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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. 

 

Teens aren’t sheep – they can formulate their own moral codes

Kendall Jenner posting a picture of herself naked and draped over a tabletop wasn’t what caused controversy last week. It was the fact that she was holding a cigarette that ruffled feathers.

Ms Jenner may have added a Clinton-style disclaimer to her Instagram post telling her followers she never inhaled, but she’s far from alone when it comes to being a celeb who loves to pose brandishing a cancer stick.

Forget Prada — it seems the latest must-have accessory for celebs is the cigarette. In fact at the recent Met Gala, more celebrities took selfies of themselves smoking in the bathroom than prancing on the red carpet.

While the beautiful people are free to make whatever choices they desire with their own health, the real concern is whether their behaviour influences the choices of the hundreds of thousands of young people who look up to them.

Worrying about the impact celebrities might have on young people’s decision making is nothing new (although the 24/7 access young people have to the lives of those they admire is revolutionary).

 (Pic: Instagram)

In the 1920s Hollywood silent film star and the original “It” Girl Clara Bow may have been the darling of the young flappers who admired her hard partying ways, but the media were obsessed with wanting to discredit her and published rumours that she was involved in everything from bestiality, to wild sexual orgies. 1950s pearl-clutchers worried that Elvis Presley’s gyrating hips would see an increase in juvenile delinquency and a decline in morals.

It would be naive to assume the choices celebrities make don’t have any impact on their fans. The stars themselves literally bank on the fact they can shape minds, which is why they are paid millions of dollars to endorse particular products. Study after study shows too that seeing those we admire engaging in a particular behaviour (whether it be smoking, drinking or dieting) helps normalise this, and indeed may glamorise it.

It seems reasonable to expect that along with all the fame and fortune bestowed upon celebrities, there might also be a sense of social responsibility.

However, we do need to acknowledge that many young people are able to make discriminating choices about who they choose to follow (note that “liking” a celebrity doesn’t necessarily equate with approving of their behaviour either. Many teens tell me they follow particular celebs because they are fascinated rather than impressed by their lifestyle: ‘It’s a little like watching a car crash… ugly, but I can’t look away”) and indeed many young people express very little interest in the antics of the Kardashians, Jenners or any of their ilk.

Clara Bow, an early “It girl”, scandalised 1920s society. (Pic: News Corp)

Celeb Youth, a UK collaboration between Brunel University and Manchester Metropolitan University examining celebrity’s significance in the construction of young people’s aspirations, have identified that many of the beliefs we hold around young people and celebrity culture simply aren’t true.

For example, a young person’s interest in a celebrity doesn’t necessarily mean they want to be like them — they may instead be talking about that person in order to demonstrate they have cultural knowledge, or to use in order to frame their own ideas around values and morality, or to feel a sense of belonging with a certain friendship group.

The researchers also found that young people are no more likely to be influenced by celebrities, or to be less critical of the celebrity industry, than adults are. And despite the increased concern that teen “fangirls” will be more swayed by celebrities than young men might be, neither gender is more easily influenced than the other.

It seems too that while we are quick to attribute influence to a VIP, we are less likely to own that we have just as much power to shape our children as any reality TV star may have. Suggesting otherwise? All just smoke and mirrors.

This post originally appeared in the Daily Telegraph, 4/8/17. 

Parenting – My Top Tips

This month’s issue of Good Health magazine features insights with various parenting experts, including me! Others interviewed include Dr Michael Carr-Gregg, Dr Tim Hawkes and Andrew Fuller ( Andrew and I are both also keynotes at the 2015 Critical Agendas Girls Education Conference which will be held in Melbourne).

The following are the tips I offered for this Expert Guide.

Nurture gratitude

Cultivating gratitude is really important – research shows that grateful young people are more connected to community, more resilient, happier, and less stressed and anxious.

However, we’re not born grateful so it’s something we have to model for our kids. It really helps if your children see that you appreciate the little things in life.

The key is to find creative ways to make gratitude a daily practice. You can encourage gratitude in children by having them write thank you cards, donate to a charity, keep journals or post pictures on Instagram.

Let them know that one mistake is not the end of the world.

While it is true it’s hard to keep control of images you post online, the reality is we are dealing with new technology and mistakes will be made. The last thing you want is a young person to believe, because of what they posted online their life is over.

We really want to tell young people that there’s always a solution and that everything does pass. We need to give them the skills to move on.

You can say to your kids: even if you do post something inappropriate and an employer sees it in the future, the best thing to say is, ‘yes, I was silly to do that and this is what I have done to show I have learned from that’.

Mothers need to love and value themselves

Body image is still the biggest issue facing girls. We need to show girls that they’re valued beyond what they see in the mirror. But girls can’t do what they can’t see, so mothers need to love and be kind to themselves as women. We need more positive strong role models for girls, to show them what being a whole, multi-dimensional and connected woman looks like.

 

Women Of Style Finalist… wow!

I am absolutely thrilled to share the news that I’ve just been announced as one of three Finalists for the InStyle Magazine Women Of Style Awards in the Charity and Community category. The other Nominees in my category are staggeringly impressive so to be even grouped in amongst them is mind-blowing; I shall join Olivia Newtown John (singer and fundraiser) and Samah Hadid (human rights campaigner).

Awards like this are invaluable as they provide an incredible opportunity to raise the profile of the work my company (Enlighten Education) does empowering young women, and also raises general awareness of the issues plaguing our daughters too.

I thought I’d share a little of the (rather extensive) entry I was asked to submit for this Award with you here.

The Winners are announced in May.

dannielle

What drives you?

Hearing from young women daily that the work we did has helped shape their life. I receive amazing feedback after our workshops. The phrase “life changing” crops up a lot. This is one of my favorites:
“Almost a year ago, you visited my school…At the time, I was depressed, suicidal, cutting and constantly contemplating death. Now, almost a year later, I haven’t cut in almost 8 months, and haven’t been suicidal for 6. I want to thank you for helping me realize that I am valued, and that I am loved…I want to thank you for helping me to realise that there are people who can help, and that I’m never alone. You have been a huge influence in my recovery from depression.”

What does style mean to you? (NB: The Women of Style Awards are about style in a greater context than fashion.)

A stylish woman is a woman who is truly comfortable in her own skin. There is something incredibly attractive about seeing a woman who owns her own power and reinvents the rules to suit herself.

Are there any mottos or mantras that resonate with you, or that you live by?

“By building Respect and inspiring Love, business can move the world.” This is a quote from Kevin Roberts. I had it painted on my office wall to remind me daily of my purpose.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given – either in life or regards to your career (or both)?

Don’t try to be less just so others will think they are more. The ultimate girl-crime in the playground was “to love yourself”, or to be “up yourself.” Women do themselves, and others, no service by shying away from success. My commitment to step –up is also why I think being nominated for this Award is so special. I would love to show all girls and women that I am proud of what I do, and that I do strive to be brilliant at it!

Are you driven from a desire to be successful?

I don’t think women should ever shy away from ambition! I am incredibly driven to improve outcomes for all young women – and to show how a business can be both profitable, as well as socially responsible and a force for positive change.

Targeting Photoshop Fails

US retailer Target recently made the ridiculous choice to (poorly) photoshop an already svelte teen model in order to give her a thigh gap and alien-like limbs.

targetpsfail2

On-line news site Mamamia were the first to expose this insanity here in Australia: “What’s disturbing here is not only is someone with inferior retouching skills attacking catalogue images, but that images of teenagers are being slimmed down in the first place.” Amen!

I appreciated the opportunity to discuss this on channel 9’s Mornings program with Mia Freedman:

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Girl Talk

We all want our daughters to become strong, resilient and compassionate women. But how do you help them get there? In a world that seems to force girls to grow up before their time, parents can have their job cut out for them. here, three of Australia’s leading parenting experts explain the essential elemnts a girl needs from her parents to give her the right start.

October’s Good Health magazine asked me to share my Top Tips for raising healthy, happy teen girls. I was thrilled to have this opportunity and to be featured alongside Steve Biddulph and Melinda Hutchings.

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Don’t panic

We are living in times which can be very challenging for girls. In many ways, this generation is attempting to deal with incredibly adult issues with only child-like strategies to fall back on and rather than supporting them in this process we tend to judge them. I think that’s very difficult and alienating for young girls. You can look at statistics around girls and body image, alcohol and online behaviour and panic but many teens are making good choices and are, in fact, speaking out and attempting to reshape their culture through petitions and blogs. Our job is not to patronise them or say alarmist things like ‘one mistake can ruin your life,’ but to help them make better choices.

Be their role model

Girls can’t be what they can’t see. Many women are forever on diets, are unsure of their bodies, are lamenting the ageing process, are binge-drinking or engaging in toxic talk around their friendships and girls see this. They say to me, ‘Mum tells me I’m beautiful all the time, but I know she doesn’t believe she is.’ It’s tempting to blame the media and marketers for all the dysfunction, but we are the ones they spend the most time with and we can be a powerful voice of difference.

Open up about online porn

It’s not a matter of  will she access porn online, it’s a matter of when, as often she may stumble across it quite accidentally. It can be awkward, but you need to talk to your your daughter about what she’s seeing online otherwise how will she make sense of it? And then what she’ll feel is shame. We don’t want our daughters feeling shame about their sexuality, their bodies or the sexual act. We also don’t want them thinking that the images they see in porn are the only way in which sex is conducted.

Don’t be complacent about alcohol

Saying no to alcohol will not drive your daughter to sneak out and get trashed. In fact, research shows that when parents allow their children to drink at home it normalises drinking and lowers their inhibitions to drink more. If she does break your rule and drink and least you’ll both know you didn’t condone it. Don’t make it easy for her.

Connect with her

All my conversations with girls leads me to believe that despite all the rhetoric about them being mean girls and divas and entitled, they are still beautiful, fun, affectionate, amazing young women who long to spend time with us and long to be loved and noticed. Create a positive time and a space for your daughter. Although it’s normal for her to reject you at times, you must let her know that you’re open for love (and cuddles). By doing so, she’ll get the message that she’s loved unconditionally.

 

 

So Much To Tell You

The last few weeks have been something of whirlwind. I have been presenting to hundreds of teen girls in Adelaide, Canberra, Sydney – and am off to Melbourne and Singapore shortly too.

And oh how wonderful it was to have this on-the-ground work externally recognised by Prevention Australia Magazine. This month I was honoured to be included in their annual “40 Most Inspiring Women Over 40” issue; listed as a “Game Changer” alongside such incredible women as Jessica Rowe, Ita Buttrose, Quentin Bryce and Penny Wong!

#40womenover40
Click on image to enlarge:
#40womenover40

 

It was also wonderful to have the opportunity to return to Channel 9’s “Mornings” program to discuss the ridiculous weight jibes that were directed towards fashion model Jessica Gomes:

And finally, the audio from the session I chaired at the Sydney Opera House’s “All About Women” conference, “Bringing Up Daughters,” was uploaded. You may access it here:

Audio – Bringing Up Daughters – Sydney Opera House, 7th April, 2003.

This conversation is really thought provoking and features insights from my panellists Nigel Marsh, Maya Newell and Barbara Toner. Unfortunately, the audio gets stuck about 25 seconds in, but if you scroll past this point you will be able to listen to the entire hour. It may be worth listening as a staff / parent body and then discussing some of the key questions I posed yourselves? Questions may include:

  • In her book Leaning In, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg cites research showing that parents treat sons and daughters differently. They talk to girl babies more than boys, and spend more time comforting and hugging girls than watching them play by themselves. Mothers also overestimate the crawling abilities of their sons and underestimate it in their daughters. And Sandberg says, ‘When a girl tries to lead, she is often labelled bossy. Boys are seldom called bossy because a boy taking the role of a boss does not surprise or offend.’ She argues that the fact we treat girls and boys differently from a young age is one of the reasons there are so few women in leadership positions. Do you think that parents can subconsciously restrict the opportunities of their daughters?
  • Does new technology mean we need to change the way we parent, or are the fundamentals still the same?
  • One of the big social changes of the past decade or so that worries a lot of parents is how easy it has become to access porn. Pornography was always there—but now it’s everywhere, and it’s increasingly hard core. University of NSW research noted that 28 percent of 9–16-year-olds had seen sexual material online, which means that by the time parents settle down to have ‘the talk’ with their kids about sex education, chances are their kids have already formed their own ideas about what sex is, based on a porn ideal. So how should we talk to our daughters about sex and about the big difference between porn sex and real-life sex?
  • Most parents are juggling an extraordinary workload these days as well as running a household. The first thing many of us do each day is grab our phone and start checking emails and texts, and it doesn’t stop till we got to bed that night. A lot of us end up feeling exhausted and overwhelmed—but it’s not just parents. At my company Enlighten Education we run relaxation workshops for girls because they are increasingly stressed by an overscheduled life, an online world that never turns off and the pressure they feel to achieve. How important is it for our children that we set the tone by making healthy choices and finding a work/life balance ourselves?
  • What is the most valuable thing that you learned from your own parents that you wish all daughters could learn?

What’s So Bad About Being A Girl?

The following post was written by Emily Maguire for this month’s Girlfriend Magazine. Regular readers will know I am a huge fan of Emily’s work, and particularly of her fabulous guide for young women, “Your Skirt’s Too Short : sex, power choice.”  I was deeply honoured when Emily agreed to launch my own guide for teen girls, “The Girl With The Butterfly Tattoo – A girl’s guide to claiming her power.” You may read the passionate, articulate and thought-provoking speech Emily gave at this launch here: Celebrating The Awesomeness Of Teen Girls

I was delighted to have been interviewed for the following article as I think many parents will find helpful in supporting their daughters to move beyond limiting stereotypes – including those that would have us betray our girlhood.

Previous posts which explore similar themes may also interest: Barbie’s not an issue if girls can think for themselves ( co-written with Nina Funnell and originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald), and It’s time to reclaim the power of pink, a guest post by Clementine Ford which was originally published in Daily Life.

Emily Maguire and I at the launch of "The Girl With The Butterfly Tattoo."
Emily Maguire and I at the launch of “The Girl With The Butterfly Tattoo.”

Earlier this year, after winning her Best Actress Oscar, Jennifer Lawrence gave a press conference in which she answered some seriously dumb questions with kick-arse humour. Her performance was widely praised, but it was the response from Aussie pop culture site Pedestrian TV that was really striking. The entire press conference, they wrote, was ‘an exercise in being a dude’.

Now, they weren’t insulting JLaw or implying she looked anything less than feminine; they were paying her a compliment by declaring that she had moved beyond being a mere girl and into the realm of dude-ishness.

It’s the kind of compliment that the teenaged me would have killed for. All I wanted was to be ‘one of the boys’, because I thought that meant being cooler, smarter and all around better than other girls.

Katie, 19, can relate. A few years ago it was a point of pride that she hung out with dudes, wore sneakers and hated pink. She remembers noticing that boys used ‘girl’ as an insult and hassled each other by saying ‘oh, look that’s your favourite colour’ whenever they saw something pink. ‘Of course at fifteen you want to be liked by boys and don’t want to be seen as lesser than them,’ Katie says. So for her, rejecting girliness was a case of ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’.

For me, the habit of equating maleness with awesomeness started very young. In the books I loved, the female characters were duller than dull. They stood in towers watching their own hair grow or spent their days cleaning up after dwarves or step-sisters. When I daydreamed about living the stories I read, I was always a boy, because a boy was always the hero.

Many little girls today are getting the same message. According to the Geena Davis Institute of Gender in Media only 29.2 percent of characters in kids films and TV shows are female. And to make it worse, many of those characters play no role in the story except, as Davis puts it, ‘as eye candy’.

It’s not only kids’ shows, though. Joanne Rowling, creator of Harry Potter, was told by her publisher to follow the path of many other female writers and publish her books under her initials so that readers wouldn’t be put off by the apparently awful fact that a woman had written them. Meanwhile, in our national capital, government minister Kate Ellis (who is young, pretty and always nicely dressed) has faced catcalls of ‘here comes the weather girl’ when speaking in parliament.

Even female pop icons get in on the girl-trashing game. When Katy Perry wants to insult an unreliable, moody guy she accuses him of acting ‘like a girl’, and Taylor Swift differentiates herself from her rival by comparing her own tomboy style (T-shirts and sneakers) to the other girl’s penchant for short skirts and high heels.

Of course some girls do feel more comfortable in jeans than dresses, and plenty of us enjoy hanging out with our dude pals, and that’s fine. This isn’t about girly vs tom-boy style, but about the fact that many people seem to think being overtly feminine means being dull or dumb. You can’t help being female, this line of thought goes, but if you want to be taken seriously you should try very hard to not be too girly about it.

It’ a problem 15 year-old Hannah is used to confronting. ‘I love pink. I love sparkles. I love fluffy pens and hair-clips and sticking butterflies on everything.’

What Hannah doesn’t love, is the assumption that she’s stupid because of her ultra-girlish appearance. ‘One of my teachers calls me ‘Princess’, which might sound nice, but he says it in a really sarcastic way. It’s frustrating because I’m actually good at that subject, but he treats me like an idiot anyway.’

Disturbingly, Hannah’s experience of being belittled by an adult is not unusual. Indeed, Dannielle Miller, author of The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo: a girl’s guide to claiming her power reckons that putting down girliness is more of a problem with adults than amongst girls themselves. After all, it’s adults – not girls –  making movies where girls are only there to be pretty, writing girl-insulting songs, denigrating female MPs and treating pink-loving students as if they’re stupid.

Miller thinks most girls understand that ‘the glitter and frills are a thin veneer; underneath that they can still be feisty and fierce.’ But even if you understand that, it can be hard to express yourself in a way that you know may cause others to look down on you. Miller’s advice is for girls to ignore the haters and stay strong. ‘Playing around with identity is fine. Don’t let anyone judge you on it.’

It’s advice Katie has taken to heart. Nowadays, she happily gets ‘dolled up’ in a way she never would have when she was younger. ‘I do get concerned that people might label me as “vain” or “dumb”, but I know that’s not the truth, so I just do what I want.’

So go ahead: wear a sparkly unicorn onesie and eat pink cupcakes while giving your girlfriends makeovers. Or don’t, because that’s fine, too. But the next time someone compliments you by saying you’re just like a guy, compliment him right back by telling him he’s so awesome, you’re going to make him an honorary girl.

Raising Girls – My recent work in the Illawarra region

The Illawarra Women’s Health Centre was the the charity recipient for this year’s Illawarra International Women’s Day committee event for their project “Empowering Young Women of the Illawarra.” The Project enabled the Centre to offer our Enlighten Education workshops to over 500 Year 8 students from the area, and to also offer parents and Educators sessions that aim to help ensure sustainability of the work.

I had the opportunity to speak to the local press about why this work matters:

…we want to create – a generation of young women who actually think it’s fantastic and exciting to be a woman, that don’t see themselves as being victims or as being at the mercy of marketers and media.We want them to feel that they can actually talk back and re-shape their world to better suit them, and they can.

The many emails I received afterwards from the young women I worked with on the day highlight just how vital this work is. The following are shared with permission from the girls who sent these to me; both wanted others to also know just how challenging it can be to be a girl in a culture that is not always very kind:

Click on image to enlarge to read

 

Click on image to enlarge to read

WIN 9 News featured our work in their News bulletin that evening. I am very proud of the girls’ honest and heart-felt responses. I love too that the vision captured some of the incredible energy from the day. As event organiser Samantha Karmel commented, “…they had a ball – tears of sadness and of joy.”

With some of the amazing teen girls from the Illawarra region

Yes. If we capture girls’ hearts, their minds will follow.

Let’s empower and inform our girls so that they can then turn their critical gaze away from their own bodies and the bodies of their peers, and instead direct it outwards towards the media and our broader culture. As Naomi Wolf declared in her book The Beauty Myth back in 1991, “We don’t need to change our bodies, we need to change the rules.”

Amen!

The Power Of Image – The Truth About Modelling As Revealed By An “Angel”

Successful model Cameron Russell recently gave an incredibly powerful TED Talk on why looks aren’t everything, and on how in reality, she is merely the lucky recipient of a genetic lottery. This is a must-watch, if only to see the contrast between the images of Cameron taking during professional photo shoots, and what she actually looked like at this same period when performing more everyday tasks.

In a very similar vein, you may also wish to encourage your girls to read the three part series previously posted here on the realities of the modelling industry. Parts one and two were written by Enlighten’s own Nikki Davis, our incredibly talented Senior Presenter and our Program Director for Western Australia. Anyone who has had Nikki work with the girls at their school will know young women simply adore her, and find her stories incredibly powerful.

Modelling – Part 1: Body Image 

Modelling – Part 2: Career Reality Check 

Could I Be A Model? – Part 3

Nikki (right) with Australia’s Human Rights and Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, at the 2012 Australian Human Rights Awards (Enlighten was a Finalist).
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