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Category: Schools

Take a bow, class of 2016. You’ve made it

This week the HSC exams finished for another year and, as an educator and the parent of a teenage girl who sat her last test on Monday, I can’t help but reflect on this time.

Not so much on the historical dates and quotes from literature she may have memorised, but on what I hope she and her peers have really learnt from surviving this academic rite of passage.

At some stage during these gruelling last years of high school (years one girl ­described to me as being like The Hunger Games “where kids battle it out against other kids and feel like they could die at any moment”) many teens will want to give up. Some on a weekly basis.They may fantasise about opting out and running away, of getting a rare illness that will leave them unable to do school work (yet strangely still able to watch re-runs of Gilmore Girls and hang out with their mates), of doing anything other than write yet another essay.

But they back up again the next morning, pack their schoolbags, and get on the school bus. Many will think no one understands what they’re going through.

If they read any of the more negative media reports that ­eagerly brand them whingers and wimps, they may even think others are relishing their struggles.

But then they’ll have a debrief with their mates at lunchtime, or find virtual kindred spirits via social media, and ­realise everyone else is just as anxious, stressed and unsure as they are.

They’ll learn that there is a deep comfort in this connection and find relief through using humour (even at times dark humour) to vent.

They’ll learn, too, that those who can see the funny side are highly valued. How else to ­explain why a student named Kelvin who loves “photography, chess, memes and math” developed a cult-like following among the 60,000 students who were members of the Facebook page for 2016 HSC students he helped moderate?

At times they may despair that each failed assessment will have ruined their future life plans.

And yet in the next task they complete they will have performed better than they had hoped for, or their plans will suddenly take on a different shape and they will realise there are still possibilities; that there are always possibilities.

Make no mistake, I don’t think for one minute the current system does our kids any favours by teaching them more about perseverance, camaraderie and resilience than it does about learning.

But I have taken enormous pride and solace in seeing my daughter and her peers realise they are stronger and more ­determined than they had ever realised they could be.

Class of 2016, I’d love to tell you that you will never again be put under such huge pressure, or have your worth sized up by a rank, or be asked to do tasks that seem to have little real world relevance.

The reality is, you may have to face all these demons again.

But if you do meet them again, you will know them. And, more importantly, you will know that you’ve got it.

Feel free to celebrate by burning your books, and gleefully forgetting your math equations. But don’t ever forget what you have learnt about you this year.

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This post was first published in the Daily Telegraph, 5/11/16.

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.”

Porn crackdown: It’s not an invasion of privacy. It’s parenting

Further to last week’s post on an alarming new type of lewd cyber scavenger hunt, I thought I’d share this Opinion piece by author, columnist, journalist, semi-retired academic and social commentator, Dr Karen Brooks. It was first published by The Courier Mail and is reproduced here with the authors permission. I was pleased to have contributed to to the discussion.  

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According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, over 40 per cent of all sexual assaults in Queensland are perpetrated by school-age children, while the number of young people under 19 committing sex crimes in Australia has almost doubled in five years; 770 are under the age of 15.

Experts believe the shocking increase can be attributed to easy access to online pornography, which is giving young people distorted and unhealthy ideas about sex and relationships.

In the past, for a child to sneak a peek at an adult magazine or movie was risky. These days, all young people need is a smartphone and that world is theirs. Only, it’s changed: it’s more graphic, demeaning, sadistic and brutal — especially towards women.

Currently, 80 per cent of teenagers access porn.

Kids are copying the sexual behaviours they’re viewing — whether the exposure has been accidental, involuntary or deliberate (for example, an older person showing them) — and at a time when they’re naturally curious and wanting to experiment with their sexuality, to test the boundaries.

As a result, they’re developing toxic relationships with sex, their bodies, and each other.

But it’s not only through pornography they’re being exposed to warped ideas about sex. Popular culture inundates them daily (through music, fashion, ads, movies, TV etc), and the idea that sex sells — even acceptance from peers.

When well-known celebrities, such as the Kardashians, Katy Perry, and Madonna willingly share naked pictures of themselves, claiming they’re aspirational, for a political cause or to self-promote, or US congressmen send “dick pics” as a form of flirting, is it any wonder the kids are baffled and the lines between sexuality, acceptability, and pornography are being blurred?

For young people, sending a naked selfie/sexting, has virtually become part of contemporary courtship/friendship and even a rite of sexual passage.

Yet, not only are we seeing confusion around issues of consent and privacy with this, but a growth in predatory behaviours, where young men especially bully and blackmail girls into sending nude pictures, and the girls, believing it’s a way to be noticed and liked, acquiesce.

What often happens is that trust is broken and the image is shown to a wider audience and slut-shaming occurs. The consequences of this can be personally and publicly devastating.

Not only can a young person’s reputation be shredded, the image left in cyberspace in perpetuity, but both the sender and recipient can find themselves facing criminal charges and labelled “sex offenders” (even if what they’ve done is consensual), because they’ve made and distributed child pornography.

So, what are we, as parents, adults, as a society, to do about these and the invidious effect they’re having on young people’s digital and real identities?

Firstly, it’s important to understand and accept that young people exploring their sexuality is perfectly natural and normal.

Sexting has become one of the ways to do this.

In a harrowing article in Qweekend, Frances Whiting cites Detective Inspector Jon Rouse of the Queensland-based Argos Taskforce, who reminds us, “We are not dealing with criminals, what we are dealing with is innocence, naivety, sexual exploration, and using technology to do that.’’

The “Young People and Sexting in Australia Report” (2013), states we need to “recognise that sexting can be an expression of intimacy… Framing sexual expression only as a risk does little to alleviate anxieties or feelings of shame that young people may experience in relation to their sexualities.”

Dannielle Miller, author and CEO of Enlighten Education, who works with thousands of young people across the country, agrees. She warns against moral panic and shaming. She also knows the abstinence approach — with sexuality and technology — doesn’t work.

She argues, “We urgently need to teach all young people about what respectful relationships look, sound and feel like.”

But when we provide them with very little in terms of “relevant, engaging relationships’ education”, we fail them.

We need to rethink sex education, at home and schools, and focus on intimacy, emotions; how we feel as opposed to what (not) to do. We need to have frank discussions about power, control and how pop culture exploits our sexual insecurities as well as entertains. How technology can be both positive and misused — the choice is ours.

But when the adults in a young person’s life and the popular culture in which they’re submerged can’t role-model healthy relationships, with each other, sexuality or technology, then how can we possibly expect our kids to have them?

Rouse says there’s only so much authorities can do. He warns parents, “you’re paying for these devices (phones etc), you’re providing these devices… take some responsibility for what’s happening on them… it’s not an invasion of their privacy, it’s parenting.”

Rouse believes we’ve let kids down.

It’s time we step up.

Dangerous games: ‘Girl on girl porn score the most points’

The following post was the lead Opinion piece in the Daily Telegraph 30/0/16.

In it, I discuss a game teens in the Newcastle area are playing. It may shock you. It certainly shocked me. In an OpEd piece like this you don’t have enough space to unpack in any detail what needs to be done ( 700 words doesn’t begin to cover explaining what is happening AND presenting a plan for moving beyond this stuff).

But we can do the latter here.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and brainstorm solutions.

I’ve been working with teens for over 22 years. I thought nothing could shock me. I was wrong.

Earlier this week NXFM radio hosts Nick and Sophie contacted me to discuss something they’d seen while out for dinner with friends in Newcastle. They’d spotted a young man running through the streets naked. Moments later, they saw two teen girls streaking too.Sophie’s friend, a social worker, later saw the girls (now covered up in robes) and asked them what it was all about.

Cash.

Apparently, a number of schools in the area are engaged in a scavenger hunt (organised via a closed Facebook group) as part of their end of Year 12 celebrations. The object of the game is to post increasingly risqué images online in order to score points.

Entrants pay to compete and the winner of the competition earns the prize pool, currently reported to be $2,000.

The girls explained they were going home to film themselves engaging in explicit sex with each other and upload this as “Girl on girl porn score the most points. We just want the prize money.”

End of school high jinks and nudie runs may seem like harmless rites of passage in Australia.

Viewing explicit porn is sadly also a rite of passage for this generation who have grown up with it; the average age of first exposure to pornography is 11.

Watching p#rn is common for teens. (Pic: iStock)

Almost one in five young people aged 16-17 say they, or a friend, have received sexually explicit images of someone else.

But teens producing and uploading their own naked and sexually explicit images to a social media site in order to win a competition is a recent phenomena fraught with the potential for deep regret.

If participants are under 18, sharing naked images online may see them in trouble with the law (while the age of sexual consent is 16, anyone who produces, possesses or distributes images of anyone under the age of 18 may be convicted on child pornography charges and placed on the child sex offenders registry — even if the image is of themselves).

 Regardless of the age of those involved, as we have recently in the news with the revelation that there are Australian web sites aimed at collecting sexually explicit images of teen schoolgirls (images often taken without these girls consent) once such images are uploaded, it is virtually impossible to delete these should those pictured later wish to do so.

While news of a sexually charged online competition may have shocked me and the colleagues I discussed this with, police and educators in the area have seen this type of game raise its ugly head before.

Back in 2013 local news reports warned of teens filming themselves performing lewd acts as part of a scavenger hunt competition held that year. Alleged incidents brought to the attention of authorities then included vision of young people engaged in group sex, and a film of a student with a mobile phone vibrating in their anus.

Yet despite stern warnings from police and school administrators, it seems the stakes have only been raised higher.

Our challenge is to look beyond a “just say no” plea for restraint; an approach we know is rarely effective in changing behaviour. It is to look beyond our own shock and instead to examine a culture that tells young people that sex sells. A culture that tells them fame (or indeed infamy) is aspirational, regardless of the price paid for the social media hits.

Hollywood film Nerve, a current favourite with teens, explores what happens when young people compete to post outrageous videos. The movie unpacks the complex psychology behind this kind of dangerous risk taking and the impact it can have on real life.

The movie argues that the only way to win in a game that encourages you to be a social conformist is not to play in the first place.

It takes real courage to not be a player, or a voyeur.

And it takes real courage to realise that although some of the conversations we need to have with our teens may be uncomfortable and confronting, the need to have these is urgent.

Year 12: Welcome to the Hunger Games

This post was originally published by The Daily Telegraph 16/7/16 and online at RendezView.

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Since when have the final years of school transformed into a blood sport, apropos The Hunger Games?

School days used to be traditionally lauded as the best days of our lives — but those in Year 12 preparing for their final examinations feel more like they’re in a relentless competition that only the strongest can survive.

I’ve worked in education all my career and my daughter is doing her HSC this year. When I talk to teens about how they feel about their final years of schooling, I can’t help but think something, somewhere, has gone terribly wrong.This is what some of them told me:

“I am taking antidepressants, going to counselling and drinking alcohol heavily… I’ve also recently been diagnosed with chronic fatigue.”

“The whole system has made me lose my love of learning… I used to be a chilled person but now I have anxiety and am on prescription medication for a tremor I have developed as a result.”

“I recently dropped out due to extreme stress. It got to the point where I was even trying meth to take my mind off the HSC.”

“At my school (a private boys school) because we have been exposed to alcohol for some years already, my friends have decided to medicate with drugs; weed, cocaine, caps (a form of MDMA) and during examination period, Ritalin, and other ‘smart drugs’. My friends aren’t exactly the smartest, nor do they have the same pressures as me (my brother was a high achiever and I’m a school leader). They… use it because they feel if they do, they can compete with the rest of the year, and ultimately try to increase their ranks, in an attempt to get the best possible ATAR.”

And it’s not just the stories of drinking and drugs that are deeply concerning.

There are teens who tell me they often think about dropping out — not only of school, but of life. Others who tell me they ask to be excused in class so they can lock themselves in the school toilets and cry. There are those who were made to give up sports and hobbies they loved (one girl was made to sell her beloved horse) so they’d have more time to spend on studying.

“It feels like all I am now is a brain my school and parents want to cram facts in to so I can spit them back again later. But I used to have a heart too.”

These insights might shock those who don’t know any Year 12 students. But they won’t shock educators or those who work in mental health. A 2015 UNSW study found that 42 per cent of the Year 12 students surveyed from a representative sample of Sydney schools had anxiety levels high enough to be of clinical concern.

Many of my teaching colleagues lament both the tears and panic attacks they witness, and the fact that due to the amount of content they must get through to ensure students are ready for exams, there isn’t more time allocated to stress management.

Dr Prue Salter, who works in schools teaching study skills and techniques to help students cope with the academic demands placed on them, despairs of the current system.

“All the research shows there is immense pressure placed on students in the final years and for what? It is an outdated system, measuring outdated skills such as their ability to memorise,” Salter says. “We need to reassess what we teach, and how we assess that. It’s criminal what we do to these kids.”

For now, I’ll hug my daughter often. Try to be patient when she procrastinates for days watching Gilmore Girls. And I’ll help her realise she can never be defined by a mark.

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  

Hollywood finally realises women have stories to tell too

The following post was first published in the Daily Telegraph newspaper, and online at RendezView, 26/12/15.

Is it any wonder that after overeating, overspending and feeling over the in-laws, so many of us escape between Christmas and New Year to the movies?

The December holiday period is in fact one of the most lucrative for cinemas, as evidenced by the unstoppable box-office performance of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which set a new record for worldwide ticket sales on its release.

But as much as I love tales of underdogs defeating dark forces, this Boxing Day I’ll be lining up to see a different set of fighters bravely putting their lives on the line and challenging existing power structures.

Bring on the suffragettes.

Opening in Australia today is this historical period drama Suffragette, which tells the story of the “Mothers, Daughters, Rebels” who risked everything in their battle for the vote.

It won’t necessarily be comfortable viewing. I suspect many cinemagoers may be shocked at both the plight of women in 1912 (when the film opens) and the brutality of the British government’s response to their campaign.

But how vital it is that we learn more about women’s stories; particularly considering much of what we learn at school in history is often so very male-centric.

Back when I was a high school history teacher I was frustrated at just how difficult it was to access quality resource material on the role women played in various historical periods. During wartime for example, most textbooks reduce the role of women to either waving off their sons to war, or to nursing; to narratives of motherhood and sacrifice.

In reality, female contributions were far more diverse, from women taking on traditional “men’s work” outside the home, to serving as special agents in World War 2 (Australian educated Nancy Wake became the Gestapo’s most wanted person for the work she did with the French Resistance and remains this country’s most decorated servicewoman). Why have there not been more films telling their tales?

In a recent New York Times Magazine article on sexism in cinema a top entertainment executive, who insisted on anonymity, offered an insight into why so few women’s stories, historical or otherwise, reach an audience, “ It’s a hundred-year-old business, founded by a bunch of old Jewish European men who did not hire anybody of color (sic), no women agents or executives. We’re still slow at anything but white guys’’.

Slow indeed. According to Screen Australia, here women account for only 32 per cent of the producers, 16 per cent of the directors and 23 per cent of the writers.

Suffragette is, therefore, a rare cinematic gem as it not only sheds light on a crucial period in the history of the fight for gender equality, but has two women at the helm with both a female director and screenwriter.

So today I will grab my popcorn and head to the movies, not only to honour the memory of my suffragette sisters, but also to support the work of women in film.

Yes, we have come a long way. But it’s clear the fight continues.

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How young men will help put an end to domestic violence

The following post was originally published by RendezView 15/10/15.

 

Like most Australians, every time I hear news reports about yet another woman who has died at the hands of her partner, I feel horrified.

And as at least one woman gets killed as a result of domestic violence every week, I find myself feeling horrified often.

But how does one move from anguish into something more constructive that might form part of the solution?

As an educator and author I’ve dedicated my career to date to working with young women; empowering them to know their worth, encouraging them to deconstruct limiting gender stereotypes and teaching them how to develop and maintain respectful relationships.

But putting an end to violence against women and children cannot just be the work of women; we desperately need the passion, creativity and hard work of good men too.

So when I joined a committed group of people in my local community working to establish a new domestic violence shelter in the Sydney suburb of Castle Hill, called The Sanctuary, I wanted to initiate a partnership with the largest boys’ school in the area, Oakhill College.

It is these lads who can help us ensure that one day, our refuge may no longer be needed. Because while shelters are focused on creating crisis accommodation for women and children, they are also focused on early intervention and prevention work.

This is why all 220 of the Year 10 boys who will be adopting The Sanctuary as their own were briefed about why a refuge is needed in their local area, and about what they as young men can do to help curb violence.

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This initiative was also featured in The Daily Telegraph 14/10

They then did further research — including looking at the underlying issues that drive domestic violence such as gender inequality and sexism — and started creating their own anti-DV posters they will carry when they join in our local White Ribbon march in November.

The boys will also now begin making up Welcome Packs (toiletries, chocolates, etc) that can be given to women and children as they arrive at the shelter. The attached gift card will simply read, “We care about you and we are glad you are safe. This gift is for you to show you that you’re valued.” This small act of kindness has the potential to have a huge impact for both the giver and the receiver.

Their English teachers have also now begun brainstorming ideas for how they can embed this work across their curriculum. The staff love the social justice focus and also the opportunity this creates for the application of learning in the real world.

And like with all projects that young people feel a sense of ownership over, it will evolve in ways none of us can even anticipate at this early stage. From the simple (the lad who approached me to say, “Danni, this really means a lot to me and if you want I’ll get some friends and go door knocking to get you more money”) to the more innovative (there’s talk of producing and performing plays, and of making film projects).

Why has the initial response from these boys been so positive?

The boys have been encouraged to realise they can be part of the solution.

When I first met these boys, I looked straight into their eyes and told them I knew they were gorgeous young men who felt just as distressed as I did by knowing not all women and children are safe in their own homes. And I told them I knew they would welcome the opportunity to learn and be voices of difference.

So often too we forget that in homes where there are violent men, there are young boys who are not violent. Rather, there are boys who feel scared. Boys who feel angry. Boys who feel powerless.

Boys who want to make things OK.

And while I am incredibly grateful for the enormous contributions of the women who work tirelessly in this field, in my community I have been inspired to see there are plenty of men who want to step up and make things OK as well.

There are fellow Sanctuary Board members, like Hills Local Area Commander Rob Critchlow, who helped get the ball rolling here by seeking out a location to establish a safe shelter and managing security concerns. And the Centre Manager for Castle Towers, Martin Ollis, who convinced his QIC Board to donate a fully refurbished property to The Sanctuary rent-free. There’s the Assistant Principal at Oakhill, Bob Munday, who jumped at the opportunity for his boys to be The Sanctuary’s advocates.

And there are these young men.

All are true champions for change. Their attitudes reaffirm that most men in Australia respect women and children and believe that the current culture of violence is unacceptable. And those who feel otherwise are discredited and put on notice.

Update 30/11 – I was asked to speak to Brisbane Breakfast FM radio 97.3 about this initiative for White Ribbon day. You may listen to this animated discussion here:

A ban on Wonder Woman lunchboxes? Oh come on!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wonder Woman lunchbox that started all the fuss.

The Wonder Woman lunchbox that started all the fuss.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so do we.

 

Feminism, girls and the economy, the art of being alone: my week in the media.

I’ve had the opportunity to contribute to, and write, some really interesting pieces for various media outlets this week. I want to share the highlights with you here.

The always-wise Dr Karen Brooks unpacked the reluctance some (including our political leaders) have with the term “Feminist” here: Why is feminism such an uncomfortable word?

Increasingly, young women are afraid to align themselves with feminism in case it makes them a social pariah. They also feel too intimidated to join the often robust dialogue about what it means to be a feminist in contemporary times for fear of how they’ll be spoken to or silenced or (mis)understood. An example of this can be seen in Helen Razer’s response to Watson’s speech (“a boxed kitten makes great digital capital” – ouch).

This lack of generosity towards fledgling feminists and their position needs to be addressed.

Dannielle Miller, author and CEO of Enlighten Education, runs workshops with tens of thousands of young women every year. She says less than 10 per cent call themselves feminists even though most admit they’re not quite sure what a feminist is. But once they understand, they see it makes sense to be one. “After all,” says Miller, “why wouldn’t you believe in gender equality?”

I loved having the opportunity to contribute and offer an insight into how young women feel about the women’s movement. As I explained in a previous blog post, for me, finding Feminism as a teen girl felt very much like finding Home. Finally, a place where I felt known, understood, accepted and challenged! I still find the sisterhood to be the most incredible source of inspiration and validation. What a joy then to be able to introduce the next generation to a movement that is still very much needed – and in desperate need of their perspectives!

One of the ways in which I connect young girls to Feminism through Enlighten’s Real Girl Power workshop is through humour (which is a great way too of instantly debunking any “feminists can’t be fun” stereotypes). We begin by exploring what popular culture will often tell us girl-power should look like and deconstruct how the phrase has been used to sell women everything from cleaning products to super-stomach-sucking-elastic pants (irony much?). You may read more about this workshop here. 

Screen shot 2013-10-10 at 9.06.41 AM

Ninemsn ran the results of a huge UK survey on teens conducted by the Schools Health Education Unit. The key findings? 

The state of the economy is not just a bother for bankers — teenage girls seem to be absorbing the stress too, with a survey suggesting their confidence has dipped since the world was thrust into a Global Financial Crisis (GFC).

Cyber bullying is also taking its toll, according to the UK survey of 30,000 school students, with a third of 10 and 11-year-olds saying they fear being bullied.

Teens’ confidence ratings had been consistently improving between 1990 and 2008 when 41 percent of 14 and 15-year-old girls said they had a high self-esteem.

But that dropped in the following six years, with only 33 percent now saying they feel good about themselves.

Why might the economy may be impacting on girls in this way? I am quoted in the article: “Children are economically dependent on their parents and their families and those pressures filter downwards. Often the first things that tend to go are branded items, such as cosmetics and new clothes, which are the kinds of things that really matter to teenagers…Having the right shoes or brand of jeans can seem like such a critical thing for trying to fit in with a peer group. There also is social stigma about being the ‘poor kid’… I would imagine a lot of young people are feeling a sense of shame, which is impacting on their sense of self and their self-esteem.” I also helped explain why we may still be seeing huge concerns over body image and technology in this article so do check it out.

Finally, I wrote an Opinion piece for the Daily Telegraph on the art of being alone. Although this was aimed at all readers, not just those who care for young women, you may find some of the ideas on the art of connection useful.

More people are living by themselves than ever before. In fact one in 10 Australians live alone. Single, however, does not necessarily mean lonely. Countries with high levels of people living alone actually score well on international happiness ratings.

Is it because these solo artists are content in their own company?

Not entirely.

Despite the popular rhetoric around the appeal of “me-time,” the reality is we are social creatures and need human interactions in order to be happy.

Social researcher Hugh Mackay, author of The Art of Belonging, argues that “communities can be magical places, but the magic comes from us, not to us”.

The key then is to learn how to venture out and connect. And even more fundamentally, to learn that it is OK to do so. It is this idea that I explored in my writing.

Enjoy!

 

 

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