context of unpacking victim blaming and emphasising why violence is always the fault and responsibility of the perpetrator, and never the fault or responsibility of the victim or survivor.

But our girls are not just being harassed on the streets.

I’ve had many conversations with teen girls who feel sexually harassed in their classrooms. There are boys who flick their bra straps, they tell me. Or sniff their seats when they get up to change classes. Boys who talk loudly about porn in graphic, violent detail. What guidance do we give then, when there is no moving away? When speaking to a trusted adult may mean the aggressor is removed from class for a day or so, but is likely to return?

Our schools must make a strong stance against all forms of harassment and be safe places.

How can this be achieved?

We urgently need to do more work with boys in our classrooms on issues like combating violence against women, and helping them unpack toxic masculinity — action that not only helps create a safer environment for young women, but for other boys as we know that the type of boys who sexually harass their female classmates often target other boys they perceive as being more vulnerable too.

We must stop expecting young women to act as modifiers for male misbehaviour. So many girls have told me their teachers ask them to sit near the more disruptive boys as they think this will quieten the lads. But as one 14-year-old girl told me “these boys are just gross and it’s not fair”. And she’s right, it isn’t fair.

And our schools must realise that in the age of #MeToo, discussions around sexual harassment are not theoretical for most young women — but are part of their day-to-day experience.

This post was originally published in The Daily Telegraph, 2/6/18 

Some uncomfortable truths about bullying

THE resounding “No way” you heard earlier this month was Australia’s commitment to stamp out bullying.

But while the aim of the National Day of Action against Bullying and Violence (NDA) is admirable, how committed are we really to acknowledge just how complex this issue is, and to implement multifaceted programs to tackle ongoing aggression?

In the current hyped-up climate (often dominated by blustering, finger-pointing adults — which is surely counter intuitive if we are serious about modelling less aggressive methods of dealing with differences) here’s some of the uncomfortable truths we need to start discussing:

1. Young people don’t change their behaviour long-term just because someone has shamed them.

Change-makers know that the key to winning minds and hearts is through the sharing of personal stories that help build empathy, the use of humour (Scott Weems, a cognitive neuroscientist and author asserts that “humour is a great way for us to have evolved so we don’t have to hit each other with sticks”) and through using shame-free language that fosters connection, rather than distance.

There are some ways we can encourage children to interact with more respect, while still being authentic. (Pic: Getty)

2. It’s naive to expect teachers or parents will be able to eliminate all bullying.

The reality is most bullying happens outside the watchful gaze of adults. The classroom bully will taunt behind the teacher’s back, or lash out in the toilets. The cyber bully will type their missives when their parents are out, or when they are engaged in another task (no parent can look over their child’s shoulder and read all their social media exchanges, and nor would it be appropriate for them to do so). Consider too, not all kids are blessed with parents who really care what they are doing — we know some parents are neglectful, and even abusive. We absolutely should strive to create more inclusive homes, schools and communities. But we need to be realistic in our expectations, and develop approaches that also rely on self-regulation and peer reinforcement of positive behaviours.

3. Bullies need support too.

The reality is that some individuals who use bullying tactics have been bullied themselves (either at school, or perhaps in their homes), and so use bullying as a maladaptive strategy to feel more powerful. The line between villain and victim can often be blurred. 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 early intervention by schools, parents and the community to help them curb their aggression — not to be further ostracised.

4. Not liking everyone all the time is not bullying.

Fearful that our children might fall into the trap of becoming a bully, we urge them to make friends with everyone. As in, everyone — whether they like them or not. Although well intentioned, this advice ignores the complex dynamics of human relationships. The truth is, we are not going to like everybody, all the time. And it’s not only OK to acknowledge that — it’s healthy.

Our political leaders, including Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, need to set an example for our children. (Pic: Tim Hunter)

To help stem the rising tide of kids who are too quick to cry “bully!”, some schools have taken to posting signs that try to help explain the nuances of our more complicated social interactions: “When someone says or does something unintentionally hurtful and they do it once, that’s rude. When someone says or does something intentionally hurtful and they do it once, that’s mean. When someone says or does something intentionally hurtful and they keep doing it — even when you tell then to stop or show them that you’re upset, that’s bullying.”

It’s far more empowering and realistic to let our kids know they don’t have to be friends with everyone, but they should be friendly. When we give permission to our young people to behave authentically, within a framework of mutual respect for others, we are showing them that we don’t just value the feelings of others, but we value their feelings too.

Finally, it’s time for us adults to do some self-reflection. A recent US survey found that only 14 per cent of young people surveyed strongly agreed that their nation’s leaders model how to treat people with kindness. Given the state of political play here in Australia, do we really think the response from Aussie children would be much different? If our politicians are serious about curbing bullying, they need to start setting a better example.

After all, our kids can’t be what they can’t see.

This post was originally published by The Daily Telegraph – 17/3/18. 

Strange ways to be brave

Netflix’s Stranger Things series features a band of Dungeons and Dragons playing, science-loving geeks who have won over audiences by displaying tremendous courage in the face of supernatural forces of evil, and the horrors of hormonal changes.

The show pays homage to 80s cult films such as Stand By Me, E.T. and The Goonies; films that also presented motley crews of unlikely heroes and heroines.

Yet while we are keen to embrace a broad spectrum of what courage can look like on our screens, it seems in real life we are not quite as willing to acknowledge that our kids can earn bravery badges in other ways besides the more tangible conquering of a physical challenge.

Which helps explain why parents may get frustrated if their child happens to be reluctant to leap off the high diving board at the public pool — and why almost every school camp aims to build up bravery by requiring kids to navigate ropes courses and abseil.

Over time, the four friends from Stranger Things realise they are stronger together than apart. (Pic: Netflix.)

I recall loathing this dastardly duo when I was at school; “You’ll feel so proud of yourself once you’ve completed this!” the perky instructors would insist as I tried to explain why I had zero interest in testing myself by clambering backwards off a cliff face. But as you can rarely debate your way out of these activities, I was always, eventually, forced to participate. Afterwards, all I really felt was glad the whole public ordeal was over (and angry at the adults who insisted this was good for me: at the time I was dealing with a myriad of family issues that required great courage to navigate alone. Frankly, I had bravery burn out).

Perhaps due to these type of negative experiences, as a high school teacher, I sought to notice other types of bravery such as emotional and social courage in my students too — and there was plenty to acknowledge. There were the kids who stood up to their peers when they didn’t agree with their behaviour, the young people who were managing violence or absent parents within their homes, the teens who built up the courage to ask their crush to the school formal (despite their trembling hands and quivering voices). No climbing ropes in sight.

I also told my students stories; tales that featured plucky young people who used their wisdom and wit to conquer dark things. And I encouraged them to write their own courage narratives — to articulate a time when they had stepped up, or taken a risk.

The beauty of focusing on the brave? It grows.

Clinical psychologist Andrew Fuller, who specialises in working with young people, argues we should be more actively teaching the type of courage that moves beyond taking a physical risk and instead requires young people to take social risks; “Physical bravery is actually often easier (we may be merely acting on impulse in these moments).”

Fuller talks of the importance of being on “a continual treasure hunt” with our kids. This does not imply we should praise their every thought and deed (a path that may foster narcissism). Rather, we should be on the look out to help them identify and be inspired by moments of courage both in themselves, and in others.

In season one of Stranger Things, Mike tries to inspire his friends to help them look for their missing mate Will by reminding them of his bold and selfless play during a recent marathon game of Dungeons and Dragons. “He could have played it safe but he didn’t. He put himself in danger to help the party.” The boys agree that they need to follow Will’s example; they will apply what they have learnt about courage through playing a board game to the frightening real-world predicament that are now facing.

Perhaps we need a reminder too; our children can, and do, draw on various types of courage to slay all manner of monsters.

This post was originally published in the Daily Telegraph, 11/11/17 

Teens need love, not war

In the 4th century BC even the usually open-minded Plato clutched his proverbial pearls in despair: “What is happening to our young people?

“They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?”

Today, thanks to the online world, our lamentations and judgments provide a running commentary not only to, but on the lives of many young people.

And yet what strikes me is that apart from being unhelpful (has there ever been a young person who has behaved more positively as a result of being shamed?) the discourse about teens often bears little resemblance to what the young people I meet are actually like.

I’m a teen educator who has worked with adolescents for the past 25 years. And I’m mother to two teens. Far from being obsessed with selfies, sexting and sponging off their parents, this may well be our hardest-working and most civic-minded generation ever.

If we look beyond the media-fuelled stereotypes, shibboleths and anecdotes, what does the actual data show?

School retention and the progression on to higher education courses continues to increase (eight out of 10 young people aged 15 to 19 are enrolled in education and training).

Despite these academic pressures, young people also do almost twice the volunteer work that adults do.

More young people are giving up their already limited time to help others.

They are having less unprotected sex, taking fewer drugs and smoking less than their parents did, and many are far more aware of the risks of alcohol consumption.

And while the one per cent who make headlines (and sell parenting guides drumming up fear of a generation desperately in need of a firmer hand) the 99 per cent who are doing their best in a culture that often doesn’t seem to like them very much are often largely ignored.

The latter is the group who have to get up early every day even when they feel exhausted (biology dictates that many teens do feel more sleepy early in the day, more active late at night). Drag themselves off to school to sit through classes which may or may not interest them, with people that they may or may not like. They then come home not to switch off for the day, but rather to ramp up again and do homework or prepare for the next round of state-mandated testing.

All while dealing with pimples, pubes, images of beauty and masculinity that don’t look anything like them, and coping with crushes.

Let’s put more focus on the positive attributes of our teens. (Pic: iStock)

We seem to suffer from a collective amnesia about what we were like ourselves at this age. Case in point?

The successful, dedicated dad who attended one of my parenting seminars recently and tearfully asked me how he could bond with his daughter who he was worried was becoming withdrawn and snarly.

Before offering strategies to help offer him some perspective, I first asked what he was like as a teen. “Oh I was a real piece of shit,” he laughingly replied.

There are numerous very real issues teens (and many adults) struggle with that we do need to address: body image angst, dealing with stress and anxiety, navigating technology safely, developing and maintaining respectful relationships, just to name a few.

But while stereotypes might be easy to relate to, they are rarely helpful.

 The one thing I know for sure is the way forward lies in sharing positive stories about teens and in connecting with them, not in spreading moral panic, or in policing and patronising them.

And the way forward lies in reminding ourselves that even the one per cent who do act out deserve our compassion too.

A school I worked in recently had a sign in the staffroom that struck me as a timely reminder to us all: “The kids who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving of ways.”

This post was originally published by The Daily Telegraph, 23/9/17. 

 

The secret to raising successful kids? Mistakes

Want to help your children succeed? Then focus on their mistakes.

As adults, the single biggest mistake we make is our carefully staged, micromanaged, Instagram-filtered focus on perfection. We’ve created a generation of kids and parents who are paralysed by the fear of failure.

I’ve heard educators tell teens that one cyber-misstep will mean their life is ruined. Watched young people so crushed by a school grade that was lower than they had hoped for that they opt out of school entirely and simply stop trying. Cringed as I have heard parents advise their daughters (and it is so often the girls that hear this message) that should they make a choice in a relationship that later proves unwise? That their reputations will be forever sullied.

What nonsense. And what a waste of potential learning opportunities.

The truth is we are not defined only by our successes, but rather by how we manage our falls.

Catastrophising, or using the dark-edged shame as a device to elicit change, not only doesn’t work, but may have devastating consequences for someone who thinks there is no way forward and feels hopeless rather than hopeful.

It is much more valuable to help our children view their disappointments in the same way that an ever-resourceful friend of mine does hers: as a #disastertunity.

How might you handle people asking you about why you did this? What could you do that would help you improve from here? Who do you need to connect with to support you to move on? What might you learn about yourself, and others, from this moment?

As adults we should be brave too about sharing our own failings for these give our children the sense that they also can move on after a stumble. Kids don’t need or want perfection from their parents, what they yearn for is authenticity.

In fact, the reality is that despite the cautionary tales we often feed our children, we are all instinctively far more drawn to those who have lost and learned. Even the Ancient Greeks knew that heroes who displayed bravery, resilience, resourcefulness and determination were far more likely to win hearts and minds than those who only ever sailed cautiously through life.

And if we really want to set our kids up for future career success, rather than just drilling them for NAPLAN, we should be teaching them to adopt Richard Branson’s philosophy and embrace failure “with open arms.”

Branson, who has had at least 14 of his own businesses fail, believes that as failure and rejection are an inevitable part of business, what will really set someone up for longevity is their ability to deal with these events.

We could all do with reframing our thinking on failure. And we could all do with celebrating more stories of those who not only tripped, but got up, dusted themselves off, and chose to simply put one foot in front of the other and move forwards again.

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This post was first published by the Daily Telegraph newspaper, 14/5/16 and online at RendezView

Time for solutions not more talk

Regular readers will know I have spent the past six months as a volunteer Board Director for a new women’s shelter that is opening in Sydney’s northwest, The Sanctuary. Like most Australians, I’ve become increasingly alarmed by the headlines about women dying at the hands of their partners. In my work with teen girls, I hear more and more stories about young girls who are already trapped in relationships that are dangerous. My team of presenters at Goodfellas report the young men they work with also express concern about the men in their lives who make home a frightening place. 

Part of the solution lies in educating youth and broadening awareness through my writing and work in the media. My more hands-on work at The Sanctuary is another more practical part of the way forward.

I’m  happy to do everything from running our social media, to writing media releases, to helping with fundraising. But I am particuarly proud of two of the initiatives I’ve instigated for this refuge. One is The Sanctuary’s partnership with local boys’ college Oakhill. The other is connecting our work to the broader community through the establishment of an Ambassador program. Here our Ambassador Sarrah Le Marquand explains why this connection matters to her.  This guest post was first published in The Daily Telegraph 5/4 and posted online at RendezView.  

Ambassadors Maggie Dent (far left) and Sarrah Le Marquand ( far right) with Sanctuary Chair Yvonne Keane and myself.
Ambassadors Maggie Dent (far left) and Sarrah Le Marquand ( far right) with Sanctuary Chair Yvonne Keane and myself. Photo by Hills Shire Times.

It might sound a bit rich coming from someone who writes and speaks for a living, but talk alone is cheap. Heightened awareness of certain issues is vital, but unless that awareness eventually translates into action then words are just words.

Which is why, at a time when certain aspects of the national discussion regarding domestic violence threaten to descend into a he said/she said slanging match, it is on-the-ground measures and community solutions that are making a real impact.

Late last week I had the privilege of touring The Sanctuary, a new shelter for women and children fleeing domestic violence that will open in Sydney’s northwest suburb of Castle Hill this week.

A state of the art facility equipped to provide three months of crisis accommodation for six women and their young families, The Sanctuary is a collaboration between the local community and Women’s Community Shelters that has become a reality despite no government funding.

To see first-hand the generosity of volunteers, including welcome packs for each family put together by male students from a nearby high school, is to see first-hand the triumph of action over talk.

There’s no navel-gazing lectures and petty point scoring on domestic violence here. Just good men and women making a real difference in the lives of victims.

Sarrah Le Marquand also spoke about her visit on Radio 2UE. You may listen here: 

Why students are packing Prozac in their lunch boxes

This post was first published by RendezView, 31/1/16

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Laptop? Check. Lunch box? Check. Prozac? Check.

For more and more young people, the preparation for back to school this year will include making sure they have their anti-depressants close at hand.

Australia has one of the highest rates of use of these medications in the world and a recent University of Sydney study found that there has been a particularly marked increase in the use of these drugs in children and adolescents.

In fact, over the four-year period from 2009-2012, researchers found that the largest increase in use was amongst children aged between 10-14 years.

Dr Emily Karanges, now a research fellow in the Medicines Policy Unit at the University of NSW and lead author of the paper based on the study’s findings, suspects the rates of usage would be even higher amongst those who are school-aged today: “There is no reason to think this trend would have reversed. Given the steep upward trajectory in the rate of antidepressant use at the time of our research, especially among young people, I’d expect the figures now would be significantly higher again.”

Yet the therapeutic guidelines from the US, UK and Australia recommend that psychological therapies rather than medication be used to manage depression and anxiety of a mild or moderate severity, and that anti-depressants should only be used for severe disorders or when all other treatments have first proved ineffective. This is because these drugs are often less effective in depressed children and adolescents than in adults, and come with increased risk of self-harm and suicidal thinking.

Karanges also advocates for caution as: “The brain is still developing up to the age of 25 and antidepressants are a pretty blunt instrument. We know very little about how they might be changing the development of the brain and whether they might have long-term effects into adulthood.”

So what is driving this eagerness to medicate kids who need support?

Although counsellors and psychologists can’t prescribe medication, many are quick to suggest young people visit a GP to access these (it is not uncommon for this to be suggested as a solution even during an introductory counselling session). Concerned parents may then go to their GP specifically requesting drugs.

And many time-poor GPs report feeling ill equipped to treat mental health issues; according to the Black Dog Institute, in Australia GPs don’t have to have any specific training in mental health to practice.

Karanges points out that these types of medications are also heavily marketed to the medical community: “It is perhaps no coincidence that the anti-depressants that were most rapidly increasing in use were also the newest ones and the ones most likely to be advertised to doctors.”

GP’s may also have the misguided view these types of medications are relatively safe. A Danish study published in The British Medical Journey this week found that the harms reported in antidepressant trials were often seriously misrepresented and underreported, this included suicide attempts and suicidal idealation being coded in reports by pharmaceutical companies as “emotional lability” or “worsening depression”.

Reports issued by drug companies were, the authors said, “even more unreliable than we previously suspected”. The study concluded by recommending “minimal use of antidepressants in children, adolescents, and young adults, as the serious harms seem to be greater, and as their effect seems to be below what is clinically relevant”.

Instead, treatments such as psychotherapy and exercise were suggested.

It may also be that culturally, we are not always comfortable with the full spectrum of human emotions and are too eager to seek a quick fix.

Psychologist Jacqui Manning says she would be reluctant to suggest medication, particularly with a young person, until a range of other strategies had been tried first.

“I may see teens during highly stressful life events like the HSC exams or a breakdown or death in the family,” she said.

“Sometimes parents will say, ‘my child isn’t coping — do you think they need meds?’ I’ll respond that there are many things we can try first and that their son or daughter’s feelings are a normal human response to an extremely stressful situation.”

Whilst it is important not to stigmatise or alienate those young people who do genuinely need medication, Iain McGregor, Professor of Psychopharmacology at the University of Sydney, has called for time out on making medication our default response when supporting children and teens in crisis.

“We need to have a national debate about what is driving this phenomenon,” he said.

“Why are we so reliant on pills for the mental wellbeing of our young people?”

And what is happening that is making our kids feel so desperately sad in the first place?

In celebration of Book Week; my long-standing love for books, libraries, and librarians.

This year is the 70th anniversary of the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s annual Book Week, which runs from August 22 – 28. The following post was originally published by RendezView

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My love affair with libraries began when I was 10 years old. My parents both worked until late, so after school I’d take myself off to the local library to pass the time until we could all head home.

I vividly recall selecting the books I’d escape into for the afternoon with a level of childhood intensity usually only reserved for selecting the mixed lollies that would go into my bag.

Thrillingly, as I was such a frequent visitor, the librarians allowed me to have both my child borrowing card and an adult card so I could also devour the nonfiction books on dollhouse design and history they had seen me eyeing off. My heart would flutter every time I stalked the adult nonfiction section; I felt so grown up. Trusted. What new worlds were suddenly open to me to explore!

I’d then curl up on the carpet surrounded by my chosen titles and devour them all. Not just the words, but the smell too.

The scent of well-worn pages still makes me giddy and explains why, despite my love for books, I just can’t bring myself to embrace ebooks. I loved then, and love now, the mysterious connection to other readers who had also turned those same pages. An unexpected scribble in a margin. A shopping list left in as a bookmark. All were treasured bonds forged with others who also shared my passion for libraries; “I am not alone!”

When my sister and I changed schools later that year I was very much alone. I was shocked to find not everyone wanted to play with the “new girl.” I’d always taken my ability to make new friends for granted and wasn’t quite sure how to break into the existing circles of girls.

So I found refuge in my school library. I’d sit and spend time with fictional teen girls who seemed far more exciting anyway; Nancy Drew. Trixie Belden. These were my tribe. What would they have made of that note in the margin? I’d wonder. Could that shopping list be in fact a clue?

By the time I was in high school I’d found a real-life girl gang (of the non-detective variety) and was surprisingly rather popular. My recess and lunch breaks were still filled with words; but now it was all talking, whispering, gossiping.

Yet still I’d occasionally head to the school library when the politics of girl world seemed too intense. Sometimes I wouldn’t go to read or study; but rather to gently torment my poor library teachers. I’d pair up with some of the other library-loving-lasses and pose, as if dead, between the book shelves waiting for the librarian to find us.

This amused us far more than it did them; yet I recall them being rather patient. I suspect now that they knew for some, libraries serve not only as places that offer escapism between the pages of the books they house, but as safe havens to escape increasing adult responsibilities.

It may come as no surprise then that when I became a high school English teacher at a school with a high percentage of young people at risk, one of the first things I did was open an after school study centre at our school library. Any student who wanted to could stay back after school and have afternoon tea, then do their homework in the library with support from myself and the other teachers who joined the initiative.

What kind of kids put their hands up to stay back after school and hang in the library? Hungry kids.

Some were literally hungry and stayed back to eat peanut butter sandwich after peanut butter sandwich. For these kids, this was their only meal of the day and if the price they had to pay was books? Then so be it.

Some were genuinely hungry for learning. Many had been refugees and as English wasn’t their first language, they’d want to talk, and ask questions. “Miss, why is this? Miss, how do you say that? Miss, what does this mean?” Feed me, Miss. Feed me.

Some were simply hungry for attention from a safe adult. They’d sit next to me and just enjoy the quiet and calm. And I’d hug them extra hard when they left.

I read today about a wonderful librarian in San Francisco who has started a “Books on Bikes” outreach program. Alicia Tapia peddles around on her bike fitted with a trailer laden with books to areas that don’t have easy access to libraries and offers titles for borrowing. “Books do something for the human brain that nothing else can,” she says. “With books comes happiness, and people build empathy for one another. “

Oh how I love Alicia’s creativity and commitment. How vital it is that all young people have access to quality reading materials.

But oh too how I hope that we don’t ever see the demise of the bricks and mortar library.

Because it’s not just about the books. It’s about a space one can go to that asks not about your social standing or financial status.

Rather, it simply says: “All are welcome here.”

 

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?

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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! 

 

Feminism, girls and the economy, the art of being alone: my week in the media.

I’ve had the opportunity to contribute to, and write, some really interesting pieces for various media outlets this week. I want to share the highlights with you here.

The always-wise Dr Karen Brooks unpacked the reluctance some (including our political leaders) have with the term “Feminist” here: Why is feminism such an uncomfortable word?

Increasingly, young women are afraid to align themselves with feminism in case it makes them a social pariah. They also feel too intimidated to join the often robust dialogue about what it means to be a feminist in contemporary times for fear of how they’ll be spoken to or silenced or (mis)understood. An example of this can be seen in Helen Razer’s response to Watson’s speech (“a boxed kitten makes great digital capital” – ouch).

This lack of generosity towards fledgling feminists and their position needs to be addressed.

Dannielle Miller, author and CEO of Enlighten Education, runs workshops with tens of thousands of young women every year. She says less than 10 per cent call themselves feminists even though most admit they’re not quite sure what a feminist is. But once they understand, they see it makes sense to be one. “After all,” says Miller, “why wouldn’t you believe in gender equality?”

I loved having the opportunity to contribute and offer an insight into how young women feel about the women’s movement. As I explained in a previous blog post, for me, finding Feminism as a teen girl felt very much like finding Home. Finally, a place where I felt known, understood, accepted and challenged! I still find the sisterhood to be the most incredible source of inspiration and validation. What a joy then to be able to introduce the next generation to a movement that is still very much needed – and in desperate need of their perspectives!

One of the ways in which I connect young girls to Feminism through Enlighten’s Real Girl Power workshop is through humour (which is a great way too of instantly debunking any “feminists can’t be fun” stereotypes). We begin by exploring what popular culture will often tell us girl-power should look like and deconstruct how the phrase has been used to sell women everything from cleaning products to super-stomach-sucking-elastic pants (irony much?). You may read more about this workshop here. 

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Ninemsn ran the results of a huge UK survey on teens conducted by the Schools Health Education Unit. The key findings? 

The state of the economy is not just a bother for bankers — teenage girls seem to be absorbing the stress too, with a survey suggesting their confidence has dipped since the world was thrust into a Global Financial Crisis (GFC).

Cyber bullying is also taking its toll, according to the UK survey of 30,000 school students, with a third of 10 and 11-year-olds saying they fear being bullied.

Teens’ confidence ratings had been consistently improving between 1990 and 2008 when 41 percent of 14 and 15-year-old girls said they had a high self-esteem.

But that dropped in the following six years, with only 33 percent now saying they feel good about themselves.

Why might the economy may be impacting on girls in this way? I am quoted in the article: “Children are economically dependent on their parents and their families and those pressures filter downwards. Often the first things that tend to go are branded items, such as cosmetics and new clothes, which are the kinds of things that really matter to teenagers…Having the right shoes or brand of jeans can seem like such a critical thing for trying to fit in with a peer group. There also is social stigma about being the ‘poor kid’… I would imagine a lot of young people are feeling a sense of shame, which is impacting on their sense of self and their self-esteem.” I also helped explain why we may still be seeing huge concerns over body image and technology in this article so do check it out.

Finally, I wrote an Opinion piece for the Daily Telegraph on the art of being alone. Although this was aimed at all readers, not just those who care for young women, you may find some of the ideas on the art of connection useful.

More people are living by themselves than ever before. In fact one in 10 Australians live alone. Single, however, does not necessarily mean lonely. Countries with high levels of people living alone actually score well on international happiness ratings.

Is it because these solo artists are content in their own company?

Not entirely.

Despite the popular rhetoric around the appeal of “me-time,” the reality is we are social creatures and need human interactions in order to be happy.

Social researcher Hugh Mackay, author of The Art of Belonging, argues that “communities can be magical places, but the magic comes from us, not to us”.

The key then is to learn how to venture out and connect. And even more fundamentally, to learn that it is OK to do so. It is this idea that I explored in my writing.

Enjoy!

 

 

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