Skip to content

Category: Power of Words

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

020737-79bb5ee2-1308-11e5-8cab-50fca574effe

 

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We need to be prepared to get in the game.

This article was first published by RendezView. 

Beyond Victimhood

On Sunday I woke to the news in the Telegraph that teenage girls were “riddled with fear and anxiety” and, overdosing on paracetamol.

Was this behaviour really impacting on an entire “generation” as the article claimed?

Screen shot 2015-02-19 at 9.07.36 AM

The reality is that although the data cited from the NSW Health Report on the Health of Children and Young people Report (2014) does show self-harming behaviours have increased from between the periods 1993-1994 and 2012-2013, even now, at its peak, hospitalisation rates for intentional self-harm for females aged 15-24 effects 0.46% of the 100,000 surveyed. Hardly a generational scourge.

Yet even one girl resorting to self-harming behaviours is a girl too many.

We should be concerned about the mental health of all young people. And if we are serious about concerns over self-harming behaviours in young people, then we should be taking to the streets in protest over the very high rates of self-harm reported in children currently in detention. The recent Australian Human Rights Commission Inquiry found from January 2013 to March 2014, 128 children aged between 12 and 17 engaged in actual self-harm and 171 threatened self-harm in detention.

But there’s something else we should be concerned about  too. And that’s the way in which we discuss young women. Because it is really not helpful.

If the times we live in are toxic for girls in many ways — think of the huge pressures on them to be not only thin and hot but to be smart and successful; to be everything, all at once —then equally toxic is the way in which the media and our society often chooses to engage with them.

When we are not reducing them all to damsels in distress, we are shaming them as viscous vamps, obsessed with taking “selfies”. There is a salacious pleasure taken in critiquing their mean girl cyber exchanges. In lamenting the length of their skirts. In hyper analysing their every mistake.

Even those who should have teen girls’ best interests at heart, the people who write parenting books, often describe teen girls in terms that are less than kind or generous of spirit. Walk down the parenting aisle of any bookstore and you’ll find plenty of covers depicting adolescent girls as sluttish or surly. As one girl said to me after a seminar, ‘If I came home and found my mum reading a book that presented girls in the way some of these books do, I’d be so hurt. We don’t read books entitled Parents are Pains in the Arses, do we?’

The reality is that whilst certainly girls do live in changing times and are learning to navigate and make sense of the always –on cyber world, the beauty, fashion and diet industries’ obsession with pushing a narrow ideal of what makes a woman loveable, and increased academic and workplace pressures, so too are we all. 

And you know what? We mustn’t loose sight of the fact that many girls are doing remarkably well despite all this.

Case in point? The incredible teen Sophie Delezio whose story also appeared in the Telegraph right under the expose on teen girls and self-harm in my news feed. Ms Delezio is one feisty female; after surviving both horrifc burns and later being run over by a car, she is now thriving in Yr 9 at a girls’ school and setting a goal to compete at the 2020 Paralympics as a rower.

More generally, 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 too we have a generation that are also not as self-obsessed as we’d like to paint them as being. 80% 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.

Stories about girls in crisis are valid and valuable for they alert us to the challenges they face. But make no mistake, for every media report of girls in crisis, there are statistics and stories aplenty of remarkable young women doing extraordinary things.

Let’s not be blinded by the numbers.

Let’s not be blinded either to the strength and resilience of girls.

10985263_10152734723183105_3083862884380357786_n

I shall be the opening keynote speaker at the Critical Agendas Girls and Education Conference in August, Melbourne. My talk will expand on these ideas: 

“Beyond Victimhood: Why girls need to reclaim their agency and how many young women already are.”

Sexting, cyber -bullying, dieting, drinking. Whilst it is vital to acknowledge the issues that some girls do struggle with, so often the dialogue veers towards labelling girls as victims or shaming them. How can we move towards empowering girls to respond resiliently when faced with life’s inevitable challenges and a culture that doesn’t seem to like them very much? How are some girls already speaking out and reclaiming their girlhood? 

What can schools do to further empower young women?

Hope to see you there! 

 

A teen girl’s guide to surviving Valentine’s Day

The following extract is taken from the book for teen girls I co-wrote with Nina Funnell, “Loveability: An Empowered Girl’s Guide to Dating and Relationships.” It is published by Harper Collins and may be purchased here. 

Loveability Shareable 6

I had been single for six months when I was writing this chapter. Most of the time, I felt genuinely excited about what the future might look like, and I knew it would be grand, with or without a partner. However, there were some things that sent me falling into a spiral of self-despair, such as when I saw a card in a newsagent that read ‘Happy birthday to my darling wife’. What if no one ever bought me a card like that again? I had received my share of romantic cards in the past, from my ex-husband and ex-boyfriend, but I wanted more! Was I doomed to a card-less life? Curse you, Hallmark! *Danni waves her fist in the air.*

Well, take that pain and multiply it to the power of ten and you get Valentine’s Day for singles. True? Suddenly the world is filled with playful cards for cool couples to giggle at together, and mushy cards for the old-school romantic types. Oh, it’s a day for lovers.

And don’t they love sharing their love (read: flaunting it)? When I used to teach in high schools it always amused me that many girls relished carrying around their cards, flowers and teddy bears all day. They didn’t leave them in their lockers — oh no, half the thrill was in showing them off. And it seemed that the bigger the bear, the bigger the love must be.

I really don’t begrudge those who are struck by Cupid. Love is a beautiful thing worth acknowledging — every day, not just on Valentine’s Day. I really am a romantic at heart, too.

But when you’re on the outside of it all, it can sting.

I called Nina after the ‘no cards for me’ incident and she gave me such great advice: receiving a card like that never makes someone feel as wonderful as it makes those who don’t receive one feel worthless. ‘It’s a whole big mind mess up,’ she said. ‘Don’t fall for the Hallmark moments.’

See why I love Nina? See? Gold star for relationship advice!

And you know what? One of the best Valentine’s Days I ever had was when I was single. I decided to tackle the day head-on. I invited all my single friends over for dinner and encouraged them to bring each of the other guests a card, chocolate or flower. We ate, laughed and were merry.

And in addition to the very funny and thoughtful gifts I received from my guests that night, I actually did receive amazing bouquets of flowers from two guys who liked me but understood all I could offer them was friendship. They just weren’t quite right for me, and I wasn’t going to compromise.

In my experience, the more you have going on in your life and the more comfortable you are being single, the more other people will want to be with you. You will also be less likely to just jump into any old relationship so you can have the ‘Hallmark moment’.

Apart from throwing a ‘Single and Fab!’ party like I did (or as one friend likes to call it, a ‘Galentine’ party to celebrate your best gals), you might like to try the following ideas for coping with Valentine’s Day when you’re single:

• Focus on all the love you have in your life. Give hand-written notes (or cards and flowers if that’s your thing) to your best friends and favourite family members. I always feel better when I am loving towards others; some of the love definitely bounces back.

• Be daring. Send a note or a card to someone you have a crush on. (Do it anonymously if you prefer; Valentine’s cards were traditionally meant to be sent by secret admirers.) It will be quite thrilling — trust me. A friend of mine and I did it when we were in the senior years of high school, and writing out our notes, hunting down our crushes’ addresses and then mailing them off was such delicious, laugh-until-you-snort fun!

• Author Emily Maguire offered me this top-shelf suggestion: ‘Young single women who love all the hoopla associated with Valentine’s Day … could consider embracing it all for a good cause. Like organise a red velvet- swathed, heart-shaped, chocolate filled, white-teddy-bear-decorated, rom-com screening fundraising event for a related cause such as marriage equality or safe-sex education.’

• Go totally Grinch and have an anti- Valentine’s Day party. I’m talking about getting together with your friends and watching horror movies rather than romantic comedies, wearing your PJs rather than party frocks and making the talk a relationships free zone!

• Take some time out to do a loving kindness meditation. It’s an ancient Buddhist practice in which you sit quietly and wish love, peace and happiness on the people in your life, including yourself and even people you dislike. People who do it regularly boost the feel-good chemicals in their brains and make themselves more likely to experience loving moments in everyday life — basically, they become their own love factories. After studying this effect, the psychologist Barbara Fredrickson believes it’s time to rethink our whole concept of what love is. The passionate, romantic, Romeo and Juliet type of love may be more of a myth, while true love is all the little moments when you have a positive emotional connection with another person during your day. Sure, you might have such a moment with a romantic partner, but you just as easily might have one with a good friend, your little sister or that random person who just held the door open for you because you had your hands full. ‘If you don’t have a Valentine, that doesn’t mean that you don’t have love,’ says Fredrickson.

From "Loveability: An Empowered Girl's Guide to Dating and Relationships."
From “Loveability: An Empowered Girl’s Guide to Dating and Relationships.”

The perfect parent is a foolish myth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10395831_10152605560263105_4136680173010040585_n

Gratitude at Christmas – get some!

This post was originally shared by Mamamia. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Veruca-Salt

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

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

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

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

Why It’s Actually Okay for Your Child to Feel Ungrateful Sometimes

I’m incredibly excited to introduce you today to my fourth book. Gratitude – A positive new approach to raising thankful kids will be the first in a series I am writing for parents of kids of both genders, and of all ages.

What prompted me to write this? So many parents I meet are concerned that their children are materialistic and unappreciative (and hey, as a parent I worry about this too!). I saw a huge gap in the market for books on nurturing gratitude in young people. The titles that are already out there also tend to be very earnest. I wanted to create something far more universal, warm, practical and based on solid research!

click to enlarge
click to enlarge

Here is a list of the benefits of gratitude, which my gorgeous writing buddy Vanessa Mickan compiled from the mountains of research by psychologists she waded through:
joy
enthusiasm
love
happiness
optimism
forgiveness
reduced depression
reduced materialism
resilience in the face of trauma
greater number of friends
stronger social support
richer social interactions
less loneliness
more energy
stronger immune system
lower stress
cardiovascular benefits
less pain
better sleep
longer life

Amazing, huh?

Below is a taster. This adaptation from my book was also published today by The Huffington Post, UK. You may download the Ebook version of Gratitude for $8.99 from our sparkling new Enlighten Education website here. The hard copy print version will be in all good bookshops February 2015.
We all want our children to fully appreciate the good things in their lives and to know the importance of saying thank you. And there are now mountains of research showing that gratitude leads to everything from greater happiness to a more positive outlook, less materialism, more friends and stronger social support, more energy, a stronger immune system, and a longer life. Who wouldn’t want all of that for their children?

We know that an important part of our job as parents is to teach children from a very early age to say please and thank you. But how do we help our kids deal with the darker side of the gratitude equation: the feelings of disappointment, envy, and anger that arise when life isn’t going their way and they don’t feel that they are the lucky recipient of gifts from the universe?

What I’m about to tell you is something I’m sure you already know: the shortest route to you wanting to tear your hair out and scream is to tell an ungrateful child to feel grateful for something. It’s counterproductive to try and force kids to feel something they’re not feeling.

Children need to develop a meaningful, genuine sense of gratitude over time; we can’t impose it upon them. There is no point nagging. And though heaven knows we’ve all thought it sometimes, there is no point in dragging out the old “Think about all the children starving in other countries” line. It’s a short cut to guilt and resentment, not genuine gratitude. The last thing we want is to create robots who express gratitude without really feeling it. Once children are old enough to understand the concept of giving and thankfulness, it’s time to give them the chance to think about it and really mean it when they say thanks.

A far more effective approach is to make gratitude a daily family habit so that over time it becomes a natural part of our children’s makeup. We can model gratitude by thanking others, we can suggest fun opportunities for our children to express gratitude, and we can talk to them about the good things they have and where those things come from. Our job is not to force our kids to be grateful. It’s to be there to help them find their own way to a place of genuine thankfulness.

You probably have days when you feel angry or miserable, envious or frustrated, and less than thankful for what you’re dealing with. Kids might not have adult problems such as a mortgage or rent to pay, a hellish boss, or relationship problems, but they do also have days when it’s harder for them to feel thankful. Days when they feel sad, angry, disappointed, envious, lacking. I think it’s important not to squelch the very real emotions our children have, even the negative ones. All emotions are valid, and children need to know that it’s okay to feel them.

If we encourage children to block negative emotions out and simply replace them with rote gratitude, we are only asking for those negative emotions to fester, gain strength, and leak out in some other way. The path to genuine gratitude and happiness is through genuine emotion, so encourage your kids to feel and acknowledge all their emotions, and talk openly about your children’s emotions with them. This helps kids develop their emotional literacy, and it also opens up the possibility for them to move forward into a more positive feeling. When we work through our negative feelings, we have the opportunity to see all the things in our lives that we are grateful for.

Raising grateful children is not about minimising their negative feelings, or pretending that their disappointments don’t hurt or they aren’t facing real obstacles. It’s not about creating Stepford children who see only the good in everything and are happy 100% of the time. It’s about showing our children by our own example that we can be sad or hurt yet still be grateful for what’s good in our lives. After all, if we put off giving thanks until everything was going well and we had everything we wanted, we’d all be a giant pack of ingrates, wouldn’t we?

Life will always be a mixed bag of joy, achievement, success, and getting what we want-and sadness, loss, challenges, and failure. So what children really need to develop is not a gratitude reflex but true resilience. When we don’t get what we want, resilience allows us to see the good or the opportunity in the bad, and pick ourselves up and try again another day.

In praise of feminist fathers

The following guest post is by my friend and colleague Nina Funnell. It was first published by Mamamia. Nina is a Sydney based journalist, author and speaker. Her writing has been published in academic journals, newspapers, magazines and on online news sites. She has authored multiple book chapters and co-authored Loveability: An Empowered Girls Guide to Dating and Relationships (Harper Collins, 2014) with me.

Ninaheadshot-300x314
Nina Funnell

I was ten years old the first time I attempted a ‘death drop’. Hanging upside down by the knees on the school monkey bars, a crowd of kids gathered around to watch. No-one we knew had ever performed a ‘death drop’ before and I was going to be the first brave soul to try. “Be quiet! She needs to concentrate” ordered my best friend, Sophie. “Give her space.”

For a few minutes I hung perfectly still, focused on what I was about to do. The plan was to release my legs, spin through the air and land on my feet. With adrenaline pumping, my courage spiked and suddenly I let go.

A second later I crashed to the ground. I had performed a glorious belly-flop and now lay winded, gasping for air. Of course this was all well before the days of AstroTurf, and kids were made of sturdier stuff. There was no way that a bad start was going to discourage me.

In the coming weeks both Sophie and I would learn the trick to the death drop: to complete the move successfully, one must first swing through the air like a pendulum and only release the knees when one’s body is parallel with the ground.

After that there was no stopping us. Before school, at recess and at lunch we would dominate the bars. Then late one afternoon when my dad picked me up from Afterschool Care, I took him to the monkey bars, eager to show him my new skill. Seeing his daughter beaming with pride, he asked me whether I would like a set of my very own bars at home. I was ecstatic.

That weekend dad and I headed to the hardware store to gather supplies. At home he showed me how to use the measuring tape, drill and saw. He explained why we needed to dig deep holes for the wooden pylons and he let me mark out the spot where I thought the bars should go. This was our special project, just me and dad working together.

In time we moved house and the decision was made to leave the bars behind. But I still look back at that afternoon helping dad build them as one of the great memories of my childhood.

I was reminded of those events not long ago, while out to dinner with a friend who had recently become a father for the first time. As we talked about the birth and the baby, he suddenly lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “You know,” he said, “I’ve always thought of myself as a pretty progressive guy. I mean, I’ve always believed in gender equality and thought that I’d treat a son or daughter exactly the same. Dinosaurs for the girls. Glitter for the boys. All that caper. So throughout the pregnancy we never asked about the sex of the baby. What should it matter, right? Treat the baby the same no matter what. But everyone kept predicting we were having a girl and I began to think so too… So when our beautiful baby girl burst forth sporting a nice healthy scrotum I was stunned.”

I laughed.

“But that’s not it. You see, I genuinely believed we were having a girl, and when I found out we had a son everything changed. In a split second my whole view of the pregnancy, my whole mindset shifted from thinking ‘I have to protect this little baby’ to ‘I have to enable this baby, I have to show him the world and teach him how things works.’ Isn’t that terrible? And here’s the kicker, I didn’t even realise that I had this completely different approach to parenting girls until that very moment.”

Now it was my turn to be stunned. It was such an honest, insightful admission and I couldn’t help but wonder what biases of my own I might be blind to.

Of course my friend is not alone. Research shows that right from birth many parents treat their sons and daughters differently, even if they don’t intend to. While boys are statistically more likely to die during infancy, and are generally more fragile as infants than girls, studies show that both mothers and fathers react quicker to a daughter’s cries than to a son’s. Studies also show that adults tend to cuddle girls longer than boys but are more likely to encourage boys to explore, try new things, and take risks.

Right from birth we fret about girls. We worry that when a girl comes crashing down to earth – bellyflop style- she won’t be able to get back up again. So we treat girls as precious objects in ever great need of protection. But there is a danger that when we wrap our girls in cotton wool, all we really teach them is to be afraid of the world around them.

And just like boys, girls want their dads to teach them things, to show them how the world works, to enable them in some way. I think back to my own childhood and my strongest memories of my dad involve him helping me to learn new things: how to ride a bike, how to read, and how to cook his legendary ‘daddy dinner’ (a cheese, tomato and carb extravaganza).

As an engineer dad was also constantly explaining how the world around me worked. Even when I was not particularly interested in a given object, his enthusiasm for the science behind things was contagious. His own curiosity about the world made me curious.

But perhaps his greatest parenting moments occurred when dad found ways to combine his interests and knowledge with my own hobbies and amusements. As a child, I remember that there were few things more validating than having my parents express a genuine interest in my world. But what was truly enriching was when they took the time to teach and involve me in their hobbies too.

And the lessons stuck. I recently purchased my first home, a true ‘renovators delight’, as they say. As dad and I headed off to Bunnings together for the first time in years, he was astonished to hear me parrot back at him some advice he had given me as a small child on the proper care of paint brushes.

Perhaps he shouldn’t have been all that surprised. For better or worse, kids absorb their parent’s words along with the wisdoms they impart.

So I am thankful for all the great dads who teach their children to be curious about the world, not afraid of it. I am thankful for dads who pick their children up, dust them off and tell them to keep trying, no matter how badly they may have bellyflopped. And most of all I am thankful for fathers who involve their sons and daughters, in equal measure, in learning about the world and how to embrace living in it.

Subscribe

Follow this blog

Get every new post delivered right to your inbox.

Skip to toolbar