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?
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
I’ll let you in on a little secret. Princesses? They are often far more resilient than we give them credit for being.
Over the course of the Christmas holidays I had the opportunity to watch a gaggle of little girls, aged between three and five, at play. They were a blur of bare-feet, tousled long hair and flowing Princess gowns. Apparently, a 200-piece ribbon and hair clip set left under the Christmas tree was urgently required to be opened for immediate distribution. There was much plotting, and then rounds of relentless lobbying of parents, until this wish was granted.
Nearby an exhausted little sister, still in her pink swimmers from the beach, was curled up asleep cuddling a doughnut. This dessert obsessed “Sleeping Beauty” was quite literally growling at any would-be-stylists who ventured too near, or tried to wake her.
It struck me that despite our concerns over the tyranny of pink and it’s feared innate capacity to render girls immediately docile, none of these little women were in the least passive or afraid of displaying leadership qualities.
How very interesting that whilst the grown-ups spent most of “No Gender December” worrying about the dangers of pink and blue, and what toys to permit poor Santa to bring, the kids just got on with the job of playing.
That’s not to say I think initiatives that raise awareness about how gendered the toy shelves are don’t have merit. Yet education is key – not attempts to ban.
I find young people fascinated when I explain that the segregation based on hues that is now so common is in fact a relatively modern phenomena. Up until the introduction of chemical dyes in the mid-late 1800’s, children predominately all wore white. However, when colour was used, pink was frequently chosen for little boys; particularly those of high social standing. Early renaissance art depicts baby Jesus frocked in pink, whilst Queen Victoria’s third son Prince Arthur was depicted in both pink and white.
In fact, we see this pink-for boys trend popularised even in the 20th Century. A 1918 editorial from Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department stated that pink was:
“…a more decided and stronger colour…more suitable for a boy; while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for a girl.”
Today, however, marketers have firmly latched on to pretty-in-pink for females, using this to sell everything from pens to tool boxes (and then adding a hefty mark-up for the pink privilege).
Meanwhile the types of toys on offer don’t seem to have changed with the times at all. Kitchen sets are still frequently depicted with a girl on the packaging, whilst the dress-ups featuring the professions that are urgently attempting to recruit more women (such as construction and the sciences) are plastered with pics of little lads.
It is helpful then to call into question such stereotypes. But it’s not helpful to panic or worse still stigmatise those children, like the girls I witnessed, who want to embrace their inner pink-glitter-ribbons-sparkly-trinkets self.
Smart parents get this. Growing up I was very much Team Barbie. And that was ok. My sister meanwhile was pro-The Lone Ranger, Tonto and Steve Austin The Bionic Man. And that was ok. My parents didn’t seem in the least phased by our different tastes and we certainly never quarrelled over this; rather it seemed to us incredibly convenient for it meant we had dolls of both genders ready to animate.
Smart celebrity parents Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt get it. When their daughter Shiloh started requesting to only wear traditionally male clothes and be called John, they respected these wishes and recently publicly announced their decision in order that the rest of us might too.
Rather than closing the toy box lid, and our minds, the key is to be open when it comes to issues relating to gender and identity. And to realise as well that what our children see modelled in their homes matters most.
All the budding royals I saw at play had smart, ambitious mums and dads who both actively parent them. Within that social circle too are an incredibly loving gay couple, and happy and successful singles. A virtual rainbow of grown-up possibilities. It is this Kingdom that will shape them. The rest? Mere props.
This week I was invited to join regular panelist, Principal of Southport High School Steven Mcluckie and three times Olympic champion Hockey Player Nikki Hudson on ABC Radio Gold Coast’s parenting panel hosted by Nicole Dyer. I think the discussion is well worth a listen. My perspective on a few issues was quite different to the other panellists- particularly in relation to girls and clothing choices (an issue also explored at my blog here). Your thoughts?
Despite the popular rhetoric about social media leading to the demise of real-world friendships (you’ve heard the criticisms, right? “Teens are now too busy texting to talk”, “Young people care more about their profile pics than their mates”) in my experience, many of us use technology to not only maintain meaningful relationships, but to develop new ones.
Case in point? I first “met” the talented writer and media commentator Rebecca Sparrow on Twitter. She was tweeting about a young Intern who had made some provocative statements about her employers. I disagreed with Bec’s take on this and I challenged her. Rather than raging at me in under 140 characters (which is so often the preferred mode of discourse on Twitter), she messaged me to thank me for prompting her to reconsider. We then begun exchanging messages and realised we both had much in common; Bec too delights in writing for young women. Her guide books for teen girls, Find Your Tribe – and 9 other things I wish I’d known in high school and Find Your Feet – the 8 things I wish I’d know before I left high school are so incredibly warm, wise, honest and filled with just the kind of advice every girl needs to hear! In fact, Bec is one of those rare writers who makes you fall a little in love with her after reading her books and I found I longed to be part of her “tribe” too – so much so that I recently took myself off to Brisbane to stay with her and her family and share thoughts on teen girls, writing, parenting and Wonder Woman. Cyber friendship result!
Through my work with young women I have reinforced daily just how vital their friendships are to them too. As I discuss in my own books, teen girls and their friends often experience the highest highs, and the lowest lows. Any advice then that helps make sense of these vital relationships needs to be shared – and I am thrilled to be able to share an extract from Find Your Tribe here. Share it with the girls you care about too.
Let’s get one thing straight. The truth is, despite having written a novel entitled The Girl Most Likely – I wasn’t. I wasn’t the girl most likely to succeed in high school. I wasn’t a prefect. I didn’t win any awards in my final year. Not a single one. In fact, in high school I was fairly average. I got pretty good grades, I guess, but I didn’t top any subjects. And I certainly didn’t stand out. Although when I look back at photos of me at seventeen I’m not entirely sure how I DIDN’T stand out considering that in high school I looked like a cross between Tootsie and Jon Bon Jovi. Harold Bishop with a perm. That was me. Excellent.
And while we’re being honest, let’s just say that high school also handed me some of my most crushing moments. Nobody invited me to my school formal. A guy that I was madly in love with barely knew I even existed. I was so bad at Maths I ended up having to do Maths in Society. And despite the fact I’d been playing netball since I was nine, I wasn’t chosen for even the C-grade netball team in high school. Talk about a blow to the ego.
But here’s the weird bit. Despite all that rotten stuff – I loved high school. Yep. Loved it. I’m one of those people who can actually, genuinely say they enjoyed it. A number of my closest friends today are the people I whispered secrets to during Modern History and French and Drama (and, clearly, PE and Maths. I’m beginning to suspect that my grades would’ve been better if I’d actually shut up and paid attention in class).
So how does that work? What was my secret? I made some smart decisions. Starting with finding my tribe ….
FIND YOUR TRIBE
One of the major factors that will determine the quality of your time at high school is who you hang around. Your friends.
I’m going to cut to the chase: Life is too short to hang around with bitchy, negative people. So don’t. In high school you want to find your tribe. Your tribe are those friends who get you, who see the world the way you see it, who like you for who you are. They’re real friends. They don’t slag you off the moment your back is turned or routinely humiliate you and put you down. Nope. Real friends have your back – they’re fiercely loyal and protective. If you have a tribe of six friends – that’s fantastic. But even if you have just one great friend – that’s all you need.
You know what else? You don’t need to be in the cool group to enjoy high school. Aim to be someone who is friends with all different kinds of people at school. Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabes calls this being a ‘floater’. Floaters do their own thing, have healthy self-esteem and they definitely don’t pay attention to peer pressure. Be authentic in your tastes. In other words, be who you are. Don’t change your personality or your interests or your taste just to hang around with girls who spend all their time bitching and making fun of other people.
All this sounds obvious, right? And yet many adults will tell you it took them years (and some painful friendship experiences) to finally get this lesson. For some reason, many of us spend our spare time with snarky, negative people who make us feel worthless.
And don’t think for a second that hanging around with the cool group will make you seem more attractive. There’s nothing attractive about someone who behaves like a sheep and follows a leader. You’re way better off hanging around with your tribe. After all, what’s attractive is a girl who is confident, who can laugh at herself, who smiles a lot and who exudes a generous spirit.
N.B You may also be interested in my seminar for parents and educators on supporting girls to make positive, healthy friendships. Find out more about this, and download a flyer, here:
This advertisement for Skype is just gorgeous. In the current culture that mocks teen girl friendships and focuses on the negative (think Mean Girls, Ja’mie) this shows just how genuine and healing their relationships can also be. I love too that it provides an alternative to the current often hysterical dialogue around cyber world that would have us believe all girls only engage with technology in order to bitch, sext and post selfies.
Let’s remind ourselves that for every young person making a bad choice, there are plenty who make great choices everyday. Let’s remind ourselves too that the push for perfection (whether it be physical perfection or the refusal to permit mistakes) is not only dull – it is dangerous.
When I first co-founded Enlighten Education with my partner Francesca Kaoutal back in 2003, the vision was to create workshops for both girls and boys that would inform, inspire and empower. Our initial work with boys was launched via an innovative and explorative program called “Tribal Zone.”
Although Fran and I were happy with the outcomes from this pilot program, at the time we both felt that our energies needed to be channelled into the urgent business of working with young women and also felt apprehensive about leading boys into an exploration of manhood. Surely this was mens’ business?
Fast forward 8 years and my own son, Kye, is now 11. As my career began in the classroom, and I spent 8 years working as both an English teacher and a students at risk co-ordinator, I have witnessed first-hand just how challenging adolescence is for many young men. The pressures placed on boys to conform to unrealistic stereotypes and to fit narrow definitions of masculinity now, more than ever, seem particularly urgent for me to help address. Whilst my son begins to prepare for High School next year, I too again feel the need to offer education that will help make the transition from boyhood to manhood more joyful and equip him, and all boys, with skills to make sense of a world that is not always kind to either gender.
Increasingly too schools have been asking me to work with their young men and share many of the messages I give to girls with their boys. Sydney’s Cranbrook School recently asked me to work with their middle school boys on developing conflict resolution skills, and on how they could best develop positive friendships.
I thoroughly enjoyed this experience and left feeling that I had indeed helped to make a difference.
So I recently approached colleague Nina Funnell to collaborate with me on designing a new workshop aimed at raising boys up. Nina is a writer, social commentator and an anti-violence advocate- she and I recently finished a book for girls on respectful relationships which will be published by Harper Collins in 2014.
The result? A two hour workshop that busts myths about boys. Some of the myths we bust include: “Teen boys are bad news”, “Real men don’t cry”, “All gamers are socially inept geeks,” “Boys punch on and then move on” and “All strong men have six-packs.” We do not assume to tell boys how to be men, but rather use our expertise in engaging young people to educate them to make their own decisions, and we equip them with the skills they need to make better choices. And we draw on the wisdom of men in leadership roles:
I recently delivered this workshop to over a thousand boys from years 6 through to year 11 over the course of a week at the Australian International School In Singapore. I have to say I was beyond thrilled with the results! 95% of boys rated the session as either Very Good or Excellent, and 99% said they would recommend it. But aside from asking them what they thought of the day, we also wanted to ascertain what they wished all adults would better understand about their world. The boys’ comments were incredibly poignant and meaningful and expressed a strong desire for them to be better understood:
I wish adults would understand that we have feelings, we’re not perfect, we need help sometimes and we don’t have a perfect body. Ned, yr 9
I wish adults would understand that it’s a lot harder than most parents would suspect (being a boy) because of various things such as media. Kieran, Yr 9
I liked the performance thing, it gave us a chance to try. I learnt that we are not the troublemakers. We are hard on our life, so please be soft on us. Anon.Yr 9
Today I learnt that assertiveness works, aggressiveness doesn’t work, talking face to face is always better and that chicks want nice guys. Adults need to understand that being a teen boy we have a lot of pressure. Anton, Yr 9
Adults need to understand that playing video games isn’t bad, and can also be helpful. I learnt today that boys have feelings, aggression isn’t always the answer and to be assertive. Dylan, yr 9
I wish adults would understand that I’m a good child and do the right thing. Andy, Yr 9
I learnt today to be assertive, express yourself, don’t have to be buff, games aren’t socially inept and talk in person about troubles. I wish adults would understand that we aren’t all trouble, sometimes we hide our struggles, we can be good at communicating and the pressure about our bodies. Joel, Yr 9
I wish adults would understand that boys also feel pressure. Girls might seem all weak (which is sexist) but even boys have emotions. We aren’t all those buff powerhouses like everyone thinks. Dalai, yr 7
I liked learning how we are influenced because it was interesting. I learnt to give time, be calm, men cry, be assertive and boys aren’t always bad. Zac, Yr 7
I wish adults would understand that teen boys aren’t all bad and that we can be smart, organized, clean, healthy and independent. Wayne, Yr 7
I liked the information you gave us about reality and the truth about growing up. I wish adults would understand the stress of school, making friends and our troubles and needs. Anon, Yr y8
Today taught me about social media, myths about boys, dealing with friends, how to keep calm and stereotypes about boys. I wish adults would understand that we can be good and to let us get out more. Kahn, Yr 7
My favourite part today was listening to a well-structured and hilarious presentation with issues that are extremely relevant. I learnt that there are many stereotypes surrounding boys, ways to solve problems and conflict, there are similarities between boys and girls, boys aren’t as strong as depicted by the media and that the level of intelligence of boys and girls is the same. I want adults to understand that we get stressed with assignments and other homework tasks at times. Kevin, Yr 10
All of it was great and it gave us useful advice. I learnt that some adults acknowledge that their reasoning my be incorrect or exaggerated. I want adults to remember that they had their own equivalent stereotypes when they were growing up. Hahn, Yr 10
My favourite parts were the interactive ones. I learnt that we aren’t all heartless Neanderthals, violence against women goes unnoticed and not all guys just want sex. I would like adults to know that we aren’t as dumb as we are depicted. Ben, Yr 11
I expected it to be a long boring speech but I liked everything, it was exciting and I wasn’t bored. I learnt that not all guys are bad, how to make up with friends, there are a lot of myths about guys and the target market for boys and girls is very different. I would like adults to know that I am not like the bad boys on tv and I hope they don’t compare me to them. Jonathan, yr 11
Perhaps the thing that moved me the most though was not so much the boys’ words, but rather their actions. Many lined up to give me a hug good-bye. Or to shake my hand. Or simply to give me a “High-5”. I found myself quite overwhelmed by the enthusiastic way in which they embraced these messages, I even had boys running up to me in the playground throughout the course of the week to thank me yet again.
Working with young women will always be a priority. Yet I cannot help but feel excited about the impact this work may have on young men too – and of course on the women in their lives who will be positively impacted by the changes we are helping to create.
To enquire about having me work with the boys at your school email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note, this work is run independently and is not part of Enlighten Education’s programs.
I was absolutely thrilled to have been asked to join the panel discussing the topic, “All Women Hate Each Other” at The Sydney Opera House’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas. The panel also featured Eva Cox, Germaine Greer and Tara Moss. What a line-up!
A video of the session will be ready to view by the end of the month and I shall share it with you as soon as it becomes available. In the interim, I’d like to tease out a few of the more interesting “dangerous ideas” the session raised.
Tara’s arguments are best summed up by a great opinion piece she wrote, published in the Sydney Morning Herald just before the event: Mean boys the worst culprits. Tara writes;
“All women hate each other”, or so the saying goes. It is also a view of women many instinctively agree with. From the sports field to the boardroom, male ambition and competitiveness is praised, yet the term ”ambitious”, when it describes a female, is often used with ambivalence. There is a nasty side to female competition and aggression, we are told. The perils of female-on-female cruelty continue to be widely discussed by academics and journalists, and frequently portrayed in popular entertainment, from the breakout 2004 comedy Mean Girls, to reality shows like Real Housewives. It’s widely understood that women are ”their own worst enemies”…
Yet this focus on female cruelty seems curious, when you consider that ”mean boys” are far more likely to cause physical injury and death…
The fact remains unarguable – dangerous social behaviours and acts of aggression and harm are overwhelmingly perpetrated by males.”
Germaine and Eva both provided thought provoking ideas, including a few that I found myself needing to challenge.
Germaine described watching a group of male businessmen at lunch. She said it was almost a scene reminiscent of the film Gorillas in the Mist; the most powerful “Silverback” assuming his position within the group and the others (with their clearly defined roles, the joker, the sidekick etc) positioning themselves around him. “Why don’t women network in this way?” she asked, proposing that females are not as good at building networks of support.
As someone who has been in education for over 20 years, working with teen girls on a weekly basis, I had to counter by declaring that anyone watching adolescent girls at lunch time (particularly in single-sex schools) would observe a very similar power dynamic. Girls know where to sit in the playground (their location saying much about their standing within the social network of their school) and also often sit surrounding the most socially dominant female. In fact, girls are very good at reading social environments and vying for power within these.
Perhaps the real issue may be whether in fact our young women lose this capacity to build empires once they enter the workplace, and if they do, why is this so? Could it be that our workplaces do not allow for opportunities for women to connect in this way; many working women claim they struggle to maintain a balance between home and the workplace and may, therefore, be less likely to invest precious time in socialising and networking (activities which are often perceived as almost “optional extras” rather than core responsibilities).
At the recent Australian Leadership Awards I attended in Melbourne, I had the opportunity to hear from a number of women leaders and when asked about how we might help improve outcomes for women in the workplace, many spoke about the real barriers to women in leadership being culturally embedded, which makes them slippery and hard to pin down. These include the belief that he/she who works the longest hours is the most conmmitted. One woman summed up her frustrations thus: “At my workplace there are diversity policies in place which have allowed me to work part-time and re-enter the workplace twelve months after having my daughter. But the issue for me is that all the important conversations seem to happen after 5pm when I’ve left! The guys at my office tend to stay back and brainstorm and plan. When I get back in at 9am the next day, I feel out of the loop.”
In fact, very few women I spoke to said they ever had time to go to lunch with their colleagues; in order to leave punctually to get home to do their “second shift” with their family, they often ate at their desks. I believe women will better utilise their networking skills when there is more equality around domestic work in our homes; women will then have the time and energy they need to once again engage in the power “dance” they practiced regularly, and skilfully, as young girls.
Similarly, I challenged Germaine when she said girls and women are not very good at “chilling out”. Ask any parent; teen girls are often gifted at engaging in down time! Again, perhaps due to the fact that women are doing the lioness’ share of the work at home, young women may be at risk of losing the ability to unwind and fall into the trap (one I know I often fall into) of believing we must do everything, all at once, all on our own, by the time they reach adulthood.
Finally, I would like to make a plea for kindness. For I fear we are killing it.
In a previous post on the issue of women in the workplace, I discussed the research that shows that in our culture, there is a deeply ingrained belief that the most important qualities of a leader are assertiveness and competitiveness, and that these are perceived as male traits, while women are meant to be nice and compassionate. Why our culture sees being nice and compassionate as at odds with leadership is an interesting question in itself. But for now, I’d like to focus on the fact that both Eva and Germaine challenged the assumption that women should be expected to be “nice” and seemed to be implying that women could be as unpleasant as they wanted to be (insert cheering from the crowd).
Whilst I agree that women shouldn’t have any particular obligation to be pleasant or agreeable simply by virtue of their gender (we are not “God’s Police”), I would contend that in environments like workplaces (and schools), which force people together who may not have a natural affiliation with each other, life is far more bearable if everyone, regardless of sex, is considerate and cooperative. Or, as we state in our workshop on developing positive relationships, not necessarily friends, but friendly.
Of course I am at risk of either sounding naive or idealistic here. But research clearly shows that those who do engage with others in a positive way tend to be happier and more resilient. Many schools, in fact, are now following positive education principles which include teaching kindness, and fairness.
Why is it that being “nice” is considered somewhat old fashioned and a sign of weakness? We almost celebrate the rude, aggressive, and impolite (we certainly pay them well. Think Allan Jones and Kyle Sandilands). We fall into the trap of perceiving those who act negatively as more powerful, and excuse our own poorer behaviors with phrases such as “I don’t owe it to anyone…”, “I never asked for it”, “Why should I be nice? He/she’s not”…
My company, Enlighten Education, specialises in working with young women, but the content we deliver in our program on building respectful relationships could just as easily be delivered to young men and, in fact, Cranbrook school has asked me to to deliver it to the young boys in their Junior School later this month.
In one of the other Festival Of Dangerous Ideas sessions titled “Abolish Private Schools”, the excellent Jane Caro argued, as a part of a broader discussion on how we rank schools based on the limited criteria established by tests like NAPLAN, that one of the things that makes us most successful are our social skills and our ability to get along with others in particular. I wholeheartedly agree. I also know that getting along with others requires having the time and energy to do so (which, as I’ve argued, are challenges we need to work away at for many women in the workplace), and will involve us all learning to be a little nicer to each other- regardless of gender.
Let’s not be mislead into believing “haters” rule.