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Category: Power of Words

The four things we tell little girls that set them up for future heartbreak

When I run my workshops on dating and relationships with teenage girls, I find myself having to debunk some of the messages they have been fed since early childhood that are not only unhelpful, but in some cases actively harming them. How much more powerful it would be if we could just reframe the discourse early on and set our girls on the right path to develop respectful relationships for life. Where to start? By eliminating the following phrases:

“That boy was only mean to you because he likes you.”

I get it. We tell little girls that when a boy pushes or teases, it may only be because he has a crush on her in order to make her feel better. Yet although there may be no malicious intent, it’s not only confusing to equate abuse with affection, it’s dangerous. Love never uses its fists, nor does it withhold, try to control, or belittle.

What should we say instead? You can start by telling her she has smart instincts for recognising when someone is treating her unkindly. We can advise her that when this happens, she is wise to move away, and let someone she trusts (like a parent or teacher) know she feels uncomfortable. And that if that person doesn’t listen to her concerns, she should tell someone else until she is heard.

The other reason why we should ban the he-likes-you-so-he-is-mean rhetoric is because we need to stop making excuses for little boys who behave badly.  Gender violence educator Jackson Katz argues that this type of dialogue is not only harmful to girls and women, but to boys and men too: “The argument that ‘boys will be boys’ actually carries the profoundly anti-male implication that we should expect bad behavior from boys and men. The assumption is that they are somehow not capable of acting appropriately, or treating girls and women with respect.”

“Oh, is that your future husband?”

There’s a swag of research that shows platonic relationships are very valuable for both genders. We shouldn’t be teasing kids who make these, nor should we be romanticising their innocent bonds. Keep in mind too that if you tease your daughter about a boy she likes as a friend, it’s almost guaranteed that when she does meet a boy she likes romantically when she’s older, she will want to keep that secret to avoid further ribbing.

“Your Dad will sit on the porch with a shotgun once boys start coming near you!”

It’s understandable for parents to want to protect their children. But it’s important  our girls feel empowered to know how to set their own boundaries with boys; particularly as the reality is much of the romantic exchanges won’t happen under Dad’s watchful eye. In fact, while 72 per cent of teens having embarked on a boyfriend and girlfriend relationship by age 14, or younger, most of these admit that it is conducted with secrecy so that their parents don’t know.

 

Cropped view of man (30s) hugging daughter (4 years), and holding 12-gauge tactical shotgun in his lap.

When asked about how he feels about his teen daughters dating, entertainer Harry Connick Jr offered a refreshing perspective, “Everybody always says, ‘Oh your daughters are dating, you better get the shotgun’….it drives me nuts because I think that’s such an antiquated way to talk about young women. It’s almost presuming that they don’t have the good judgement to go out with a guy that’s appropriate for them… The way we raise our kids? Hopefully they will have enough self esteem so that they will be able to attract guys of a certain calibre, and then you don’t need a damn shotgun.”

“One day you will find your own Prince Charming.”

She may meet someone she wants to partner with ( and this person may, or may not, be of the opposite sex). But she may also be single for at least part of her life. In fact, one on four Australians live alone.

It’s important for all young people to know how to enjoy their own company and realise that even if they are not one of two, they are still whole.

You can have a happy-ever-after even if you are flying solo.

This post originally appeared on Kidspot – 3/3/17. 

Your online behaviour says a lot about the person you are

The Waiter Rule was first proposed by newspaper columnist David Barry in the late 1990s.

It preposes that a person’s true character is revealed by how they treat serving staff.

Fast forward to 2017 and I can’t help but wonder what Barry would think about the comments left on both social media and mainstream media platforms, and more to the point about what these reveal about the nature of those who chose to log in, and let rip.

The internet has become so increasingly aggressive and hostile that it is now considered wise to refrain from reading the comments section, to take regular digital detoxes, or to consider leaving particular social media platforms permanently.

Actor Leslie Jones left Twitter in July of last year after receiving a barrage of online racist and sexist hate for daring to star in the remake of the film Ghostbusters.

Feminist author Jessica Valenti followed suit the same month after tweets were sent threatening to rape and kill her five-year-old daughter.

Writer and activist Lindy West deactivated her account recently, declaring Twitter “is unusable for anyone but trolls, robots and dictators”.

Leslie Jones (far left) was subjected to racist abuse for her role in the new Ghostbusters film. That says a lot about the character of the people trolling her. (Pic: Ghostbusters)

It would be tempting to reassure ourselves and think that only a small minority choose to badger, belittle, and bully. Yet research from the US shows that 28 per cent of online users admitted to engaging in malicious online activity directed at someone they didn’t know.

Some don’t even seem to be embarrassed by this behaviour. A 2016 study on online firestorms concluded that non-anonymous individuals are actually more aggressive compared to those who remain anonymous.

How do the people who throw these word-missiles reconcile their online behaviour with the self-perception many surely hold to be true — that they are decent, reasonable people?

Perhaps they do so by reassuring themselves that although they just sent a message to a journalist they disagree with, threatening to sexually assault her with a rusty knife, earlier they had offered to make their wife a cup of tea.

Although they did just post a cap-locked string of expletives on Facebook telling someone they find annoying why they don’t deserve to live, they had put their hand up to help at the school canteen next week.

The internet can sometimes seem a cesspool of hatred. (Pic: iStock)

Or perhaps they simply choose to ignore the fact that the mark of any person is not how they treat those they like, but rather how they treat those they find challenging and those from whom they have little to gain.

Psychologist Andrew Fuller argues that although even the kindest of us can have bad days and be rude, or unnecessarily hostile, “We have a responsibility to recognise that we are capable of belittlement and rudeness and to remedy it as soon as we feel we may have been out of control.” We need to learn to regulate our emotions, he says. Both in our face-to-face interactions, and in our virtual ones.

The modern-day litmus test of a person’s nature should be how they engage with others in the cyber world. Just as most of us would recoil from a blustering fool who chose to bark demands or attempted to demean the staff at a restaurant, so too will we start to move our seats away from the online haters.

Because whether the trolls would like to acknowledge it or not, their comments reveal far more about them than they ever do about those they are hoping to intimidate or discredit.

 

This post was originally published by the Daily Telegraph newspaper, and online at RendezView  20/1/17 

Ladies, teach your daughters to say ‘No!’

What’s the one word we need to teach our daughters to be more comfortable saying? “No”.

While most of us would agree that teaching what defines active consent when it comes to sexual relationships is vital work (both how to say no, and how to accept it when one hears it from someone else) we are less likely to provide opportunities for our little girls to flex their freedom-to-choose muscles in social situations.

We tell them they should be friends with people they say they really don’t like, often without even first asking why they feel uncomfortable with that person (“You should be friends with everyone”), hug relatives they instinctively pull away from, and unquestioningly do as they are told.

They are encouraged to be seen (ornamental) yet rarely heard (sugar, spice and passively nice).

As women we may think we have moved beyond being girls who just can’t say no, and fought to finally find our own voices. But how often do even the most empowered of us still actively avoid difficult conversations?

To avoid telling the guy we met online that we’ve decided we don’t want to meet, we simply delete his profile and disappear like ghosts. When friends we no longer have anything in common with ask us out for drinks, excuses are made and we wait for them to get “the hint”. We silently sulk when we are unhappy with a decision our partner has made, hoping they’ll read our minds and change course.

It can certainly be difficult to set boundaries, those of us who are hard-wired for connection may be burdened afterwards with guilt. And there can be a backlash – women who say “no” may be  labelled as bitches or ball-breakers.

Yet if we can find the sweet spot between passive and aggressive, in my experience assertiveness and honesty are both ultimately not only respected, but viewed as refreshing.

If we can start by being honest with ourselves, surely then we’d see too that all the people pleasing we do isn’t really pleasing anyone. Women often feel overworked, over-committed and frankly exhausted. Those closest to us can usually tell when we turn up looking tense, stressed and resentful. 

As with most skills, practice makes perfect and starting off small can help build competence and confidence.

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The next time you are at the shops and someone pushes in front of you, calmly explain the line starts behind you. When a family member assumes you will be happy to do something you don’t want to do, offer to show them how to do it themselves instead. If a colleague asks you to do a task that goes beyond your job description, explain this makes you uncomfortable and tell them why you don’t feel able to do it, or, if it suits you to complete the work, ask for the support you will need to get it done.

The key is to delivering an effective “no” is to be brief (long winded explanations only open up points for disagreement) and breezy (by staying calm and controlled, you will defuse the potential for the exchange to be seen as confrontational). Finally, don’t play at regrets afterwards.

When we say yes to more balance and to more authentic connections, we not only help ourselves but say to the little ladies in our lives who are forever watching us, “See, you can speak your truth too.”

We are vaccinating our girls against the disease to please. 

This post was originally published by RendezView, 24/12/16. 

 Everybody makes mistakes

What do a cage fighter, a quantum physics professor and an award-winning crime novelist have in common? They’ve all messed up – and learned a lot in doing so

“It was like I was in a nightmare. I just froze in front of millions of people. I was in the cage, fighting, and I could see my opponent throwing punches at me, but I couldn’t move; they were just slamming into my face. In between rounds my coach was talking to me and I could see his lips moving, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying. I went from being the biggest thing to come out of Australia to fight in Las Vegas for the Ultimate Fighting Championship [UFC], to being the worst fighter ever.” 

In 2007, Soa “The Hulk” Palelei, a mixed martial artist who competed in the heavyweight division for the UFC, lost his first major fight against Eddie Sanchez in the third round by a technical knockout. His fighting contracts with the promoters were cancelled immediately afterwards. 

“Before the fight my hotel room had been filled with people. Hollywood celebrities like Adam Sandler and Kevin James had been high-fiving me, telling me I was the man. Afterwards, I sat in my hotel room all alone; I thought, “Well, now where is everyone?” No one would even answer my calls, so I had to make my own way to the airport and fly home by myself. The whole flight back to Perth, there were so many things in my head. I was abused as a child, beaten up. I was homeless for months as a kid. And now? I felt even more ashamed and useless.” 

Down but not out- Fighter Soa Palelei made a comeback six years after his humiliating defeat
Down but not out- Fighter Soa Palelei made a comeback six years after his humiliating defeat

Why is it that the feeling of shame that so often accompanies a mistake can be the most destructive of all human emotions? “It can damage a person in ways that no other emotion can,” explains Dr Natalie Ferres, who has a PhD in psychology and researches emotional intelligence, resilience and self-management. “Guilt or regret can be fine if you acknowledge lessons, take accountability and move on, but if someone experiences enough shame? They can become self-loathing to the point that they become self-destructive. It can even cause neurobiological damage. We know some of the neurochemical correlates of shame and how it literally gets stuck in our brain circuitry.”

For Palelei, his initial response to failure was to compulsively both read the online hate directed towards him. Oh, and to eat. “At one stage, I was up to 160kg.” 

Crime writer Candice Fox says the years of rejection she experienced when first trying to find a publisher for her four books led her to being “in the biggest hole ever. I had been writing since I was 12 and had written many books, but there were four that I properly pursued publication for and I was rejected by everyone in Australia and worldwide. The rejections felt very personal. My mistake was in how I responded to this. I was so angry, and jealous of other published authors. I saw myself as nothing. Because I only felt powerful when I was writing. 

“I had a strange childhood in which I had no real power, which is why I escaped into these imaginary worlds I created through my writing. My mum had six kids of her own and would also foster kids. So there’d be 12 or 13 kids in the house and you’d sometimes want to go and hug your mum and you just couldn’t, as there’d be some traumatised kid upset as their parents may have just been arrested and they needed her more. It made high school rough. These kids would bring in not only their own life traumas, but as some had been neglected they might have lice, or ringworm or hand, foot and mouth disease. I’d get all this, too. So I was this weird kid with nits who came to school in a minibus filled with children, who just liked to sit by herself and write stories. And I thought, ‘But if I can’t get published and become a writer, then who am I?’ I definitely felt shame.”

The waiting game - Author Candice Fox didn't cope well with rejection
The waiting game – Author Candice Fox didn’t cope well with rejection

During his time at a top-tier management consultant firm in the US, Michael Biercuk, a quantum physicist who is now an associate professor at The University of Sydney, says he looks back “with self-disgust” at how he interacted with his colleagues. “My mistake was profound. I did what [someone with] a PhD in science would do; I spoke honestly about our organisation’s shortcomings and provided potential solutions that I thought would improve the business without any kind of radical restructure. But I completely failed to understand either the local workplace culture or how my comments might be perceived by others, especially peers and supervisors. It became me parachuting in with the solution in hand and effectively saying, ‘All of you have been wrong all along.’ And that was exactly what my failure was. Despite education at some of the best universities, I was never taught the basics, the fundamentals of business interaction or social psychology. My peers and some managers saw me as a troublemaker and some even considered me a traitor to the firm.” 

Like so many who look back at their mistakes with newfound clarity, Biercuk says that he eventually gained some clarity from choosing to see what had happened from his colleagues’ perspective, and from reframing it as a learning opportunity. “Over the course of many years developing as a professional, I’m continuing to refine my ability to mitigate my natural tendency to just give an answer and think more about how I can build consensus.”

For Palelei, shame was eventually replaced with grit; with hard work, optimism and a goal: to return to fighting for the UFC. 

“One day I woke up so heavy I could hardly breathe. And I thought, ‘You will die like this, dwelling on that mistake.’ So I snapped out of it. I knew I had to get back to the UFC. I knew if I could just get back there I would know exactly what to do this time and how I was going to do it. I never crawled my way back. You know how some people say you have to crawl before you walk, walk before you run? I was sprinting. I would walk into the gym and just demolish everything. I was pushing, hustling, grinding. And every night I would visualise what would happen when I stepped back into that cage. 

“I was single-minded; although I was winning title belts in other competitions, they were just something to pull my pants up with. It was all focused on being back to the UFC. After I won three fights, they still said, ‘No way!’ After five, six, seven more wins, they said, ‘No.’ And I thought, well at least they didn’t say ‘no way!’ this time. Just a no is better. After my tenth win, they said, ‘OK.’” 

Palelei stepped back in to the Octagon in 2013, six years after his initial defeat. This time, he won. In total, Palelei has won four out of his seven UFC fights (including one where he fought with a fractured rib he’d suffered during training beforehand).

Paradoxically, it’s the more exacting world of science that may provide a model for how we can best foster cultures where it’s not only OK to make mistakes, but valuable to discuss them openly. In discussing his work in academia, Biercuk explains, “There is a huge value placed on very transparent, brutally honest discussion. Everybody is trying to work to the solution of some technical problem; somebody puts up an idea, somebody else says no that’s wrong for the following reason, and everybody is kind of OK with that. If I say something at the whiteboard in a discussion with colleagues that’s not correct, somebody will show I’m not correct and I’ll just have to accept it, move on and know this happens to everybody.”

In other words: we all make mistakes. One of the ways in which we can move past these is through the sharing of our less-than-positive stories. These not only act as instructive, by helping others from making the same errors, but as protective, by minimising the dark shame that can make a person feel like they’re bad or worthless when, really, like us all, they’re only human.

Like Palelei, Fox also used movement to push through the feelings of failure. “I got into the gym and started running. That was so good for my mental health.” Like Biercuk, she was adaptable and willing to learn: “I went to TAFE to study creative writing, and then later to uni; I did an honours and a masters.” She also shifted her perspective: “I went from picturing this great big club of writers that I was excluded from and watching them from a window outside, to thinking, ‘How can I get better at learning this craft?’” 

Fox secured an agent and within days had two major publishing houses fighting over her books. She is now published by Penguin Random House and in 2014 won a Ned Kelly Award (honouring Australian crime writing) for her debut novel Hades. Her second title, Eden, won another in 2015, and she was shortlisted for this year’s Ned Kelly for her third book Fall

Ferres argues, however, that it’s not so much the ultimate moments of triumph that make stories like these appealing, as it is the sharing of vulnerability. “Our big mistakes, aired to others, can make us appear more human, particularly if we show that we’ve learned from them. We can also be inaccurate when guessing other people’s reactions – many people respond positively to those who admit mistakes. Presenting an idealised version of ourselves separates us from others and we miss out on true connection.”

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This was originally published in Stellar magazine, which appears inside The Sunday Telegraph (NSW), Sunday Herald Sun (Vic) and The Sunday Mail (Qld). Although it is not directly related to the topics I usually post about here, I think there is much to be gained from sharing stories around resilience and perseverance – especially with young people. 

Do real men cry? How redefining masculinity can save lives

I’ve been busy writing features for News Corp’s new Sunday magazine, Stellar. This piece was first published 16/10/16.

Frequent readers may know I recently founded a company that works with teen boys in schools to bust the myths that we think most harm young men; Goodfellas. Ben Barber, interviewed here, is one of  our presenters. I am really proud of the work we are doing in this space, and I was pleased to be able to elicit more dialogue around gender stereotyping through the platform this new publication provides. 

BOYS don’t cry. That’s what TV presenter Andrew O’Keefe learnt while growing up. As a little boy, he only cried when he injured himself, and he never saw his father weep.

Yet he’s among the new generation of men who are trying to buck those harmful stereotypes – as a father himself, he tries to be open about his tears with his own kids.

“We should show our kids that it’s possible to be vulnerable or blue, and still be a sane and capable person,” he tells Stellar.

“And I think we bestow a great gift of trust and respect on the people we love when we share our grief and heartache, when we let them be the ones to console us sometimes.”

The statistics on men’s mental health show O’Keefe has got it right. An alarming 18 per cent of Australian males over the age of 16 experience mood and anxiety disorders, and struggle with substance abuse.

Men commit suicide at more than three times the rate of women.

Dr Michael Flood, an associate professor in sociology who has a special interest in gender and men’s studies, says blokes pay an obvious price for repressing the full range of human emotions.

Apart from health issues, they have “more shallow relationships or superficial friendships”.

I made such a horrible noise that they came running to see what was going on.”

He adds: “Many men only feel able to share their more vulnerable emotions with a female partner [if they are heterosexual], and if they are left by that partner? Then they are really stuck.”

Actor Ben Barber experienced that emotional repression twice over.

“Growing up in a country town in Victoria, no one spoke about tears,” he says.

“I judged others who expressed emotion in a vulnerable way, and I judged myself for that, too. I thought that, as a man, that’s just not something you do. It was weak if you did.”

Barber later joined the army, where he feels he was trained to “breathe in toughness and squash down anything that could make you vulnerable.”

Gus Worland says crying can be a show of strength for men.

At the time, he says, this may have served him, but later when he left the army and was accepted into NIDA to study acting, Barber saw that his inability to cry was going to hold him back not just personally, but professionally.

“I realised I would be limited in the roles I could play if I didn’t learn how to cry,” he says.

“I thought there’s no way I can do it at a particular point in a script in front of an audience if I don’t have access to that in my everyday life. From then on, I made a decision that if I needed to cry, I just would.”

Barber was shocked at the impact this decision had on his life.

“I was watching a documentary on the playwright Eugene O’Neill and it really moved me. I felt my emotions build up and I stomped on them.

“This was very normal for me. Then I remembered my decision and when I felt emotion again as I continued watching, I let it go. This big sob came up from the depths of my being and the tears just overflowed.

“That is what every man in Australia has got to be able to do when they need to.”

“And that was it. I could not stop crying for about 45 minutes. I hadn’t expected how good that would feel – that’s what surprised me. It was the most amazing, cathartic experience; a release of 15 years of bottled-up emotion.

“It completely changed my life. When I finally finished crying, I felt like I just wasn’t the same person anymore.”

That’s the message Gus Worland, captain of Triple M radio’s The Grill Team (“the manliest show on radio”), is also keen to promote. He’s on a mission to question stereotypes around what it means to be an Aussie bloke, and filmed an ABC documentary series, Man Up, currently airing, on that very topic.

Asked when he last cried, his answer is unexpectedly moving.

Ben Barber was shocked at the impact of a 45-minute cry.

“It was last night, actually. I was having a cuppa when my dad’s partner called. My father went into the doctor’s for a routine check-up and they found five litres of fluid on his lungs. When they went in to repair the lung wall, they discovered asbestos.

“He was told he has between 30 and 50 days to live. Normally when I shout to get my kids to the dinner table, it takes about 10 yells for them to hear me. But when I heard this news, I made such a horrible noise that they came running to see what was going on.”

Like O’Keefe, Worland believes it’s important for his children to see him cry.

“That is what every man in Australia has got to be able to do when they need to,” he says. “The stoic, keep-stuff-to-yourself approach? It’s just not working for us.”

Worland also finds his tears are a useful tool for showing others he may need support: “Last night I felt better after I cried. I later cried with my brother, who rarely shows emotions, so that felt helpful.

“The most common thing I witness when I talk to teen boys about crying is relief.”

“Then it was like, ‘OK, well, that’s done – now how can we move forward?’ There’s a real release of pressure. It gives you some breathing space.

“I had another cry at the radio station [the next morning] with the boys I work with. We all had a hug, and they gave me sympathy and support. The problem gets shared a little bit.”

While sharing is invaluable, so too is the act of expression. Flood is eager to explain that crying is not about biological differences: “When you look at women’s and men’s responses to distressing situations, what is happening in their bodies is the same. This tells us that what is going on when we repress tears in men is social.”

Andrew O’Keefe: “Ultimately, crying can only be good for us.” Picture: Darren England

If feelings are not expressed, then where else do they go? O’Keefe, who is a White Ribbon ambassador and campaigns against domestic violence, believes emotions come out in other ways: “As irritation, as despondency… all of which are far less attractive and useful than tears.”

Barber, who now works with teen boys in schools in busting myths around masculinity, says the next generation seems more open to letting go of the notion that men must only ever show emotional restraint.

“The most common thing I witness when I talk to teen boys about crying is relief,” he says.

“There’s scepticism, too – sure. I say to them, ‘If we really consider ourselves to live in a free country, then we have to have the freedom to feel and experience the full spectrum of human emotions. This doesn’t take away from our sense of selves as men, it adds more to it.’”

While gender roles may be slowly changing, the fact that many of us would still be more confronted by the sight of a man crying than by seeing him kick a wall in anger or frustration shows there is still an urgent need for more open conversations around what defines both strength and vulnerability, and what defines masculinity as well.

Tears don’t mean men are weak; it shows they have a heart.

O’Keefe agrees: “Ultimately, crying can only be good for us. We broaden our knowledge of life and our understanding of what it means to be human when we let ourselves experience the wounds of our own heart without shame.”

Sleazy pick up lines now available in a size 000


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“Hide your daughters.”

“I’m only here for the ladies.”

“Stud Muffin.”

You might expect to see these kind of slogans brandished across a T-shirt worn by Benny Hill or Hugh Hefner; by a bloke who hasn’t yet got the memo that being viewed as a player is no longer fashionable.

But thanks to Best & Less, these very slogans are being offered up for babies in its latest catalogue. Heteronormative stereotyping and sexism sold from a tiny size 000.

It would be tempting to dismiss these baby rompers as nothing more than a bit of harmless fun. But why must we impose limiting gender stereotypes on little boys and encourage others to view them as having one-track minds, or more bizarrely still, as the type we need to protect our daughters from?

Messages like these sow the seeds for stereotypes that harm both men and women.

And while much has rightly been made on how viewing girls and women as mere prey harms them, there has not been as much discussion on how these type of attitudes harm boys too.

Dr Andrew Smiler, author of Challenging Casanova: Beyond the Stereotype of the Promiscuous Young Male, argues that stereotypes that view boys and young men as being barely able to control their sex drive risk becoming a destructive self-fulfilling prophecy. These beliefs may lead to destructive hyper-sexuality, unwanted pregnancy, and less fulfilling relationships.

He argues too that despite the cultural assumption that boys only ever want one thing, the reality is that many young men yearn for far more than a mere conquest when they are dating. They want companionship, connection and emotional support.

In the course of my work with young men in schools through the Goodfellas program, I have found that when we first introduce the topic of male sexuality there is initially much chuckling and bravado in the room. But once my male presenters start to unpack the stereotypes, they see shoulders drop in relief and there is always a respectful, genuine interest in having a different conversation.

The boys we talk to report feeling cultural pressure to date and to be promiscuous. Those who don’t conform to the message that all boys just want one thing start to question whether in fact they are normal.

This from 15-year-old James: “I have lots of girls as friends but that doesn’t mean I only like them as I want to do something to them. To be honest, they (girls) are sometimes easier to talk to than my mates. It’s insulting to me, and to them, to imply otherwise.”

Indeed it is. And it’s vital we give all our young people the skills they need to critically assess culture in this way.

As an educator and mother to a daughter, I have given her the skills she needs to question and talk back to marketing messages and media portrayals of women that would limit her.

And I’ve given the same gift to my son too.

Because messages that would reduce baby boys to their penises? They’re for dummies.

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This post was originally published in the Daily Telegraph and posted online at RendezView 2/6/16

The secret to raising successful kids? Mistakes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not being friends with everyone isn’t bullying. It’s life

It’s the deceptively unhelpful piece of advice that every well-intentioned adult has at one point issued to a child: “You should be friends with everybody!”

Admit it — who among us, parent or not, has not acted as unofficial cheerleader when discussing playground friendships with a young child? Fearful that they might fall into the trap of becoming a bully, we urge them to make friends with everyone. As in, EVERYONE, whether they like them or not.

Amid all the positive messages that were shared yesterday as part of the National Day of Action against Bullying and Violence, the edict “You should be friends with everybody!” was the one sentence I dreaded hearing.

Although well intentioned, it ignores the complex dynamics of human relationships.

The truth is, we are not going to like everybody, all the time. And it’s not only OK to acknowledge that — it’s healthy.

It seems we’ve become so hyper-vigilant against bullies that every playground disagreement, or failure to be invited to a party, is now catalogued as evidence of bullying.

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

And it’s not just the kids who need educating. Parents are becoming increasingly quick to call schools to express concern that their child has been bullied when in reality, their child has experienced one of the many garden variety friendship fall outs that we all face at some point.

“There are kids who find school hell as they are subjected to ongoing campaigns of intolerance,” a colleague told me. “I’d much rather see resources poured into resolving this rot than in dealing with the tide of parents who call before their child has even had an opportunity to flex their own conflict resolution muscles.”

It’s problematic too that the friendship police often target girls. Any reluctance to have another student sit with them is viewed as evidence of mean girl machinations. Any whispered discussion about their classmates sees them labelled as gossip girls.

Given young women are expected to be paragons of acceptance and inclusivity is it any wonder that some grow up to unable to recognise unhealthy relationships and struggle to set boundaries with those who would hurt them?

The reality is that there are intricate sets of rules that govern the relationships between all young people (boys and girls) and much of the behaviour we are so quick to demonise is how they solidify friendships and practice social manoeuvring.

After all, don’t we as adults have particular mates that we prefer to spend our free time with? Don’t we also find it cathartic to vent to our inner circle when someone annoys us?

It’s far more empowering and realistic to let our kids know they don’t have to be friends with everyone — but they should be friendly.

It’s OK to not invite someone to your party, but don’t boast about the event in front of them. It’s understandable that you may not want to sit with a student you don’t have much in common with, but you could still smile at them when you see them in the playground. It’s natural that you might want to discuss someone who has hurt you with your mates, but be discreet.

When we give permission to our young people to behave authentically, within a framework of mutual respect for others, we are showing them that we don’t just value the feelings of others, but we value their feelings too.

And when they don’t feel forced into faux friendships, well it’s then our young people might just surprise us (and themselves) by realising that kid they initially didn’t like is actually kinda cool.

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This post was first published by the Daily Telegraph newspaper, 19/3/16 and online at RendezView  

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.

Sex-obsessed. Boy-crazy. Annoying. Not so fast — teen girls are much better than that.

This post originally appeared on News Corp’s popular online opinion site RendezView. 

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“Lies, scams and deceit — just your average teen girl.” “Lost innocence: Why girls are having rough sex at 12.” ‘Drug toll … A generation of teenage girls riddled with fear and anxiety is overdosing in record numbers.” “The Invincible — A startling exposé on this generation of young women who show no fear about the dangers of sex, booze, or even the sun.”

Another day, another media headline urging us to view adolescent girls as either vulnerable victims in need of protection, or as a wanton and wild demographic we need to be protected from.

Worrying about the younger generation is nothing new. An inscription found in a 6000 year-old Egyptian tomb highlights the enduring nature of our fears that youth are lost: “We live in a decaying age. Young people no longer respect their parents. They are rude and impatient. They frequently inhabit taverns and have no self control.”

But thanks to this digital age the hand-wringing dialogue that surrounds our daughters in particular — no matter how well intentioned it may be — is now forming the running commentary for the lives of many teen girls.

Author and feminist Emily Maguire, in her essay “Sugar, Spice and Stronger Stuff” asks us to consider how the teen girls who see and hear these discussions might feel:

“Teen girls are not a separate species — they walk among us. They see and hear and read the same things we do, including all those features about sexting and raunch culture and under-age sex. They notice how those articles are always illustrated with photos of teenage bodies in tiny skirts or low-cut tops, the faces blurred or heads lopped off. They are aware of the way serious news sources and trash media alike use their bodies to sell papers even as they express deep concern about how girls are using those same bodies — their own — for pleasure …

No wonder so many girls feel misunderstood and alienated … And when loving parents buy into it they end up either alienating their daughters or infecting them with their own fear and panic.”

There is in fact a longstanding tradition of using scare tactics as a means of controlling women and this starts early. Fairytales are some of the first cautionary tales told to girls. These stories provide clear messages about obedience, adherence to traditional gender roles, beauty and virtue, and the dangers inherent in being an ambitious woman who seeks any form of power (cue wicked witches). They also often emphasis the need for girls to have male protectors; whether these be handsome princes or kindly kings.

There is also a longstanding tradition of omitting the bravery and resilience of young women from our cultural narratives. We tend not to share stories of girls who thrive and strive, or broadcast statistics that highlight the positive.

Here in Australia teen pregnancy, cigarette smoking, illicit drug use and alcohol drinking rates and all down. Meanwhile school retention and academic performance rates have significantly increased for girls. It seems we have a generation that are not as self-obsessed as we’d like to paint them as being. 80 per cent of Girl Guides over the age of 10 commit two or more hours each week to volunteering; almost double the amount of time contributed by adults.

Anecdotally, as an educator who works with thousands of teen girls every year across Australia I’ve observed that girls are doing remarkably well in a culture that often doesn’t seem to like them very much, or have much faith in their decision-making capacity.

And when we are not choosing to ignore, we sometimes choose to conceal. Historically, we have attributed the achievements of adolescent girls to those of much older women. Case in point, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin who in 1955 was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama.

Colvin’s act inspired the civil rights movement that followed as nine months later middle-aged Rosa Parks became the public face for this movement. Colvin has since explained “[t]hey (the leaders of the civil rights movement) thought I would be too militant for them. They wanted someone mild and genteel like Rosa.”

None of this is to say that there are not very real issues teen girls struggle with that we do need to address; body image angst, disordered eating, self harm, binge drinking, navigating technology safely, developing and maintaining respectful relationships. These are some of the issues I’ve devoted my career to supporting girls to manage. But the answer lies in education — not moral panic, or policing and patronising. We must give girls the skills they need to make informed choices and encourage them to turn their critical gaze on their culture, not themselves and each other. We must present them with more positive role models. We must actively seek out opportunities to celebrate their wins. Importantly, we must also make it OK for them to take risks and make mistakes.

Dr Briony Scott, Principal of girls’ school Wenona, in her essay on “Women and Power” called too for a change in perspective:

“In the years that I have been a principal, it is abundantly clear to me that families are doing a magnificent job but they do so in the face of cultural expectations that would lead them to think otherwise. There is a social and cultural normalising of the belief that raising girls is an almost impossible task. Along with this comes a presumption that when anything does goes wrong for girls, it must be because they are depressed, mentally fragile, and/or prone to anxiety.

Such a view, apart from being inherently presumptuous, trivialises those young women (and men) who genuinely struggle with their mental health, and pathologises what is fundamentally, a normal developmental path. It does an extraordinary disservice to young women who are simply navigating the road to adulthood.”

Let’s not feed the self-fulfilling prophecy that teen girls are either troubled or trouble.

Because the real picture? It’s far brighter.

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