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Category: Power of Words

 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.

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.

There’s nothing idle about gossip. It’s an important social skill.

I find unpacking stereotypes fascinating and important work. The following post was first published by RendezView. 

As a teen girl I swapped secrets with my friends; they were an essential form of currency in girl world. The more I knew about another girl, and the more she knew about me, the more entwined we became. Sleep-overs were often mere excuses for giggling combined with frenzied disclosure.

Know me. Accept me. Align yourself with me.

Afterwards came the betrayals. Secrets that had unintentionally slithered out, or were later swapped with others in a calculated move aimed at gaining status within our group. Tellingly, although I recall feeling deeply betrayed when my tokens of truth were revealed, I also recall knowing this was just the way of things. And admitting to myself that I too was capable of leveraging what I knew if I thought it meant I could gain popularity.

Know what I know. Accept me. Align yourself with me.

It’s always puzzled me then that we tend to look at the furtive whispering of young girls and dismiss these as mere Mean Girl machinations. To do so is to fail to understand the way we all solidify friendships, and practice social manoeuvring.

There are actually very complex sets of rules which govern friendships and the telling and banking of secrets; girls have to be quite sophisticated to master and maneuver themselves within those rules. Watching Olivia Newtown John’s character Sandy in the musical Grease excuse herself from the sleep-over action at Rizzo’s to go and brush her teeth left me gasping as a teen – what a rookie mistake! She’ll then leave herself vulnerable to becoming the object of analysis! Cue the mocking “Look at me I’m Sandra Dee.”

There is plenty of research to show that close friendships, the sort developed largely through the sharing of hidden truths, also serve vital functions in promoting a sense of self-worth and belonging. Many researchers in fact believe gossip is an evolved psychological adaptation that enabled individuals to achieve social success in our ancestral environments. In the paper “Who Do We Tell and Whom Do We Tell On? Gossip as a Strategy for Status Enhancement” researchers Andrew, Bell and Garcia argue that; “ Gossip can be an efficient way to remind group members of the importance of the group’s norms and values; an effective deterrent to deviance; and a tool for punishing those who trangress.”

And it seems it’s not just young girls who instinctively are drawn to information sharing. Professor of Applied Pscychology Niobe Way in her book, “Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection,” argues that boys relationships in early to middle adolescence rely too on sharing “deep secrets”; “Boys openly expressed to us their love for their friends and emphasized that sharing “deep” secrets was the most important aspect of their closest male friendships…. I realized that these patterns among boys have been ignored by the larger culture…”

Way goes on to explain that due to cultural pressures to become a “man” during late adolescence (and thus be emotionally stoic and autonomous) boys begin to lose their closest male friendships, become more distrustful of their male peers, and in some cases, become less willing to express their emotions. “They start sounding, in other words, like gender stereotypes.”

It seems secrets may well be timeless fundamental building blocks in building positive, strong friendships; for both genders. Adolescents with close friendships have lower rates of depression, suicide, drug use and gang membership and are more likely to stay at school. As it is in fact young men that seem to struggle most with feelings of isolation and a lack of belonging during late adolescence, could it be that we need to stop demonising the sharing of secrets and labelling this act as solely the domain of gossip girls?

By now, I have learned, as most middle aged women do, not to give away quite so much quite so often, to so many. However, I still know that it is the sharing the secrets that lubricates my close friendships. Now our revelations tend to take place via text, or via Facebook. There is no time for lengthy deep and meaningful exchanges; it’s secrets-via-shorthand. The stories we swap, however, are still just as real and raw. Feeling like a fraud at work. Worrying that our once-predictable bodies seem to be turning on us in new and entirely surprising ways. Deciding there are days when being a parent feels impossible and we dream of running away. Fat. Ugly. Bored. Sad. Angry. Resentful. Scared. Scarred.

My friends not only listen to this confessional, but know me well enough to know that my feelings shall pass. They know these moments of doubt and anger don’t define me– they are often not even the real me. And I listen to them purge too. And often? Rather than being a bitter or despairing exchange it becomes funny. Side-splittingly funny. There is much humour to be had in facing the dark when one does so holding a friend’s hand.

It is through these exchanges that we feel known, understood and connected.

And it is no secret that these are the feelings all young people deserve, and urgently need to feel, too.

Whisper on.

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