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Why students are packing Prozac in their lunch boxes

This post was first published by RendezView, 31/1/16

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Laptop? Check. Lunch box? Check. Prozac? Check.

For more and more young people, the preparation for back to school this year will include making sure they have their anti-depressants close at hand.

Australia has one of the highest rates of use of these medications in the world and a recent University of Sydney study found that there has been a particularly marked increase in the use of these drugs in children and adolescents.

In fact, over the four-year period from 2009-2012, researchers found that the largest increase in use was amongst children aged between 10-14 years.

Dr Emily Karanges, now a research fellow in the Medicines Policy Unit at the University of NSW and lead author of the paper based on the study’s findings, suspects the rates of usage would be even higher amongst those who are school-aged today: “There is no reason to think this trend would have reversed. Given the steep upward trajectory in the rate of antidepressant use at the time of our research, especially among young people, I’d expect the figures now would be significantly higher again.”

Yet the therapeutic guidelines from the US, UK and Australia recommend that psychological therapies rather than medication be used to manage depression and anxiety of a mild or moderate severity, and that anti-depressants should only be used for severe disorders or when all other treatments have first proved ineffective. This is because these drugs are often less effective in depressed children and adolescents than in adults, and come with increased risk of self-harm and suicidal thinking.

Karanges also advocates for caution as: “The brain is still developing up to the age of 25 and antidepressants are a pretty blunt instrument. We know very little about how they might be changing the development of the brain and whether they might have long-term effects into adulthood.”

So what is driving this eagerness to medicate kids who need support?

Although counsellors and psychologists can’t prescribe medication, many are quick to suggest young people visit a GP to access these (it is not uncommon for this to be suggested as a solution even during an introductory counselling session). Concerned parents may then go to their GP specifically requesting drugs.

And many time-poor GPs report feeling ill equipped to treat mental health issues; according to the Black Dog Institute, in Australia GPs don’t have to have any specific training in mental health to practice.

Karanges points out that these types of medications are also heavily marketed to the medical community: “It is perhaps no coincidence that the anti-depressants that were most rapidly increasing in use were also the newest ones and the ones most likely to be advertised to doctors.”

GP’s may also have the misguided view these types of medications are relatively safe. A Danish study published in The British Medical Journey this week found that the harms reported in antidepressant trials were often seriously misrepresented and underreported, this included suicide attempts and suicidal idealation being coded in reports by pharmaceutical companies as “emotional lability” or “worsening depression”.

Reports issued by drug companies were, the authors said, “even more unreliable than we previously suspected”. The study concluded by recommending “minimal use of antidepressants in children, adolescents, and young adults, as the serious harms seem to be greater, and as their effect seems to be below what is clinically relevant”.

Instead, treatments such as psychotherapy and exercise were suggested.

It may also be that culturally, we are not always comfortable with the full spectrum of human emotions and are too eager to seek a quick fix.

Psychologist Jacqui Manning says she would be reluctant to suggest medication, particularly with a young person, until a range of other strategies had been tried first.

“I may see teens during highly stressful life events like the HSC exams or a breakdown or death in the family,” she said.

“Sometimes parents will say, ‘my child isn’t coping — do you think they need meds?’ I’ll respond that there are many things we can try first and that their son or daughter’s feelings are a normal human response to an extremely stressful situation.”

Whilst it is important not to stigmatise or alienate those young people who do genuinely need medication, Iain McGregor, Professor of Psychopharmacology at the University of Sydney, has called for time out on making medication our default response when supporting children and teens in crisis.

“We need to have a national debate about what is driving this phenomenon,” he said.

“Why are we so reliant on pills for the mental wellbeing of our young people?”

And what is happening that is making our kids feel so desperately sad in the first place?

Want narcissistic children? Shower them with praise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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Real men (and boys) aren’t afraid to cry

The following post was first published in The Daily Telegraph 7/12/15 and online at RendezView. 

UK man Aaron Gillies recently tweeted a list of all the reasons his wife cries, including “She was hung-over and saw a picture of a piglet.” The internet exploded, with others then sharing stories of females and their sometimes unfathomable “feels”. Tweets from women included “I cried over a sea otter” and “I cried last night because I love Christmas spirit so much.”

But my favourite tweet? “My dad cried at the end of Shrek because ‘it’s just so beautiful.’” In among the sea of admissions of female emotion was the recognition of male sensitivity. How rare — and how needed.

Actor Hugh Jackman shed a few tears while being interviewed on 60 Minutes. (Pic: Channel 9)

Modern views on masculinity would have us believe blokes must be stiff upper-lipped and simply “man up” when overwhelmed. They are given permission to cry perhaps only when their children are born, or when a loved one dies.

Yet our reluctance to let males shed tears is relatively new, says Tom Lutz, a University of California, Riverside Professor and author of “Crying: A natural and Cultural History of Tears.” He traces this trend to the late 19th century, when factory workers — mostly men — were discouraged from indulging in emotion lest it interfere with their productivity.

In the early 19th century, American politicians were constantly wiping their eyes. Beloved President Abraham Lincoln wept during his celebrated debates about slavery with senator Stephen Douglas, and Douglas wept back. Far from being perceived as a sign of weakness, crying whilst speaking was considered a sign of integrity and the mark of a skilled orator.

NFL and NRL player Jarryd Hayne isn’t afraid to cry in public. (Pic: Supplied)

In fact the ancient Greeks considered shedding a tear one of the greatest signs of true manliness. Hero Odysseus breaks down in tears regularly throughout his quest, once because he is so moved by a song. When he is reunited with his son Telemakhos we are told, “Salt tears rose from the wells of longing in both men, and cries burst forth from both as keen and fluttering as those of the great taloned hawk whose nestlings farmers take before they can fly. So helplessly they cried, pouring out tears.”

When my male presenters and I work with teen boys debunking myths around masculinity the myth that real men don’t cry is the one that has young lads hooked. They sit in awe listening to stories about other men they admire who have cried (from their own teachers to celebrities and sports stars).

Fifteen-year-old Jason summed up the feelings of many of his mates in his reflections on the workshop: “ I used to get so embarrassed when I cried and would quickly wipe my tears away and hide my face. I am going to try to just let the tears flow next time. I’m not a robot and that’s OK.”

It is more than OK. Too many men withdraw into their careers, try to drown their sorrows with alcohol, and punch rather than pause and deal with their swirling emotions. Perhaps it’s time more blokes embraced hashtags that give them permission to let their tears flow too.

Ask Me Anything

I was thrilled to be asked to contribute to a book that is destined to become a teen-girl must-have; Rebecca Sparrow’s latest title for teen girls, Ask Me Anything (heartfelt answers to 65 anonymous questions from teenage girls). As a fan of Bec’s other titles for young women, Find Your Tribe and Find Your Feet, I knew this little book would have a big heart.

And now I’ve had the opportunity to read the finished version? I found myself lamenting the fact this book was’t around when I was a teen girl! I would have giggled, nodded along in agreement, called my bestie to read her out my favourite responses, clutched to it in moments of crises. Rebecca tackles the real issues that matter to our girls with incredible humour and not only her own voice, but the collective wisdom of other women, too.

Below is a sample question and answer reprinted here with permission. I’ve previously reprinted another question (‘I’m ugly. So how will I ever get a boyfriend?”) and Bec’s stunning response here.

Isn’t this exactly the kind of wise, warm and accessible advice we want all our girls to be able to access?

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Q. How do you know whether your friends like you?

Answer: It sounds like there have been some red flags waving in your mind that your friends aren’t such great ‘friends’ after all.

So how do you know for sure? Look at how you feel when you’re around them. Do you feel happy and confident and strong around your friends? Do you trust them? Can you be your authentic self? Can you admit you love reading romance novels or watching nature documentaries or playing cricket in your spare time? If the answer is no – well, there’s your answer.

One of my dearest friends is Mia Freedman. Mia is the co-founder and content director of the Mamamia Women’s Network of websites and podcasts. She has three kids and an awesome little rescue dog called Harry. Over the years, Mia has written a number of articles on the important role female friendships play in her life. So I went to Mia for her advice on how to know when your friends really like you. Here’s what she had to say …

“When I’m with good friends, I feel like a phone that’s been plugged in to recharge. Friends who like you fill you up: with energy, with confidence, with joy. Friends who like you are as happy to be there for the bad times as they are for the good times. Be very wary of any ‘friend’ who isn’t there for both. Friends who only seem to be around when you’re miserable (after a breakup, when you’re having trouble at home, when you’re having a fight with another friend) can be a bit like parasites. They feed off other people’s problems. Your misery gives them energy and makes them feel better about themselves.

On the other hand, if someone only wants to be around you when you’re happy or you’re the centre of attention, your friendship probably isn’t very deep. You won’t be able to rely on them when things are tough (which they inevitably will be).

A true friend is constant and solid and listens as much as she talks. A friend who likes you might still make mistakes, and your friendship may well have ups and downs, but she will be willing to work through them. You won’t walk away with that scratchy, insecure feeling meaning you don’t know where you stand. The best friendships are very equal. They don’t make you feel guilty or anxious or sad or paranoid. Friends who like you want you to be the best you can be and celebrate your happiness as their own. This is exactly the same logic you should use for relationships throughout your life, whether they’re romantic or platonic.”

“Ask Me Anything (heartfelt answers to 65 anonymous questions from teenage girls)” by Rebecca Sparrow, University of Queensland Press
In stores from 18 November 2015 Pre-order http://www.booktopia.com.au/ask-me-a…/prod9780702253874.html

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:

Is this the best ad campaign EVER aimed at little girls?

The following post was originally published by Kidspot. 

Yep. I’m calling it. This is the greatest marketing campaign aimed at little girls ever.

Much-loved talk show host Ellen DeGeneres has joined with American clothing retailer Gap to help design and launch a new range of clothing for girls entitled GapKids x ED; “It’s for the doers and dancers and dreamers, bikers and boarders and builders …”

The television commercial, featuring a girl empowering anthem by feminist rockers Le Tigre, shows young girls from diverse racial backgrounds skating, biking, climbing, solving math equations. They are a blur of moving limbs, messed up hair and cheeky grins.

And the best part? Ellen also interviews all the girls featured in a series of promotional videos; they get the opportunity to share their real passions. There’s the ‘Pink Helmet Posse’, a trio of skateboarders ranging in age from seven-to-eight. There’s nine-year-old Torrae, a robotic hand builder and 12 year old Asia, an entrepreneur.

These girls aren’t mere models. They are model people

The clothes feature slogans like ‘Fun’ and ‘Become your own hero’. The iconography includes a lightening bolt (a symbol of empowerment) and a speech bubble (reminding girls to express themselves). The collection also encourages kids to express themselves quite literally with self-customisable clothing and accessories that they can decorate freely using fabric or chalk markers.

The Media Release offers one final triumph:

“Using the hashtag #HeyWorld followed by a name, a girl’s friend, mother, father or mentor can issue a call to action for social messages of encouragement and love to any girl in need of positive support, cheering her on through the power of positive words. In addition, there will be a texting opportunity to receive inspiring and encouraging messages from Ellen DeGeneres herself.”

Oh, be still my beating heart

For years we have been dismayed at clothing and marketing campaigns aimed at little girls. And make no mistake, there have been some absolute shockers.

There have been slogans that encourage girls to play dumb; ‘I’m too pretty to do my homework so my brother has to do it for me.” “I’m allergic to Algebra.” “My best subjects? Boys, shopping, music and dancing.”

Slogans that encourage girls to play helpless; ‘I need a hero’. ‘Waiting for my Prince Charming’.

And slogans that encourage girls to view themselves as just bodies, not somebodies; ‘Future trophy wife’. ‘Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’.

 

Best ad campaign ever aimed at young girls
Clothing with far from empowering slogans.

 

There’s been designer duds marketed as aspirational for little girls. Think Suri Cruise tottering since the age of three in one of the many pairs of designer shoes drawn from her collection, which is reportedly worth over $150,000 (by age seven she had her own fashion label). Or Kim and Kanye’s two-year-old daughter North West’s wardrobe, which features designs by the likes of Givenchy and Alexander Wang.

And there’s been plenty of advertisements featuring little girls pouting, preening and posing like mini-adults.

The children’s clothing industry is a billion dollar business and many marketers have rushed not just to sell to girls, but also to sell girls out. You can’t help but feel a chill when you read the words of one marketing professional that said at a big marketing-and-advertising shindig in New York recently: ‘Kids are the most powerful sector of the market, and we should take advantage of them.’

So it’s no wonder I found myself fist-pumping at this fresh new girl-empowering approach.

#HeyWorld – meet marketing to girls done right. And other brands? Please take note.

 

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.

 

In celebration of Book Week; my long-standing love for books, libraries, and librarians.

This year is the 70th anniversary of the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s annual Book Week, which runs from August 22 – 28. The following post was originally published by RendezView

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My love affair with libraries began when I was 10 years old. My parents both worked until late, so after school I’d take myself off to the local library to pass the time until we could all head home.

I vividly recall selecting the books I’d escape into for the afternoon with a level of childhood intensity usually only reserved for selecting the mixed lollies that would go into my bag.

Thrillingly, as I was such a frequent visitor, the librarians allowed me to have both my child borrowing card and an adult card so I could also devour the nonfiction books on dollhouse design and history they had seen me eyeing off. My heart would flutter every time I stalked the adult nonfiction section; I felt so grown up. Trusted. What new worlds were suddenly open to me to explore!

I’d then curl up on the carpet surrounded by my chosen titles and devour them all. Not just the words, but the smell too.

The scent of well-worn pages still makes me giddy and explains why, despite my love for books, I just can’t bring myself to embrace ebooks. I loved then, and love now, the mysterious connection to other readers who had also turned those same pages. An unexpected scribble in a margin. A shopping list left in as a bookmark. All were treasured bonds forged with others who also shared my passion for libraries; “I am not alone!”

When my sister and I changed schools later that year I was very much alone. I was shocked to find not everyone wanted to play with the “new girl.” I’d always taken my ability to make new friends for granted and wasn’t quite sure how to break into the existing circles of girls.

So I found refuge in my school library. I’d sit and spend time with fictional teen girls who seemed far more exciting anyway; Nancy Drew. Trixie Belden. These were my tribe. What would they have made of that note in the margin? I’d wonder. Could that shopping list be in fact a clue?

By the time I was in high school I’d found a real-life girl gang (of the non-detective variety) and was surprisingly rather popular. My recess and lunch breaks were still filled with words; but now it was all talking, whispering, gossiping.

Yet still I’d occasionally head to the school library when the politics of girl world seemed too intense. Sometimes I wouldn’t go to read or study; but rather to gently torment my poor library teachers. I’d pair up with some of the other library-loving-lasses and pose, as if dead, between the book shelves waiting for the librarian to find us.

This amused us far more than it did them; yet I recall them being rather patient. I suspect now that they knew for some, libraries serve not only as places that offer escapism between the pages of the books they house, but as safe havens to escape increasing adult responsibilities.

It may come as no surprise then that when I became a high school English teacher at a school with a high percentage of young people at risk, one of the first things I did was open an after school study centre at our school library. Any student who wanted to could stay back after school and have afternoon tea, then do their homework in the library with support from myself and the other teachers who joined the initiative.

What kind of kids put their hands up to stay back after school and hang in the library? Hungry kids.

Some were literally hungry and stayed back to eat peanut butter sandwich after peanut butter sandwich. For these kids, this was their only meal of the day and if the price they had to pay was books? Then so be it.

Some were genuinely hungry for learning. Many had been refugees and as English wasn’t their first language, they’d want to talk, and ask questions. “Miss, why is this? Miss, how do you say that? Miss, what does this mean?” Feed me, Miss. Feed me.

Some were simply hungry for attention from a safe adult. They’d sit next to me and just enjoy the quiet and calm. And I’d hug them extra hard when they left.

I read today about a wonderful librarian in San Francisco who has started a “Books on Bikes” outreach program. Alicia Tapia peddles around on her bike fitted with a trailer laden with books to areas that don’t have easy access to libraries and offers titles for borrowing. “Books do something for the human brain that nothing else can,” she says. “With books comes happiness, and people build empathy for one another. “

Oh how I love Alicia’s creativity and commitment. How vital it is that all young people have access to quality reading materials.

But oh too how I hope that we don’t ever see the demise of the bricks and mortar library.

Because it’s not just about the books. It’s about a space one can go to that asks not about your social standing or financial status.

Rather, it simply says: “All are welcome here.”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because the real picture? It’s far brighter.

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