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Category: Friendship

Role models, friendships, sport and fashion – a radio discussion well worth a listen

This week I was invited to join regular panelist, Principal of Southport High School Steven Mcluckie and three times Olympic champion Hockey Player Nikki Hudson on ABC Radio Gold Coast’s parenting panel hosted by Nicole Dyer. I think the discussion is well worth a listen.  My perspective on a few issues was quite different to the other panellists- particularly in relation to girls and clothing choices (an issue also explored at my blog here).  Your thoughts?

LISTEN: Role Models for girls and more – ABC Radio Gold Coast audio.
 

Find Your Tribe

Despite the popular rhetoric about social media leading to the demise of real-world friendships (you’ve heard the criticisms, right? “Teens are now too busy texting to talk”, “Young people care more about their profile pics than their mates”) in my experience, many of us use technology to not only maintain meaningful relationships, but to develop new ones.

Bec and I get "tribal."
Bec and I get “tribal.”

Case in point? I first “met” the talented writer and media commentator Rebecca Sparrow on Twitter. She was tweeting about a young Intern who had made some provocative  statements about her employers. I disagreed with Bec’s take on this and I challenged her. Rather than raging at me in under 140 characters (which is so often the preferred mode of discourse on Twitter), she messaged me to thank me for prompting her to reconsider. We then begun exchanging messages and realised we both had much in common; Bec too delights in writing for young women. Her guide books for teen girls, Find Your Tribe – and 9 other things I wish I’d known in high school and  Find Your Feet – the 8 things I wish I’d know before I left high school are so incredibly warm, wise, honest and filled with just the kind of advice every girl needs to hear! In fact, Bec is one of those rare writers who makes you fall a little in love with her after reading her books and I found I longed to be part of her “tribe” too – so much so that I recently took myself off to Brisbane to stay with her and her family and share thoughts on teen girls, writing, parenting and Wonder Woman. Cyber friendship result!

Through my work with young women I have reinforced daily just how vital their friendships are to them too. As I discuss in my own books, teen girls and their friends often experience the highest highs, and the lowest lows. Any advice then that helps make sense of these vital relationships needs to be shared – and I am thrilled to be able to share an extract from Find Your Tribe here. Share it with the girls you care about too.

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Let’s get one thing straight. The truth is, despite having written a novel entitled The Girl Most Likely – I wasn’t. I wasn’t the girl most likely to succeed in high school. I wasn’t a prefect. I didn’t win any awards in my final year. Not a single one. In fact, in high school I was fairly average. I got pretty good grades, I guess, but I didn’t top any subjects. And I certainly didn’t stand out. Although when I look back at photos of me at seventeen I’m not entirely sure how I DIDN’T stand out considering that in high school I looked like a cross between Tootsie and Jon Bon Jovi. Harold Bishop with a perm. That was me. Excellent.

And while we’re being honest, let’s just say that high school also handed me some of my most crushing moments. Nobody invited me to my school formal. A guy that I was madly in love with barely knew I even existed. I was so bad at Maths I ended up having to do Maths in Society. And despite the fact I’d been playing netball since I was nine, I wasn’t chosen for even the C-grade netball team in high school. Talk about a blow to the ego.

But here’s the weird bit. Despite all that rotten stuff – I loved high school. Yep. Loved it. I’m one of those people who can actually, genuinely say they enjoyed it. A number of my closest friends today are the people I whispered secrets to during Modern History and French and Drama (and, clearly, PE and Maths. I’m beginning to suspect that my grades would’ve been better if I’d actually shut up and paid attention in class).

So how does that work? What was my secret? I made some smart decisions. Starting with finding my tribe ….

FIND YOUR TRIBE

One of the major factors that will determine the quality of your time at high school is who you hang around. Your friends.

I’m going to cut to the chase: Life is too short to hang around with bitchy, negative people. So don’t. In high school you want to find your tribe. Your tribe are those friends who get you, who see the world the way you see it, who like you for who you are. They’re real friends. They don’t slag you off the moment your back is turned or routinely humiliate you and put you down. Nope. Real friends have your back – they’re fiercely loyal and protective. If you have a tribe of six friends – that’s fantastic. But even if you have just one great friend – that’s all you need.

You know what else? You don’t need to be in the cool group to enjoy high school. Aim to be someone who is friends with all different kinds of people at school. Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabes calls this being a ‘floater’. Floaters do their own thing, have healthy self-esteem and they definitely don’t pay attention to peer pressure. Be authentic in your tastes. In other words, be who you are. Don’t change your personality or your interests or your taste just to hang around with girls who spend all their time bitching and making fun of other people.

All this sounds obvious, right? And yet many adults will tell you it took them years (and some painful friendship experiences) to finally get this lesson. For some reason, many of us spend our spare time with snarky, negative people who make us feel worthless.

And don’t think for a second that hanging around with the cool group will make you seem more attractive. There’s nothing attractive about someone who behaves like a sheep and follows a leader. You’re way better off hanging around with your tribe. After all, what’s attractive is a girl who is confident, who can laugh at herself, who smiles a lot and who exudes a generous spirit.

 

N.B You may also be interested in my seminar for parents and educators on supporting girls to make positive, healthy friendships. Find out more about this, and download a flyer, here

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

Celebrating girl friendships

This advertisement for Skype is just gorgeous. In the current culture that mocks teen girl friendships and focuses on the negative (think Mean Girls, Ja’mie) this shows just how genuine and healing their relationships can also be. I love too that it provides an alternative to the current often hysterical dialogue around cyber world that would have us believe all girls only engage with technology in order to bitch, sext and post selfies.

Let’s remind ourselves that for every young person making a bad choice, there are plenty who make great choices everyday. Let’s remind  ourselves too that the push for perfection (whether it be physical perfection or the refusal to permit mistakes) is not only dull – it is dangerous.

Enjoy – and grab a tissue!

 

 

Myth busting – creating a new dialogue with young men

When I first co-founded Enlighten Education with my partner Francesca Kaoutal back in 2003, the vision was to create workshops for both girls and boys that would inform, inspire and empower. Our initial work with boys was launched via an innovative and explorative program called “Tribal Zone.”

Extract from original flyer, 2004.

Although Fran and I were happy with the outcomes from this pilot program, at the time we both felt that our energies needed to be channelled into the urgent business of working with young women and also felt apprehensive about leading boys into an exploration of manhood. Surely this was mens’ business?

Fast forward 8 years and my own son, Kye, is now 11.  As my career began in the classroom, and I spent 8 years working as both an English teacher and a students at risk co-ordinator, I have witnessed first-hand just how challenging adolescence is for many young men. The pressures placed on boys to conform to unrealistic stereotypes and to fit narrow definitions of masculinity now, more than ever, seem particularly urgent for me to help address. Whilst my son begins to prepare for High School next year, I too again feel the need to offer education that will help make the transition from boyhood to manhood more joyful and equip him, and all boys, with skills to make sense of a world that is not always kind to either gender.

Increasingly too schools have been asking me to work with their young men and share many of the messages I give to girls with their boys. Sydney’s Cranbrook School  recently asked me to work with their middle school boys on developing conflict resolution skills, and on how they could best develop positive friendships.
I thoroughly enjoyed this experience and left feeling that I had indeed helped to make a difference.

So I recently approached colleague Nina Funnell to collaborate with me on designing a new workshop aimed at raising boys up. Nina is a writer, social commentator and an anti-violence advocate- she and I recently finished a book for girls on respectful relationships which will be published by Harper Collins in 2014.

The result? A two hour workshop that busts myths about boys. Some of the myths we bust include: “Teen boys are bad news”, “Real men don’t cry”, “All gamers are socially inept geeks,” “Boys punch on and then move on” and “All strong men have six-packs.”  We do not assume to tell boys how to be men, but rather use our expertise in engaging young people to educate them to make their own decisions, and we equip them with the skills they need to make better choices. And we draw on the wisdom of men in leadership roles:

 

Slide from “Busting Myths About Boys & Men” – we have been touched by the willingness of prominent men to provide us with their insights to include.
Apart from presenting boys with insights from prominent male celebrities, the boys’ own male teachers are encouraged to share their stories too.

I recently delivered this workshop to over a thousand boys from years 6 through to year 11 over the course of a week at the Australian International School In Singapore. I have to say I was beyond thrilled with the results! 95% of boys rated the session as either Very Good or Excellent, and 99% said they would recommend it. But aside from asking them what they thought of the day, we also wanted to ascertain what they wished all adults would better understand about their world. The boys’ comments were incredibly poignant and meaningful and expressed a strong desire for them to be better understood:

    • I wish adults would understand that we have feelings, we’re not perfect, we need help sometimes and we don’t have a perfect body. Ned, yr 9
    • I wish adults would understand that it’s a lot harder than most parents would suspect (being a boy) because of various things such as media. Kieran, Yr 9
    • I liked the performance thing, it gave us a chance to try.  I learnt that we are not the troublemakers.  We are hard on our life, so please be soft on us. Anon.Yr 9
    • Today I learnt that assertiveness works, aggressiveness doesn’t work, talking face to face is always better and that chicks want nice guys.  Adults need to understand that being a teen boy we have a lot of pressure. Anton, Yr 9
    • Adults need to understand that playing video games isn’t bad, and can also be helpful.  I learnt today that boys have feelings, aggression isn’t always the answer and to be assertive. Dylan, yr 9
    • I wish adults would understand that I’m a good child and do the right thing. Andy, Yr 9
    • I learnt today to be assertive, express yourself, don’t have to be buff, games aren’t socially inept and talk in person about troubles. I wish adults would understand that we aren’t all trouble, sometimes we hide our struggles, we can be good at communicating and the pressure about our bodies. Joel, Yr 9
    • I wish adults would understand that boys also feel pressure.  Girls might seem all weak (which is sexist) but even boys have emotions. We aren’t all those buff powerhouses like everyone thinks. Dalai, yr 7
    • I liked learning how we are influenced because it was interesting. I learnt to give time, be calm, men cry, be assertive and boys aren’t always bad. Zac, Yr 7
    • I wish adults would understand that teen boys aren’t all bad and that we can be smart, organized, clean, healthy and independent. Wayne, Yr 7
    • I liked the information you gave us about reality and the truth about growing up.  I wish adults would understand the stress of school, making friends and our troubles and needs.  Anon, Yr y8
    • Today taught me about social media, myths about boys, dealing with friends, how to keep calm and stereotypes about boys.  I wish adults would understand that we can be good and to let us get out more. Kahn, Yr 7
    • My favourite part today was listening to a well-structured and hilarious presentation with issues that are extremely relevant. I learnt that there are many stereotypes surrounding boys, ways to solve problems and conflict, there are similarities between boys and girls, boys aren’t as strong as depicted by the media and that the level of intelligence of boys and girls is the same. I want adults to understand that we get stressed with assignments and other homework tasks at times. Kevin, Yr 10
    • All of it was great and it gave us useful advice. I learnt that some adults acknowledge that their reasoning my be incorrect or exaggerated. I want adults to remember that they had their own equivalent stereotypes when they were growing up. Hahn, Yr 10
    • My favourite parts were the interactive ones. I learnt that we aren’t all heartless Neanderthals, violence against women goes unnoticed and not all guys just want sex. I would like adults to know that we aren’t as dumb as we are depicted. Ben, Yr 11
    • I expected it to be a long boring speech but I liked everything, it was exciting and I wasn’t bored. I learnt that not all guys are bad, how to make up with friends, there are a lot of myths about guys and the target market for boys and girls is very different.  I would like adults to know that I am not like the bad boys on tv and I hope they don’t compare me to them. Jonathan, yr 11

Perhaps the thing that moved me the most though was not so much the boys’ words, but rather their actions. Many lined up to give me a hug good-bye. Or to shake my hand. Or simply to give me a “High-5”. I found myself quite overwhelmed by the enthusiastic way in which they embraced these messages, I even had boys running up to me in the playground throughout the course of the week to thank me yet again.

Working with young women will always be a priority. Yet I cannot help but feel excited about the impact this work may have on young men too – and of course on the women in their lives who will be positively impacted by the changes we are helping to create.

To enquire about having me work with the boys at your school email: dannimiller@me.com. Please note, this work is run independently and is not part of Enlighten Education’s programs. 

 

All Women Hate Each Other

Me (far right) at The Sydney Opera House with Tara Moss, Geramine Greer and Eva Cox. #FODI 2012.

I was absolutely thrilled to have been asked to join the panel discussing the topic, “All Women Hate Each Other” at The Sydney Opera House’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas. The panel also featured Eva Cox, Germaine Greer and Tara Moss. What a line-up!

With Tara Moss at #FODI.

A video of the session will be ready to view by the end of the month and I shall share it with you as soon as it becomes available. In the interim, I’d like to tease out a few of the more interesting “dangerous ideas” the session raised.

Tara’s arguments are best summed up by a great opinion piece she wrote, published in the Sydney Morning Herald just before the event: Mean boys the worst culprits. Tara writes;

 

“All women hate each other”, or so the saying goes. It is also a view of women many instinctively agree with. From the sports field to the boardroom, male ambition and competitiveness is praised, yet the term ”ambitious”, when it describes a female, is often used with ambivalence. There is a nasty side to female competition and aggression, we are told. The perils of female-on-female cruelty continue to be widely discussed by academics and journalists, and frequently portrayed in popular entertainment, from the breakout 2004 comedy Mean Girls, to reality shows like Real Housewives. It’s widely understood that women are ”their own worst enemies”…

Yet this focus on female cruelty seems curious, when you consider that ”mean boys” are far more likely to cause physical injury and death…

The fact remains unarguable – dangerous social behaviours and acts of aggression and harm are overwhelmingly perpetrated by males.”

Germaine and Eva both provided thought provoking ideas, including a few that I found myself needing to challenge.

Germaine described watching a group of male businessmen at lunch. She said it was almost a scene reminiscent of the film Gorillas in the Mist; the most powerful “Silverback” assuming his position within the group and the others (with their clearly defined roles, the joker, the sidekick etc) positioning themselves around him. “Why don’t women network in this way?” she asked, proposing that females are not as good at building networks of support.

As someone who has been in education for over 20 years, working with teen girls on a weekly basis, I had to counter by declaring that anyone watching adolescent girls at lunch time (particularly in single-sex schools) would observe a very similar power dynamic. Girls know where to sit in the playground (their location saying much about their standing within the social network of their school) and also often sit surrounding the most socially dominant female. In fact, girls are very good at reading social environments and vying for power within these.

Perhaps the real issue may be whether in fact our young women lose this capacity to build empires once they enter the workplace, and if they do, why is this so? Could it be that our workplaces do not allow for opportunities for women to connect in this way; many working women claim they struggle to maintain a balance between home and the workplace and may, therefore, be less likely to invest precious time in socialising and networking (activities which are often perceived as almost “optional extras” rather than core responsibilities).

At the recent Australian Leadership Awards I attended in Melbourne, I had the opportunity to hear from a number of women leaders and when asked about how we might  help improve outcomes for women in the workplace, many spoke about the real barriers to women in leadership  being culturally embedded, which makes them slippery and hard to pin down. These include the belief that he/she who works the longest hours is the most conmmitted. One woman summed up her frustrations thus: “At my workplace there are diversity policies in place which have  allowed me to work part-time and re-enter the workplace twelve months after having my daughter. But the issue for me is that all the important conversations seem to happen after 5pm when I’ve left! The guys at my office tend to stay back and brainstorm and plan. When I get back in at 9am the next day, I feel out of the loop.”

In fact, very few women I spoke to said they ever had time to go to lunch with their colleagues; in order to leave punctually to get home to do their “second shift” with their  family, they often ate at their desks. I believe women will better utilise their networking skills when there is more equality around domestic work in our homes; women will then have the time and energy they need to once again engage in the power “dance” they practiced regularly, and skilfully, as young girls.

Similarly, I challenged Germaine when she said girls and women are not very good at “chilling out”. Ask any parent; teen girls are often gifted at engaging in down time! Again, perhaps due to the fact that women are doing the lioness’ share of the work at home, young women may be at risk of losing the ability to unwind and fall into the trap (one I know I often fall into) of believing we must do everything, all at once, all on our own, by the time they reach adulthood.

Finally, I would like to make a plea for kindness. For I fear we are killing it.

In a previous post on the issue of women in the workplace, I discussed the research that shows that in our culture, there is a deeply ingrained belief that the most important qualities of a leader are assertiveness and competitiveness, and that these are perceived as male traits, while women are meant to be nice and compassionate. Why our culture sees being nice and compassionate as at odds with leadership is an interesting question in itself. But for now, I’d like to focus on the fact that both Eva and Germaine challenged the assumption that women should be expected to be “nice” and seemed to be implying that women could be as unpleasant as they wanted to be (insert cheering from the crowd).

Whilst I agree that women shouldn’t have any particular obligation to be pleasant or agreeable simply by virtue of their gender (we are not “God’s Police”), I would contend that in environments like workplaces (and schools), which force people together who may not have a natural affiliation with each other, life is far more bearable if everyone, regardless of sex, is considerate and cooperative. Or, as we state in our workshop on developing positive relationships, not necessarily friends, but friendly.

Of course I am at risk of either sounding naive or idealistic here. But research clearly shows that those who do engage with others in a positive way tend to be happier and more resilient. Many schools, in fact, are now following positive education principles which include teaching kindness, and fairness.

Why is it that being “nice”  is considered somewhat old fashioned and a sign of weakness? We almost celebrate the rude, aggressive, and impolite (we certainly pay them well. Think Allan Jones and Kyle Sandilands). We fall into the trap of perceiving those who act negatively as more powerful, and excuse our own poorer behaviors with phrases such as “I don’t owe it to anyone…”, “I never asked for it”, “Why should I be nice? He/she’s not”…

My company, Enlighten Education, specialises in working with young women, but the content we deliver in our program on building respectful relationships could just as easily be delivered to young men and, in fact, Cranbrook school has asked me to to deliver it to the young boys in their Junior School later this month.

In one of the other Festival Of Dangerous Ideas sessions titled “Abolish Private Schools”,  the excellent Jane Caro argued, as a part of a broader discussion on how we rank schools based on the limited criteria established by tests like NAPLAN, that one of the things that makes us most successful are our social skills and our ability to get along with others in particular. I wholeheartedly agree. I also know that getting along with others requires having the time and energy to do so (which, as I’ve argued, are challenges we need to work away at for many women in the workplace), and will involve us all learning to be a little nicer to each other- regardless of gender.

Let’s not be mislead into believing “haters” rule.

P.S The full FODI panel session may now be viewed here: http://play.sydneyoperahouse.com/index.php/media/1654-All-Women-Hate-Each-Other.html

Generation Cleanskin: Part 3

In the final instalment of Susan Johnson’s exceptional piece on teens and body image that we have been running here for the past few weeks, teen girls speak frankly about how they respond to the relentless pressure to lose weight and be skinny, while teen boys talk about how they deal with the pressure to work out and “bulk up.” 

Saturday afternoon at Indooroopilly Shoppingtown, in Brisbane’s west, is teenage heaven. The movies, the food court, the clothes shops: teenagers in large groups or in pairs come to meet each other or eye each other off, checking each other out in that overt, challenging way that only teenagers can.

A group of giggling girls is meeting up: the girls come here almost every day after school. It’s free dress at their school, and the first pressure felt by these girls is the pressure to wear the right clothes, the “right” brands. Zoe Robberts (“I’m almost 14”) is in Year 9 and lives at inner-west Bardon: “Yeah, you have to have nice clothes, like the brands, and there’s pressure every day on what you wear. You can’t wear the same thing twice in a week.” Bella Nielsen, 13, also of Bardon, adds that “when you’re in primary school no-one judges anyone but when you’re in high school it’s all about first impressions. If you don’t look pretty, no-one will hang out with you or they’ll ignore you and there’s lots of cyberbullying going on around … on Facebook, [there are instances where] people really bully others.”

“I got called ‘fat’ one time on Facebook,” says Kiara Cavenagh, 13, of Middle Park, and a bigger girl than her friends. Her dad is tall and she comes from a family with “big bones”: “I feel pressure because all my friends are so skinny and I am, like, not skinny.”

Immediately all her girlfriends rush in with a chorus of “But you’re so pretty, Kiara!” and Zoe Morgan, 12, of St Lucia adds: “You’re like a mini Adele [the British singer]”. It turns out that Kiara sings too, and superbly (she led me to some YouTube videos) and has won a couple of local singing competitions. Which all means that possibly because Kiara is happy in other areas, being larger than her girlfriends is less of an issue: “I can’t be bothered to diet, even though I feel pressured [to be skinnier]. I like food too much! It tastes too good …”

Bella, on the other hand, feels the pressure more: “You walk around here and there are girls who are really pretty and their hair’s just perfect and, like, every day you see yourself in the mirror and you’re so used to seeing yourself you start picking out the little flaws and everything. You don’t see how pretty you are, you just see the bad stuff like, my stomach’s too big, my thighs are too big, and all that … ”

Zoe Morgan feels pressured too: “I’m happy with the way I look but you can never be, like, perfect to yourself … sometimes I see a girl who’s, like, really pretty and really skinny and I’m like, ‘I don’t like her! She’s so skinny’ … ”

Zoe Robberts says a lot of the pressure comes from boys: “Everyone’s trying to look pretty for them, to impress them … guys don’t have to worry. Boys don’t have to worry about anything.”

But her friend Bailey Vowles, 13, of western suburban Sherwood, disagrees: “If you’re really short for a boy you get called ‘cute’ and you probably wouldn’t want to be cute in Grade 8, you’d probably want to be hot. Boys want six-packs.” Bailey concedes, however, that much of the pressure girls feel comes from the boys as well as the media: “Personally, I’ve never dated anyone and I just think the pressure you have from boys to impress them is just, like, everywhere.” Friends Ben Stickley, 14, of northside Wooloowin and James Manteit, 15, of westside Chapel Hill, sheepishly admit that boys do indeed notice girls’ figures but appear nonplussed when asked about pressure. James: “Going out with a girl, I’d prefer that she had a good physique but we’re also friends with girls who are not, like, the best-looking people, but they’re just good to talk to.”

Ben: “Yeah, if they were, like, fat and stuff I’d care but I guess as long as the person’s nice, and nice to hang out with … ” Both think there is just as much pressure on boys as girls. James: “Girls definitely like boys who are muscled.” If James had more money he would spend it on clothes but, as it is, he tries to wear tight clothes to reveal his torso. He regularly works out.

Kean Coghill, 16, of Doolandella, met Aaron Eastment, 15, of Oxley, also in the outer west, at the shopping centre last year. The pair of mates now regularly travels there to meet their friends and look over the talent. Kean reckons “girls are mainly interested in looks these days” and both he and Aaron plan on starting bodybuilding soon. Aaron: “Yeah, most guys want to bulk up.”

Kean admits that, like most guys, “I do go for good-looking girls but they have to be nice too. But to be honest, the first thing you go for is good looks.” Of Aboriginal descent, Kean is sporting a new tattoo in honour of his grandfather who recently died. He wears a chain around his neck and a “snapback”, an American baseball-style hat worn backwards. He regularly straightens his hair, too, and wears the “right” brands, but that is about as far as his fashion-consciousness takes him.

Aaron, of mixed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent, has been wearing braces for two years (“It hasn’t stopped him getting girls,” says Kean). Aaron’s fashion routine sometimes extends to straightening his hair but within minutes it is curly again so mostly he doesn’t bother.

They can’t talk long, these boys – they’ve got places to go and girls to meet. So they say goodbye and walk out into the mini-city of the shopping mall, the meeting place of thousands of teenage boys and teenage girls, skinny, plump, bosomy or muscled, anxious to look hot.

 

I would like to thank Susan Johnson and the Courier-Mail’s QWeekend for allowing me to share this insightful investigative piece. Susan Johnson is a full-time journalist and the author of seven novels; a book of essays, On Beauty (part of the Melbourne University Press series Little Books on Big Themes); and a memoir about her experiences of motherhood, A Better Woman.

Not Your Average Friday!

I embrace every opportunity to listen to teen girls — to connect with them and also to learn their hopes, dreams and concerns, not to mention their insights into Girl World.

So at the end of every Enlighten workshop, we ask girls for their feedback. We want to know what really gets through to them. What is the best way to connect? What brings about lasting, positive change? What are the best ways to help girls shine?

This week I want to give a voice to one of those girls: Sienna Fracchia, a Year 9 girl who recently took part in a workshop with our Queensland program director, Storm Greenhill-Brown, and team member Louise Beddoes. I hope that Sienna’s thoughtful — and impressively articulate! — feedback will be of valuable to anyone who works with girls, wants to better understand girls, and wishes to make a strong, authentic connection with them.

 

Not your average Friday!

I arrived at school on Friday 2 March thinking, ‘Oh, this Year 9 Development Day is just going to be another one of those “growing up” sessions about puberty and development!’ I predicted a whole day in a room full of Grade 9 girls, discussing various body parts and how our emotions will develop. An organisation called Enlighten Education was doing a presentation called ‘The Butterfly Effect’; I thought it was some type of nickname for girls going through puberty or something cheesy like that. It sounded like the worst way to spend a Friday. I spent a good hour before school reflecting on the many uncomfortable student-teacher moments of the past when we talked about puberty or another awkward topics involving adolescent development, and the many that were to come.

For educators, it can be a bit confronting to hear this straight from the horse’s mouth. But it’s a great reminder that sometimes even when it seems that girls have been given the required personal development courses, the messages still may not have got through. Whilst girls might be present in the room, they might not be engaged and another way may need to be found to connect with them.

 

When the bell rang, my friends and I trudged up the stairs to our doom; but when we slowly edged our way into the room, we were swept away from the world of smelly, hairy boys ruling our lives, into GIRL WORLD — a sea of pink and purple fabric, butterflies and glitter, where school shoes were just an accessory and girls ruled.  My judgement was so wrong! A goodie bag and pamphlet were thrust into our arms, as our minds were registering the awesome day that awaited us.

Girls want (and of course deserve!) to feel special and important. Simple, attractive visual props and handouts set the scene. They signify to girls that this is a time and space set aside just for them, and that something transformative is about to happen.

 

We started our adventure learning the heartbreaking but also amazingly romantic story of our leader, Storm, from Enlighten Education. Then a little physical exercise (dancing!) and we knew that this was going to be one of the best days of our school lives. Through five different workshops, we discovered just how amazing GIRL WORLD and all the girls in it really are.

Sienna points out something that is crucial to getting through to girls: telling our own stories. If we want girls to be vulnerable and reveal their true selves to us, we must first do so ourselves. Only by being open and letting ourselves be seen  can we expect to win girls’ trust and deeply connect with them.

 

After the first workshop, Forever Friends, I really wanted to become friends with all the girls and stand up for them. I really wanted us to become a family; we are sisters, no matter if we are presently in the same friendship group or not. After every workshop, we were presented with a small pink and black card that had an affirmation relating to the workshop. The first one read: ‘I attract good, positive friends into my life. I encourage and support others.’

The academic demands are so intense on girls now that I think we sometimes forget that friendship skills — making friends, choosing the right friends, resolving conflict — are also something girls need our help with.

 

Get It Together, our second workshop, taught us how to manage our time and develop techniques to calm ourselves and de-stress. A bit of yoga and calming music and we were in heaven. Free to move the way we wanted, and to be comfortable in our own skin, we learned to relax. My earlier fears were certainly proved wrong beyond any imagination. Our second affirmation read: ‘I enjoy learning. I have potential to achieve, and I have faith in my abilities.’

Girls are undeniably under a lot of pressure, so helping them learn healthy ways to relieve stress (rather than binge drinking, smoking or dieting, for instance) is more important than ever before. Incorporating short bursts of relaxation meditation or exercise (such as the dancing that Sienna loved) into the day can be relatively simple — and cost free.

 

The third workshop was after morning tea, and taught us about the dangers girls can face in the world. It was called Stop, I don’t like it but unlike the title, we loved it and the session really made all of the girls feel safer and more in control. Enlighten Education also provided us with contact numbers of help lines and emergency numbers, and for the information of all you women and girls out there, we actually practised the eye gouge and groin kick! Storm assured us that we were all strong, brave, beautiful Amazon women. The third affirmation card told us I listen to my butterflies and set boundaries. I am an Amazon.

We would all love to protect our girls from every danger they may face in the world — but we cannot be there all the time, so the best thing we can do is make sure they can look after their personal safety. Sienna’s feedback shows that girls can be empowered to look after themselves and feel in control.

 

Before going for lunch we had our fourth workshop: Princess Diaries. Firstly, we made stunning diaries in which to write our fears, dreams, achievements, failures and worries. Beautiful ribbons, glitter, paper, stickers and butterflies were presented to us with an exercise book for us to decorate to our heart’s desire (or until lunch, whichever came first!). Instinctively, the groups we were in stopped being selfish, and we all cared for and helped our sisters.

Teenage girls are just bursting with feelings and thoughts. Getting them down on paper helps girls get a handle on who they are, and who they want to be.

 

We finished the day in a workshop called Love the Skin You’re In. Just as the title suggests, that’s exactly what we did. Storm taught us how to accept that we are all beautiful, amazing and talented. She spoke about self-confidence and self-praise. I tried the self-praise part and it actually really does make you feel better about yourself. It was affirmed on the cards that: ‘I am precious. I choose to send loving thoughts to myself and others. I surround myself with positive words and attract good things into my life.’

Girls are exposed every day to so many voices (the media, advertisers, their peers) telling them they aren’t pretty enough, or popular or thin or smart or rich enough. We can’t silence those voices, but we can help girls like Sienna develop strong self-esteem that enables them to grow into resilient women.

 

Finally, we were set a challenge to wear a bracelet on our left arm and for 21 days, recite the words on the affirmation cards and only speak positively about ourselves and others. Then, when we complete the challenge, we move the bracelet to our right arm so that everyone knows that we believe in ourselves.

Friday 2 March was one of the best days, not only of school, but of my life. It came at the perfect time for me and helped me so much. I don’t know what I would’ve done without it. I read my affirmation cards every day and I hope to keep them for a very long time. My journal and bracelet will always stay very close to my heart and I will never forget Storm and Lou, our great, girl gang leaders!

Sienna, you and your friends are close to our hearts, too. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, hopes, wishes and dreams with us. We hear you!

I feel passionately about the need to engage with girls and listen to what really matters to them. The launch of my book for girls, “The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo”, has been a wonderful chance to get on the media and encourage parents to do just that, and I was more than happy to talk in depth about this on Channel 9’s “Mornings” show this week:

Teens and Trauma: How You Can Help the Healing Process

The last couple of years have been tough for many communities where Enlighten works, with natural disasters such as flooding in many parts of Australia and the devastating earthquake that claimed so many lives in Christchurch, New Zealand. There are many stories of tragedy and heartbreak — but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in working with young people, it’s that they have an incredible, deep capacity for resilience, compassion and love.

Enlighten’s New Zealand program manager, Rachel Hansen, who has worked with a number of Christchurch schools in the year since the earthquake, tells me she is in awe of the resilience of the students and the staff.

Many of them had endured great hardship – losing homes and loved ones. Some were also living with family members who had been severely injured or traumatised. One thing that really moved me was when the girls spoke about how important their friends had been in the months following the quake.

As many of their lives were in chaos they learned how to lean on and really support their friends even more. There was a real sense of sisterhood at having been through something so big together. 

Christchurch endured a particularly bitter winter last year, and some of the schools were teaching out of marquees and tents. In December I worked with 130 girls in a marquee (which was their ‘Chapel’ and Assembly Hall, as both had been destroyed). It was a particularly hot day and by the afternoon we were sweltering as if in a sauna. However I was struck by how accepting and cheerful the girls were about everything – it was as if it wouldn’t occur to them to complain. Their teacher told me that when it rained during assembly and the water swept through the marquee the girls would just lift their feet to keep them dry.

There is much we can do to support young people who have lived through natural disasters or other traumatic events, so I’m sharing this guest post by our wonderful Queensland presenter Storm Greenhill-Brown, who has been affected by the flooding in her own town, Ipswich, and has some great ideas for helping the healing process.


Guest Post by Enlighten Education’s Program Director for Queensland, Storm Greenhill-Brown

We have had a rather turbulent past year in Queensland. The floods of January 2011 and this year’s flooding in the western part of the state caused great distress for many and have had a significant impact on the Queensland psyche. Recovery efforts are ongoing and emotions are still raw for those who have suffered. Many homes damaged by the 2011 floods were only just rebuilt over Christmas — a full year later — while some families are in a seeming state of limbo waiting for insurance claims to be settled and builders to be found.

What has this turmoil meant for children, whether they were directly affected or not? How can we as parents and as a community help our young people to develop resilience in the face of such traumatic, life-altering events?

The Quest for Life Foundation provides an excellent online series and downloadable workbook for those helping young people through the recovery process. The foundation suggests that we must first assess the impact of a traumatic event on a teenager’s or younger child’s life. How much a child understands and is able to process will depend on their age.

The deep grief of losing one’s house, pets, possessions or family members often results in negativity and a sense of doom. Young people may experience feelings of great fear and a heightened belief that the natural world is wild and dangerous. Parents’ responses to such events are very important. As one flood-affected local mother said, “Our children are around adults who are emotionally unstable on a permanent basis.”

Children need to know what has happened and, importantly, what is being done about it. As adults, we must be able to discuss issues as they arise, but it is important that we don’t overwhelm children with images and information they do not need. An overload of images of earthquakes, tsunamis or flood devastation can potentially be destructive for young people. Teens especially may feel a loss of control or a sense of helplessness and futility.

It is important that children learn to feel compassion and empathy for others, and to focus on questions like “How can I help?” and “In what small way can I make a difference?” By offering practical help to other families, young people can gain a sense of purpose and hope. During the floods, two local boarding schools in my area, in Ipswich, were turned into emergency accommodation centres, and many of the girls and boys from those schools worked selflessly to help families in need. Instead of simply relaxing on their holidays, they worked in shifts gathering and sorting blankets, clothing and food. Many of them took immense satisfaction from being involved. It was a great example of how teens can benefit from looking beyond the boundaries of their own world, which during adolescence tends to narrow down to the self. “More than myself” can be a powerful mantra for young people who are questioning their place in the world.

In my town, a local mum whose entire neighbourhood was decimated by the flood decided to create a support network in her area. This amazing group of women banded together armed with buckets, mops and shovels and began the cleaning and rebuilding process. Because many families were not covered for flooding by their insurance policies, or damage assessment was taking a long time, they felt something had to be done. What inspiring role models these women were for their daughters and sons. Instead of focusing on what they had lost — which was a great deal in many cases — they chose to be grateful for what they managed to save and what they could do for each other. They acknowledged their loss but embraced the positive. To me this is resilience in action, and resilience is a lifelong skill that should be nurtured in our kids.

 

Erin Cook with her daughter Sarai, 12, and dog Bella. Erin is one of a group of women in Ipswich who banded together to help other families in need. Picture: Jodie Richter, for The Courier-Mail

Betraying Our Girlhood

I loved the post below by the talented Ms Clementine Ford so much that I asked her permission to share it with you all here. Clementine describes herself as a “freelance writer, broadcaster and troublemaker based in Melbourne”. She tells me she “enjoys cups of tea on stormy summer afternoons, men with beards and the collected works of Nancy Mitford.” You can read more of her work at http://www.clementineford.com.au or follow her on Twitter @clementine_ford.

This piece first appeared in Sunday Life for Fairfax Media on January 15, 2012.

What’s wrong with ponies and dolls? How did “girl” become an insult? It’s time to reclaim the power of pink.

When I was about 15, my family undertook the latest in a long line of relocations and wound up in the northern suburbs of Adelaide. My first week at school culminated in a non-uniform day, and I carefully selected an outfit that I felt would best display my casual demeanour and keen sartorial skills. This turned out to be a pair of Tencel jeans, a dusty-rose chenille cardigan and an incongruously matched choice of Adidas street shoes.

I know.

As I sat there in science class draped in layers of fug, year 10’s It girl turned to me and said admiringly, “Nice shoes! I’m guessing you’re into Triple J.”

“Yeah,” I replied, trying to sound nonchalant. “I’m pretty into it.” Inside, I basked in the glow of her compliment. I spent the rest of the day casually hoicking up the silky folds of my jeans so everyone else could spy my shoes, while desperately hoping they wouldn’t discover the truth – that I hadn’t ever listened to Triple J.

How quick we are to embrace the lure of social currency. I was reminded of this recently when feminist author Emily Maguire sent me a copy of her contribution to a Women of Letters literary salon, the theme of which was “A letter to the person I misjudged”. In achingly grand prose, Maguire (author of Your Skirt’s Too Short) travels through a series of apologies to the girls she met along the road to adulthood: her fellow kindergarteners, whose ironed bows and frilly socks drew her withering disdain; her middle-school friends, on whom she turned her back when presented with the first taste of male validation; and finally her high-school friends, and the limits they put on themselves by assuming that their adventurous forays into adulthood were the domain of men and thus all the more brazen.

Maguire’s letter solidified something that has bothered me for a long time: namely, the tendency of some women to enthusiastically distance themselves from what are seen as typically female attributes and interests in order to elevate their own worth. I’ve noticed an increase in women speaking of their childhood inclination for boys’ toys with an unconscious pride, as if a past dedication to Tonka trucks makes them more evolved than those who served tea to their My Little Ponies and made their Barbies have sex. But what’s so interesting about a truck?

This all comes down to the unquestionably limited way in which society has constructed girlhood. Consider the marketing of children’s toys. Girls are encouraged to bake pink cakes in pink ovens while realistic pink babies wee on their frilly pink dresses. Meanwhile, the boys are out preparing for their eventual roles as Masters of the Universe by roaming the countryside dressed as firemen and superheroes.

Is it any wonder that smart, savvy women with multidimensional personalities – that is, most of them – would seek to distance themselves from these tropes? We’ve all gone through a period where we’ve announced loudly that, of course, most of our friends are boys because we just seem to get on better with them. We wear it like a badge of honour. Boys build the world while girls are expected to decorate it. They have to be sexy without being too sexual, smart without being too smart and in need of protection without being too needy. The world does not respond well to women who look at these tiny boxes and ask for a little more wiggle room.

But it’s a double-edged sword. Despite wanting them to conform to those stereotypes, society doesn’t like girls very much. Girls are frivolous and sappy. They care too much about shoes and frills and vampires who sparkle in the sunlight. They’re manipulative and emotional, but they’re also weak, throwing, running and crying like girls. “Girl” is an accusation that’s used against boys to humiliate them. And the absolute proliferation of this in sitcoms, movies, books and pop culture has resulted in 50 per cent of the world internalising the idea that not only are they somehow less than their male counterparts, they also occupy a state that’s shameful and gross.

Maguire recalls when, in an attempt to ingratiate herself with her male peers in high school, she made a snide joke about one of her female friends, and was rewarded for it. “ ’You,’ they told me, ‘are just like a bloke.’ It was the most wonderful compliment I had ever received and [it was] reinforced every single day when I heard the things people said about girls … the simple, contemptuous way that almost everybody – kids, teachers, even members of my own family – used that word, ‘girl’, as the ultimate insult.”

Taking up arms against the demonisation of girlhood isn’t about reclaiming our right to love lipstick or dresses or have the occasional conversation about Ryan Gosling’s bottom – although those things are all perfectly fine. The fierce determination to distance ourselves from anything perceptibly “girlie” only furthers the stereotype that women who like “girlie” things are stupid and one-dimensional – and indeed that girlieness itself is stupid and one-dimensional. Some girls – like me – rejected boys’ toys entirely as children, loved pink and watched movies about high-school girls falling in love, yet they still grew up to be strident feminists. We’re all different.

I’m not ashamed of being a girl. Girls are, by turns, any number of the following: strong, infuriating, courageous, smart, weak, stupid, kind, cruel, ambitious, thoughtful, vapid, charismatic, delightful and any variation on any other adjective you could possibly think of. I choose to believe this because I know that girls are every bit as complex and nuanced as boys, and they deserve be treated as such regardless of which toys they played with as children, or if they think camping is a bit gross.

Besides, you can’t make your Tonka trucks have sex with each other. Where’s the fun in that?


If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy a post I co-wrote with Nina Funnell: Barbie’s not an issue if girls can think for themselves. 

Be Brave.

The chance that we will be called upon to show the dramatic bravery that often wins awards is fortunately low. But every single day that we wake up and go and interact with people, we have infinite opportunities to show courage. We have the chance to intervene when another person is being bullied. The chance to blow the whistle when we see people abusing positions of power. To speak out against injustice. To speak our own truth with dignity and respect, even if it puts us at odds with our friends and peers. To be vulnerable and real when everyone around us is acting cool and invincible. To try something new, even if there is a chance we won’t succeed. And to try again, and again. To show our imperfections, along with our talents and skills and knowledge.

I recently asked Facebook fans on Enlighten Education’s page the question “What is the bravest thing you have ever done?” Their responses were incredibly poignant and inspiring:

  • “Telling my mum a secret I was ashamed of.”
  • “Facing up to the fact that I have to raise my daughters on my own.”
  • “After a messy family divorce, we were all devastated. I stood by my dad’s side to support him when no one else did. He met a girl and left the state for her. The bravest thing I did was let him, because it made him happy, even if it meant sacrificing my happiness.”
  • “Not giving up during all those years of IVF, miscarriage and grief. Becoming a mum heals some of that but doesn’t erase it. It’s part of who I am and makes me so grateful for what I have.”
  • “Preventing a girl who had passed out from drinking too much alcohol from being raped by a man.”
  • “Admitting that I had postnatal depression and getting help.”
  • “Moved to a school where I knew no one in year 11 to get a scholarship into teaching.”
  • “To go to the police about my childhood abuser. I couldn’t go through with the court case, but now they know about him. With that came facing up to a lot of my own fears, and surviving telling two people I’d never met before the most humiliating and shameful things.”

In 2012 let’s stand tall and shine, no matter what is happening around us or what our hair is doing that day, or our skin, or our weight.

Let’s take risks. Let’s stand for something. Let’s face uncomfortable truths. Let’s be brave.

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