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Category: Parents

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?

Want narcissistic children? Shower them with praise

This post was first published in the Daily Telegraph and shared online at RendezView 4/1/16.

Thanks to the “every child gets a medal” approach to raising children, many researchers argue we are now dealing with a generation of entitled, fragile “teacup” kids.

It seems the self-esteem movement of the late 1960s, which encouraged parents to boost their child’s self-confidence regardless of any real merit, has had some undesirable and unexpected outcomes.

Professor Helen McGrath cautions that “a lot of the people who gloated about how to develop self-esteem are now writing about how this is actually a dangerous thing to do because what we are really doing is producing kids who are narcissistic… we focus too much on telling them how good they are, how wonderful they are, how everything they do is fantastic”.American Ethan Couch may well serve as the poster boy to warn of the dangers in overindulging our offspring. At 16 years old, he killed four pedestrians while drink driving then claimed in court that he suffered from “affluenza” — that he no longer knew right from wrong as his parents had never held him accountable.

When the judge seemed to accept this defence and sentenced him to 10 years probation rather than prison, his mother then helped him flee (after first holding a going away party for him).

Both mother and son were arrested by authorities in Mexico last week.

It’s clear that Mr Couch and his mother need to be given some long overdue time out — in a jail cell.

But what’s less clear is where the line between supporting your child, and enabling your child, is drawn.

I’ve noticed that on social media, parents are now so loathe to appear to be boosting their child’s sense of self-worth that they begin posts with disclaimers such as “Warning: Proud Parent Brag”.

It strikes me as sad that we now feel worried about sharing our children’s triumphs for fear of being labelled as either pushy or posturing.

Because the real problem isn’t so much high self-esteem in kids, it is false self-esteem.

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Real self-esteem is about appreciating the skills and abilities you do have, learning how to upskill, and also respecting the gifts others have (in order to value yourself, you must first value the person next to you). It is about competence and connectedness.

And praise is the food that helps children thrive — if it is evidence based and spooned out judiciously.

This year I’d love to see more parents proudly sharing not just their frustrations — after all, there’s a longstanding tradition that allows for eye rolling at our kids — but their triumphs too.

Your child blitzed their exams? Three cheers! They coped well with a loss at soccer and helped rally their teammates? Do tell. They’ve just started their own car washing business to earn extra pocket money? I’m sharing the news.

When achievements are truly noteworthy, I’m all ears.

And when praise is genuine, children are all ears too. Kids have a finely-tuned radar for falsities and can see that the ribbon they scored just for participating is really fairly worthless.

A ban on Wonder Woman lunchboxes? Oh come on!

The following article was originally published on News Corp’s popular online opinion site, RendezView. 

Holy Boycotts, Batman! Just when you thought it was safe to send your little one off to school with their sandwich encased in their favourite lunchbox, the powers-that-be impose a new rule.

Two well-meaning parents in America have reportedly found themselves on the wrong side of the appropriate lunchbox-law, having received a stern warning from school administrators over their daughter’s choice of food container.

“We noticed that Laura has a Wonder Woman lunchbox that features a super hero image,” the letter began. “In keeping with the dress code of the school, we must ask that she not bring this to school.”

Why, exactly? Because the school frowns on the childhood preoccupation with crime-fighting superheroes.

“We have defined ‘violent characters’ as those who solve problems using violence,” Laura’s parents were told. “Superheroes certainly fall into that category.”

In other words: no more Wonder Woman paraphernalia on the playground.

The Wonder Woman lunchbox that started all the fuss.

The Wonder Woman lunchbox that started all the fuss.

Now while issuing some guidelines around the celebration of battling beef-heads on school grounds is one thing, who could possibly question a woman who is said to boast the wisdom of Athena and the beauty of Aphrodite?

True, many of the fictional female heroines we’ve been presented with on screen in recent times possess a traditional male version of power that could be perceived as violent. It’s all kick-boxing, weapons, sensible black pants, hair-tied back and hangin’ with the boys. Think The Hunger Game’s Katniss, The Divergent’s “Tris”, Captain America’s ally The Black Widow.

And yet the success of these franchises show girls have been craving something beyond the damsels in distress that have long being dished up to them as role models. Hence why we should be encouraging more Diana devotees, not discouraging them. Because not only does she not need a hero to save her (she does the saving thank you very much) she offers far more than mere muscle.

Wonder Woman is the alter ego of Princess Diana of the Amazons, a nation of women warriors in Greek Mythology. Embracing her inner-girlishness, this longhaired lady rocks some amazing star-spangled knickers and to-die for red boots. And she fights crime using possibly one of the most intriguing super-tools ever, the Golden Lasso of Truth, which compels baddies to speak honestly to her. In the early days of the comics, though, the lasso’s power was broader than that: if Wonder Woman caught you in her lasso, you had to obey all her commands.

The writer who created Wonder Woman back in the 1940s, psychologist William Marston, explained the lasso was a symbol of ‘female charm, allure, oomph, attraction’ and the power that ‘every woman has … over people of both sexes whom she wishes to influence or control in any way’.

A press release issued when the character debuted said: “Wonder Woman was conceived by Dr. Marston to set up a standard among children and young people of strong, free, courageous womanhood; to combat the idea that women are inferior to men, and to inspire girls to self-confidence and achievement in athletics, occupations and professions monopolised by men” because “the only hope for civilisation is the greater freedom, development and equality of women in all fields of human activity.”

No wonder Ms Magazine made her their first cover girl in their inaugural issue that boasted the headline: “Wonder Woman For President.”

It is the combination of femininity and power that makes WW particularly lunchbox-worthy. Which is why when I originally heard the story of a letter being sent home asking the parents to refrain from letting their daughter bring hers to school I doubted its authenticity.

And while some sceptics are also now questioning whether the initial post by an unnamed Reddit user was true, we’ve all seen many similar examples of silly knee-jerk reactions by education authorities.

A school in the US recently sent a teenage girl home as her rather demure outfit happened to show her collarbone (this was deemed a distraction to others). Girls at a London school were told they could no longer have “best friends” (such behaviour was labelled as exclusivist). Here in Australia girls at an Islamic school were banned from running (in a misguided and sexist attempt to protect their virginity), while a Year 11 student from a Victorian school was sent home from her English exam because she was wearing the wrong socks.

Was there ever a more patronised and policed demographic than young women?

But who in their right mind would question the ultimate girls-can-be-anything-and-everything princess who fights for justice, love, peace and sexual equality?

Because do you want to know the golden-lasso-style truth? Girls need Wonder Woman.

And so do we.

 

I gave a taxi driver a $50 tip. And it felt bloody amazing.

The following post was first published by News Corp’s  online opinion site RendezView.

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

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

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I recently did something incredibly selfish.

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

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

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

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

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

It was then that I decided what I would do.

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

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

And I felt bloody amazing.

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

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

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

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

But the truth is, thankfully, far simpler.

 

This is what teen girls need and deserve. THIS.

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

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

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

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

Let’s demand GREAT things for our girls!

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

More of this for girls please. More.

Bec and I.
Bec and I.

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’re ugly? No you are not.

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

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

Gamers: they sit in dark basements and become serial killers. Or do they?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We need to be prepared to get in the game.

This article was first published by RendezView. 

Princesses who will rule the kingdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The perfect parent is a foolish myth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gratitude at Christmas – get some!

This post was originally shared by Mamamia. 

For three little kids in Utah, the Grinch has just stolen their Christmas. And the Grinch? It’s Mum.

Fed up with her family seeming ungrateful, Lisa Henderson decided to cancel presents and Christmas festivities. 

Is there a parent alive who hasn’t at least flirted with the idea of doing this? Anyone who’s ever been on the receiving end of a child’s ingratitude knows that one of the most infuriating things about it is their lack of awareness of just how good they’ve got it.

But while it is easy for us as adults to see how absurd it is to be grateful in the midst of plenty, imagine for a moment what it’s like from our children’s point of view. Compared to any previous time in history, children in the developed world are growing up with far more stuff to want, far more channels by which that stuff is marketed and advertised to them, and more disposable income or credit cards in our wallets with which to buy that stuff. Only a few generations ago, at Christmas a child might have been delighted to get a stocking filled with fruits, nuts, sweets, and trinkets.

Compare that to the vast array of toys, electronics, music, shoes, makeup, clothes, and so on children are now convinced they need. Oxygen, water, food, shelter, love—these are what we really need. But thanks to sophisticated marketing and advertising, celebrity endorsements, and children’s strong and valid urge to fit in, high-price consumer goods can seem essential to survival.

Even when children do receive the things they want, it doesn’t necessarily make them happy, because they are living in a state called the “abundance paradox.” Sociologist Christine Carter, of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, puts it this way: “Their disappointment when they don’t get what they want is greater than their gratitude when they do get what they want.” This is because gratitude comes much more easily in times of scarcity. Carter uses the example of a child growing up in a home where there isn’t enough to eat. That child is likely to be more grateful and less picky about the food that is on his or her plate compared to a child whose fridge is full of goodies. Similarly, generations ago it would have been easier to please children with gifts because their closets weren’t already stuffed to bursting with consumer goods. Carter notes that “even underprivileged children in the West have more than most children in the world, who live in developing nations.”

As a parent of children who are fortunate to live in comfortable circumstances, I don’t want to have to cancel Christmas or deprive them of the things they want. I don’t want to make them feel guilty for having a better life than the many less fortunate children in the world. At the same time, I do want them to know that not everyone in the world enjoys the same level of comfort and security as they do. I want them to appreciate all they have and be grateful for it.

And this gift? The gift of learning to be thankful? Not only can it be taught but it may well be one of the best presents we can give our kids. When researching my latest Ebook, “Gratitude: a positive new approach to raising thankful kids” my writing partner Vanessa Mickan and I waded through mountains of research by psychologists on gratitude and found benefits that included joy, reduced depression, optimism, richer social interactions, reduced materialism and even physical benefits such as stronger immune systems, lower stress, less pain and better sleep.

We also discovered numerous strategies that can foster this attribute in kids. Whether it be keeping gratitude journals, writing letters or cards of thanks, giving to the less fortunate, giving their time and effort to others through acts of service to the community, or recognizing the everyday heroes that help them, the research is also clear that thankfulness can be taught.

And the best part? Kids will quickly feel the benefits for themselves too. Ms Henderson reports there has already been a change in her kids: “They are learning exactly what we wanted them to learn, because they are not moping around feeling sorry for themselves. They are thinking of others.”

So whilst this Grinch may have cancelled Christmas, by doing so, perhaps she has instead reintroduced the true spirit of the season.

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Some ideas from Gratitude for bringing back the thankful at Christmas: 

* Christmas love letters. A mother named Linda Evangelist who hated shopping started a tradition in her family in which they did not exchange presents on Christmas Day but wrote letters listing 25 things they loved about each other. It’s become a treasured tradition for many families across the globe since author and journalist Richard Louv wrote about it. I don’t think you necessarily have to forgo gifts to do this. (Unlike Linda Evangelist, I love buying presents!) And if your kids are very young, you might need to simplify the exercise so everyone can take part. 

• Christmas gratitude calendar. Christmas can seem like a relentlessly materialistic season, with decorations appearing in stores earlier every year and a barrage of ads everywhere you look. One antidote is to make a gratitude calendar, similar to an Advent calendar. For each of the 24 days leading up to Christmas, an Advent calendar has a little door for kids to open to reveal a message, a toy, or a chocolate. The gratitude calendar has 24 empty pockets. Each day, kids take a small piece of paper, write on it something they’re grateful for, and slip it in the pocket. It could be a lot of fun to spend time on Christmas Day reading through all the things everyone’s grateful for.

The book may be purchased at: www.enlighteneducation.com/shop OR at Itunes (RRP $8.99). It will also be available as a hard copy in all good book shops from February 2015.

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.

 

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