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Category: Power of Words

Our girls are being killed with kindness

Our girls are being killed with kindness.

There’s a growing trend to tell girls (and the messages promoting kindness are so often directed at young women) that if they were simply kinder, there would be less mean girl machinations, more sugar, spice and playground niceness.

Sounds simple, right?

Too simple. If we’re serious about stamping out bullying, we need to stop thinking in trite slogans. Instead, we need to start identifying and addressing the factors that contribute to relational and physical aggression.

And we need to equip both girls and boys with the skills they need to regulate their emotions, and manage conflict respectfully.

To be clear, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being a kind person. I highly value people who are compassionate and considerate. Surely most of us do? That’s why we feed our daughters on a diet of tales about princesses who are sweet not only towards those who may help them (such as dwarves, and forest creatures) but even towards those who may harm them (enter beasts and evil step mothers). 

Research suggests that in fact around 98% of people already consider themselves to be kind.

But sometimes, our girls chose to act out regardless.

Why, and what can be done to modify this behaviour? 

Author of Odd Girl Out, Rachel Simmons, told Harvard Ed Magazine this month that, “Girls are still raised with a psychology that is trained to think about other people before themselves. This… is a real recipe for unhappiness.”

Simmons isn’t suggesting we raise a generation of moral narcissists. But she is suggesting that we should be teaching girls how to be kind to themselves, and value their own needs and wants too.

The road to resentment and burnout is littered with misplaced empathy and compulsive acts of altruism.

We must also be mindful to ensure that our messaging isn’t misinterpreted as, “Be kind – no matter what.”

And make no mistake, we do still tell girls that they should be friends with people they say they really don’t like (often without even asking why they feel uncomfortable with that person) hug relatives they instinctively pull away from, and unquestioningly do as they are told.

Surely if the #metoo movement has taught us anything, it is that turning a blind eye, or trying to placate with acts of kindness, may in fact only make victims more vulnerable.

In her New York Times column entitled “I do not want my daughter to be nice”, Catherine Newman explains that, “I bite my tongue so that I won’t hiss at her to be nice…I want my daughter to be tough, to say no, to waste exactly zero of her God-given energy on the sexual, emotional and psychological demands of lame men — of lame anybodies. I don’t want her to accommodate and please. I don’t want her to wear her good nature like a gemstone…”.

The uncomfortable truth is that there is also often far more going on with bullies than a mere lack of kindness.

Some individuals who use bullying tactics have been bullied themselves (either at school, or perhaps in their homes), and so use bullying as a maladaptive strategy to feel more powerful.

The three biggest bullies I ever encountered throughout my 25 year teaching career were all later revealed to have being sexually molested in their own homes by family members.

There are plenty of victims of abuse and neglect who internalise their trauma, but for those who do rage outwards, we need to offer far more than snap judgements and mere platitudes.

And ultimately, we also need to engage in some honest self-reflection.

Kids have a finely tuned radar for falseness. When the adults advocating kindness aren’t always kind themselves, and when the very leaders of our country not only engage in bickering and back-stabbing, but are rewarded for it, is it any wonder that young people may be cynical about kindness campaigns?

Kindness matters.

But it would be both unkind and untrue to suggest it’s going to cure complex issues like bullying.

Class is now in session

That woeful sigh you can hear?

It’s the sound of hundreds of thousands of tweens who have only just come down from the heady days of being the big kids on campus in primary school. They’ve now realised that in a few short weeks they will be leaving the safe harbour, and navigating the unfamiliar waters of secondary school.

There will be sleepless nights. Possibly some tears. And this is just from parents who will be angsting over everything from whether they have chosen the right school, to how they might be able to afford the school fees.

Forget fretting over whether you’ve bought the right lunch box, or the latest on trend Typo pencil case. Here’s what our kids really need us to be equipping them with so that they can manage this journey successfully.

1. Resilience. There will be days that are stressful, and leave them feeling flat. Don’t rush into solve their upsets for them too early; that science teacher who they say is too strict may end up becoming their favourite. Give them some time to adjust to new teaching (and learning) approaches, and encourage them to develop their own problem solving skills. Focus on praising progress, “I’m really proud of how you’re handling this”, “You’re stronger than you realised, aren’t you?”

2. A map. Speaking of charting new courses, a surprising number of students tell me one of their biggest fears when they start high school is that they will get lost and be unable to get to their classes on time. Unlike the one-stop shop of primary, high school is a movable feast. Schools will provide students with a map, but for the directionally challenged who find these hard to read (I count myself among this wandering-aimlessly tribe), arranging a visit after hours to walk your child through a few times when the playground is less busy can be really comforting.

Encourage your kids to join clubs and do activities to help find like-minded friends.

3. Invites. “Play dates” are now rebranded as “hanging out”. Providing an activity, like swimming or watching a movie, can be a valuable way of encouraging fragile new friendships to flourish. If your child is no longer with their old group of mates, they may feel some anxiety about finding a new, instant best friend. Encourage them to get involved in school activities where they are likely to meet kids with similar interests. Let them keep in touch with their old friends too; it is important they have a few different social networks they can draw on. This way, if one network collapses, they will still feel like they belong as they will have a community elsewhere.

4. A routine. As far as study habits are concerned, it’s harder to break a bad habit than start off on a good footing. At the beginning of the year young people are full of good intentions, so harness that positive energy and get them into a homework routine. Set out a specific framework that they agree on, for example: “ From 4-5pm you can unwind, but from 5 until dinner at 6pm, you need to do your homework.” If they don’t have homework, get them to block out that period of time by writing up their notes, or reading a book.

5. Reassurance. At the end of my daughter’s first week at high school, I had a huge cuddly toy chimpanzee waiting as a surprise for her on her bed. I wanted her to know that yes, she was growing up, but some things — like her mother’s love, and the thrill of finding a particularly snuggly primate — would remain a constant. He was quickly christened her “Comfort Monkey” as she’d lay all over him after school when she was overwhelmed or exhausted. He’s still there now, and only recently saw her through her first day at university.

The reality is though that the heavy sigh we hear may actually be from a tweenager impatiently counting down the days to simply get started; there are plenty of kids who will be chomping at the bit to sail into secondary school.

Whether reticent or relaxed, however, our new high-schoolers still need us to help steer the ship.

This post was originally published by The Daily Telegraph, 19/1/19 

 

Carrying the burden

Mental health issues are taking a terrible toll on our teens.

But it’s time we also acknowledged the damaging ripple effect carrying the burden of worrying about their suffering friends may be having on their peers too. Because while it’s encouraging that young people are asking each other “are you OK?”, if the answer to that question happens to be “no”, what are kids meant to do with this information?

Make no mistake, there are plenty of young people out there currently serving as inexperienced, unqualified counsellors to their highly vulnerable mates. In fact, a struggling adolescent is actually more likely to first talk about their problems with a close friend before reaching out to their own family. And often, the conversation will be couched as one expected to be kept private; “Please don’t tell anyone but …”

For teens on the receiving end of a disclosure that a friend is struggling, there may well be a reluctance to pass on their worries to an adult for fear of being accused of betraying a confidence; secrets are a particularly powerful form of social currency for teenagers and often shared to solidify friendships.

Teens are taking on the burden of friends’ mental health struggles. (Pic: iStock)

Through my work in schools, I have in fact noted a generation burdened with feelings of responsibility for the mental health and safety of their inner circle. In a misguided attempt to maintain their friend’s confidence, often teens acting as a support person will struggle alone. “I guess the best I can do is just to be there for her, ” one 15-year-old girl told me. And thanks to the always-on social media world our teens inhabit, the support is often delivered 24/7. She concluded: “Whenever she feel like hurting herself, she calls me first and I talk her through those feelings. It actually is really stressing me out, but I can’t let her down. She told me if it wasn’t for me, she’d want to end it. I am so scared something bad will happen to her if I don’t respond to her messages.”

Some young people are, however, at least reaching out anonymously to seek direction in knowing how to support friends they are worried about.

Kids Help Line, a telephone counselling service for young people, recorded almost one thousand calls in 2017 alone from kids concerned over the mental health of someone they know. Over half of these related to concern that their friend was suicidal (Kids Help Line are in fact so highly aware of how prevalent this concern is that they offer downloadable resources on this topic, front and centre on their website’s homepage).

Jaelea Skehan, director of Every Mind (one of the organisations behind the latest mental health #youcantalk campaign) explains: “There’s a lot of young people holding heavy stuff for others. Being a good friend is about reaching out and checking in on our friends, but it is also about recognising when we aren’t equipped to manage complex issues and involving professionals who do have those skills.”

Jaelea Skehan is the director of Every Mind, who are behind the #youcantalk campaign. (Pic: Peter Lorimer)

We need to very clear. Yes, we can talk. However, young people urgently need to be reassured that reporting concerns they hear to trusted adults is vital — and isn’t a betrayal of their friend’s trust.

How can we break this message down for them?

I teach teens that we should never keep dark secrets for people. When a young person begins talking to me and says something to the effect, “I want to tell you something but you must promise not to tell anyone.” I respond with the following; “You may tell me anything. And I will listen with my whole heart. But if you have been hurt, or could be hurt, I want you to know that I care too much about you not to do something about that.”

All young people need to know that reporting concerns to trusted adults is not a betrayal. Rather, it shows the depth of their compassion and bravery.

Tools to know how to best manage the conversations they are having are also important to share with our kids. They don’t need to solve complex issues, but simply acknowledge their friend’s feelings and tell them they care. They can also gently point out the consequences of their friend’s actions, for both themselves and the people that care for them. And if their friend has been hurt, or could be hurt? They can support their mate to get the professional help they deserve.

Teens should also be encouraged to take care of themselves during this process. They can reach out and debrief with a trusted adult if they are feeling overwhelmed or anxious by what they’ve been told (this is particularly important as we know that suicide can have a contagion effect on vulnerable youth).

By caring for themselves too, these accidental counsellors will be modelling for their mates that while sharing with those closest to us is a helpful first step, healing comes from also talking with professionals.

This OpEd was first published by The Daily Telegraph, 11/8/18

Heartbreak hurts at any age

When I was sixteen, my first serious boyfriend broke up with me — and I was crushed.

Why do they call it a crush when you start liking someone? Infatuation feels more like a flutter. Crushed is how you feel when someone you adore tells you that they no longer want to be with you.

Then I had to go to school the next day and face everyone. I felt like everyone was judging and labelling me: The Girl Who Got Dumped.

I became depressed afterwards. My school marks suffered. I started binge drinking on weekends. I even played with dark thoughts about hurting myself. I didn’t really want to die; I just wanted to scare him into realising the mistake he’d made and come running back to me. The realisation that this was a manipulative, destructive fantasy added shame to the mix of emotions already doing my head in.

The pain of a break up can be overwhelming the first time. (Pic: iStock)

I recall feeling deeply misunderstood and alone when my family and teachers told me that I was a smart, attractive girl and I should simply get over it. That I would go on to have many more loves. (They were right.) That my heart would be broken many more times. (They were only partly right there. Yes, I have had heartbreak, but not as crushing as that first experience of rejection. Although I’ve loved others since then, and far more intensely, I had no understanding then that I would heal — no experience of heartbreak passing. I gained that knowledge through this first breakup).

More than 30 odd years later, I’m still puzzled by the fact that while most parents work themselves into a lather of concern over the possibility that their teens may be about to begin a relationship, they are often very dismissive of their child’s emotional needs when their romances end.

Is it because we assume teen dating is mere ‘puppy love’?

Yet many of the young people I work with explain that apart from the very real pain we all feel when a bond ends (regardless of our age) there are unique circumstances surrounding their break ups that often further complicate things.

Fifteen year old Kiara laments that fact that she can’t have any physical distance from her ex: “How I am meant to get over him when I have to sit in the same class as him and watch him with his new girlfriend every day?”.

Peer group relationships can often complicate feelings after a break up. (Pic: iStock)

Darius, seventeen, explains why he felt the loss of his girlfriend left him alienated from his peers: “Everyone at school tends to pick a side. I’d walk past groups at school and hear them whispering about what I must have done to make her make want to break up with me.”.

Nick Duigan, senior clinical adviser from mental health foundation Headspace, agrees that we need to take the emotional turmoil teens feel when their romances end far more seriously. “There’s now a strong awareness of the impact bullying has on young people.

Yet we rarely acknowledge the impact of a relationship break down on teens is equally as likely to trigger the onset of a mood disorder. Teens feel things with a heightened emotional intensity and this, combined with their impulsivity, is almost the perfect storm for enormous distress and confusion.”

What should we be doing to help heal broken hearts? Duigan advises beginning by acknowledging that what your child is feeling is real, and viewing it as an opportunity to help them learn to process grief (positive, protective work that will hold them in good stead for any future losses and major life changes).

We must also resist saying ‘I told you so’ (even if we did) and encourage them to build their self-soothing skills and networks of support (ask, ‘What could you do right now that might help you feel better? Who would you feel safe speaking to about this?’).

A good old fashioned dose of TLC goes a long way too.

When Melanie broke up with her boyfriend at 18 she said her mother became her greatest ally: “She’d listen to me moan about him for hours, and cry alongside me. She bought me flowers and reminded me daily that I was loveable — with or without him.”.

If you would like to find out more about taking care of yourself after a breakup, go to headspace.org.au

This article was originally published by The Daily Telegraph, 14/4/18. 

Some uncomfortable truths about bullying

THE resounding “No way” you heard earlier this month was Australia’s commitment to stamp out bullying.

But while the aim of the National Day of Action against Bullying and Violence (NDA) is admirable, how committed are we really to acknowledge just how complex this issue is, and to implement multifaceted programs to tackle ongoing aggression?

In the current hyped-up climate (often dominated by blustering, finger-pointing adults — which is surely counter intuitive if we are serious about modelling less aggressive methods of dealing with differences) here’s some of the uncomfortable truths we need to start discussing:

1. Young people don’t change their behaviour long-term just because someone has shamed them.

Change-makers know that the key to winning minds and hearts is through the sharing of personal stories that help build empathy, the use of humour (Scott Weems, a cognitive neuroscientist and author asserts that “humour is a great way for us to have evolved so we don’t have to hit each other with sticks”) and through using shame-free language that fosters connection, rather than distance.

There are some ways we can encourage children to interact with more respect, while still being authentic. (Pic: Getty)

2. It’s naive to expect teachers or parents will be able to eliminate all bullying.

The reality is most bullying happens outside the watchful gaze of adults. The classroom bully will taunt behind the teacher’s back, or lash out in the toilets. The cyber bully will type their missives when their parents are out, or when they are engaged in another task (no parent can look over their child’s shoulder and read all their social media exchanges, and nor would it be appropriate for them to do so). Consider too, not all kids are blessed with parents who really care what they are doing — we know some parents are neglectful, and even abusive. We absolutely should strive to create more inclusive homes, schools and communities. But we need to be realistic in our expectations, and develop approaches that also rely on self-regulation and peer reinforcement of positive behaviours.

3. Bullies need support too.

The reality is that some individuals who use bullying tactics have been bullied themselves (either at school, or perhaps in their homes), and so use bullying as a maladaptive strategy to feel more powerful. The line between villain and victim can often be blurred. There is ample research to show that bullies are more likely to drop out of school, use drugs and alcohol and engage in criminal behaviour. They have a one in four chance of having a criminal record by the age of 30. Bullies need early intervention by schools, parents and the community to help them curb their aggression — not to be further ostracised.

4. Not liking everyone all the time is not bullying.

Fearful that our children 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. Although well intentioned, this advice 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.

Our political leaders, including Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, need to set an example for our children. (Pic: Tim Hunter)

To help stem the rising tide of kids who are too quick to cry “bully!”, some schools have taken to posting signs 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.”

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. 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.

Finally, it’s time for us adults to do some self-reflection. A recent US survey found that only 14 per cent of young people surveyed strongly agreed that their nation’s leaders model how to treat people with kindness. Given the state of political play here in Australia, do we really think the response from Aussie children would be much different? If our politicians are serious about curbing bullying, they need to start setting a better example.

After all, our kids can’t be what they can’t see.

This post was originally published by The Daily Telegraph – 17/3/18. 

Finding a place for anger

Bono may well have struck the wrong note with his recent comments on a lack of musical outlets for male anger.

But a conversation on what to do about male rage is long overdue.

In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, U2’s frontman Bono discussed why he and his son are hopeful for a “rock and roll revolution”. The singer then elaborated, “I think music has gotten very girly. And there are some good things about that, but hip-hop is the only place for young male anger at the moment — and that’s not good.”

First, let’s address the “girly” comment. Not only is this dismissive and sexist, the Courier-Mail’s music writer Daniel Johnson confirmed for me that it’s laughably out of touch; “Some of the most sonically vital and thematically important music from the past year has come from female singer-songwriters. Might I suggest Bono have a listen to Marie DeVita of Brisbane band Waax baring her soul on Wild & Weak … or perhaps Melbourne band Camp Cope’s latest single The Opener, on which Georgia Maq unleashes on men in the music industry espousing exactly this sort of misogyny: ‘It’s another straight cis man who knows more about this than me/It’s another man telling us we’re missing a frequency.’ ”

And even the most fury-fuelled male artists have expressed a desire to explore the full gamut of human emotions throughout their musical careers; Bono himself once crooned about love as being the Sweetest Thing.

Social media predictably quickly blew up with those wanting to slam the music industry’s favourite punching bag (ever since Apple automatically downloaded U2’s Songs of Innocence to everyone’s iTune library without permission — a freebie that rapper Tyler the Creator tweeted felt like “waking up with a pimple or … herpes …” — it seems Bono can do no right. Even his support of causes including Poverty Is Sexist, was overshadowed when Glamour magazine’s Women of the Year Awards awarded him a gong him for it — “Now little girls will know they can grow up to be Bono” tweeted the cynics.

It’s easy to forget that U2’s early work was marked less by media mishaps, and more by raw emotion; their debut album Boy explored the often chaotic and painful transition from childhood to manhood. “When I was 16”, Bono told Rolling Stone, “I had a lot of anger in me. You need to find a place for it …”

And it is this point that is not only valid, but vital to discuss. For if there is no safe place for boys and men to put their red-hot feelings, where do these go?

Dr Andrew Smiler, a therapist and author who specialises in masculinity, believes that although sport and the arts can provide a valuable outlet, “These don’t work for everyone, they may not work over the long term, and they may not be enough in the case of more intense feelings such as rage. At that level, it’s not unusual to see violence. That violence can either turn outwards and manifest in the type of news stories that almost always have at their centre a man who is very angry and can’t find other ways to express the depth of his emotion or cope with the cause of those feelings, or inward (suicide can also be considered a form of violence, except the target is the self instead of another).”

If we are serious about curbing male violence, both the type that is directed towards others and the self-destructive variety, we need to start the urgent work of educating men on how to identify their emotions; studies show that we spend much less time talking to boys about their feelings than we do girls. We need to increase their emotional vocabulary (is what they are feeling really anger, or is it perhaps loneliness, fear or shame?), teach them how to manage triggers for their rage, and encourage them to see the value in seeking support when things feel overwhelming.

We also need to explicitly show boys how to move beyond versions of masculinity that would have them dismiss the expression of some emotions as feminine (and therefore undesirable). 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.

In our work on deconstructing gender stereotypes in schools, we find that boys don’t want to be angry young men, nor do they want to be told that blokes must be stiff upper-lipped and simply “man up” when overwhelmed. They are ready and willing to sing a new song.

This post was originally published in the Daily Telegraph, and online at RendezView: 27/1/18

The four New Year’s resolutions you should make (and keep)

Long after we have swept away the aftermath of the countdown to a new year (the empty bottles and trampled party streamers) something shiny and marvellous will still remain. The promise of a fresh start.

And I’m not alone in embracing the possibility of change; about 40 per cent of us will have made a New Year’s resolution.

Tellingly, in our looks-obsessed culture, most of these pledges will relate to a desire to lose weight.

Not because we necessarily want to be more energetic or healthier, but rather because we’ve bought into the diet industry’s seductive promise that along with our new body will come a new, more joyful life; “If I just looked like that, then I’d finally find a partner”, “I’ll be happy once I reach my goal weight”. Skinny is fine, but it doesn’t guarantee you contentment or love. Forget carb counting and body fat index ratios. It seems to me there are more important resolutions we need to make (and keep) if we are serious about the passionate pursuit of happiness.

1. Be truthful

If 2017 has taught us anything, then surely it is that despite all the political doublespeak and accusations of fake news (a phrase that is reported to have risen in usage by 365 per cent since 2016) we still believe that truth matters. The #metoo movement also taught us that the truth almost always eventually surfaces — and cleanses.

Writer Rayya Elias has a mantra worth adopting: “…When everything else in the room has blown up or dissolved away, the only thing left standing will always be the truth. Since that’s where you’re gonna end up anyway, you might as well just start there.”

Sure the truth can be complicated, but owning it tends to ultimately simplify things.

2. Practice gratitude

In recent years there has been increased interest in the field of positive psychology, a discipline that looks beyond the treatment of psychological problems and focuses on helping people to actively thrive. Essentially, it’s the science of how to have a more positive outlook on life.

And when it comes to the research on what drives happiness and a healthy mental attitude, the standout is gratitude.

Daily doses of gratitude work best to flex the thankfulness muscle — whether it be through keeping a gratitude journal, writing letters or cards of thanks, giving to the less fortunate, or by volunteering to do acts of service to the community. Thankfulness is also the antidote to perfectionism.

When we develop deep gratitude, we know that we are enough (with, or without, the extra five kilos) and that we have enough (regardless of what gifts we may, or may not, have received at Christmas).

3. Connect

We know social isolation is strongly linked with depression, suicide, drug and alcohol use, and violence. Janet Morrison, from the UK’s Campaign to End Loneliness, believes loneliness is a health risk we don’t take nearly seriously enough, “ … it has the equivalent impact as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and is as big a risk as obesity”.

Yet despite the numerous online connections we make, research has shown that one out of four of us feel we have no real friends. And it is adults who are most at risk of friendlessness.

Culturally, we are encouraged to seek out someone we are romantically interested in and pursue them.

We are also trained to fine tune our skills at attracting a lover — there are dating guides and workshops, even reality shows that share every moment of the journey towards love for us all to dissect. Yet we don’t often discuss how to woo a potential new friend.

Sure we can learn conversation skills, and get involved in clubs or volunteer in the hope we might connect with those who are like-minded. But we also need to be prepared to make an effort.

Rekindling old friendships, and igniting new ones, shouldn’t be put on the bottom of the 2018 to-do list.

4. Forgive

Last year on New Year’s Eve I gathered with a small group of close friends to share dinner and engage in a forgiveness ritual; we wrote lists of things we forgave others (and ourselves) for in the year that had past, and then burned these to represent letting go of these hurts.

Rather than being a solemn ceremony, there was much laughter and a focus on the future.

Rituals can be powerful tools for developing bonds, building mindfulness, and providing meaning in a world that can all too often feel chaotic. On New Year’s Day I’ll resolve, as I have for the past few years, to take small, determined steps towards authenticity, thankfulness, deeper relationships and releasing hurts. Some years, I have more success on this journey than in others.

But there will be magic in beginning — again.

This story was first published by The Daily Telegraph, 1/1/18


Strange ways to be brave

Netflix’s Stranger Things series features a band of Dungeons and Dragons playing, science-loving geeks who have won over audiences by displaying tremendous courage in the face of supernatural forces of evil, and the horrors of hormonal changes.

The show pays homage to 80s cult films such as Stand By Me, E.T. and The Goonies; films that also presented motley crews of unlikely heroes and heroines.

Yet while we are keen to embrace a broad spectrum of what courage can look like on our screens, it seems in real life we are not quite as willing to acknowledge that our kids can earn bravery badges in other ways besides the more tangible conquering of a physical challenge.

Which helps explain why parents may get frustrated if their child happens to be reluctant to leap off the high diving board at the public pool — and why almost every school camp aims to build up bravery by requiring kids to navigate ropes courses and abseil.

Over time, the four friends from Stranger Things realise they are stronger together than apart. (Pic: Netflix.)

I recall loathing this dastardly duo when I was at school; “You’ll feel so proud of yourself once you’ve completed this!” the perky instructors would insist as I tried to explain why I had zero interest in testing myself by clambering backwards off a cliff face. But as you can rarely debate your way out of these activities, I was always, eventually, forced to participate. Afterwards, all I really felt was glad the whole public ordeal was over (and angry at the adults who insisted this was good for me: at the time I was dealing with a myriad of family issues that required great courage to navigate alone. Frankly, I had bravery burn out).

Perhaps due to these type of negative experiences, as a high school teacher, I sought to notice other types of bravery such as emotional and social courage in my students too — and there was plenty to acknowledge. There were the kids who stood up to their peers when they didn’t agree with their behaviour, the young people who were managing violence or absent parents within their homes, the teens who built up the courage to ask their crush to the school formal (despite their trembling hands and quivering voices). No climbing ropes in sight.

I also told my students stories; tales that featured plucky young people who used their wisdom and wit to conquer dark things. And I encouraged them to write their own courage narratives — to articulate a time when they had stepped up, or taken a risk.

The beauty of focusing on the brave? It grows.

Clinical psychologist Andrew Fuller, who specialises in working with young people, argues we should be more actively teaching the type of courage that moves beyond taking a physical risk and instead requires young people to take social risks; “Physical bravery is actually often easier (we may be merely acting on impulse in these moments).”

Fuller talks of the importance of being on “a continual treasure hunt” with our kids. This does not imply we should praise their every thought and deed (a path that may foster narcissism). Rather, we should be on the look out to help them identify and be inspired by moments of courage both in themselves, and in others.

In season one of Stranger Things, Mike tries to inspire his friends to help them look for their missing mate Will by reminding them of his bold and selfless play during a recent marathon game of Dungeons and Dragons. “He could have played it safe but he didn’t. He put himself in danger to help the party.” The boys agree that they need to follow Will’s example; they will apply what they have learnt about courage through playing a board game to the frightening real-world predicament that are now facing.

Perhaps we need a reminder too; our children can, and do, draw on various types of courage to slay all manner of monsters.

This post was originally published in the Daily Telegraph, 11/11/17 

Teens need love, not war

In the 4th century BC even the usually open-minded Plato clutched his proverbial pearls in despair: “What is happening to our young people?

“They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?”

Today, thanks to the online world, our lamentations and judgments provide a running commentary not only to, but on the lives of many young people.

And yet what strikes me is that apart from being unhelpful (has there ever been a young person who has behaved more positively as a result of being shamed?) the discourse about teens often bears little resemblance to what the young people I meet are actually like.

I’m a teen educator who has worked with adolescents for the past 25 years. And I’m mother to two teens. Far from being obsessed with selfies, sexting and sponging off their parents, this may well be our hardest-working and most civic-minded generation ever.

If we look beyond the media-fuelled stereotypes, shibboleths and anecdotes, what does the actual data show?

School retention and the progression on to higher education courses continues to increase (eight out of 10 young people aged 15 to 19 are enrolled in education and training).

Despite these academic pressures, young people also do almost twice the volunteer work that adults do.

More young people are giving up their already limited time to help others.

They are having less unprotected sex, taking fewer drugs and smoking less than their parents did, and many are far more aware of the risks of alcohol consumption.

And while the one per cent who make headlines (and sell parenting guides drumming up fear of a generation desperately in need of a firmer hand) the 99 per cent who are doing their best in a culture that often doesn’t seem to like them very much are often largely ignored.

The latter is the group who have to get up early every day even when they feel exhausted (biology dictates that many teens do feel more sleepy early in the day, more active late at night). Drag themselves off to school to sit through classes which may or may not interest them, with people that they may or may not like. They then come home not to switch off for the day, but rather to ramp up again and do homework or prepare for the next round of state-mandated testing.

All while dealing with pimples, pubes, images of beauty and masculinity that don’t look anything like them, and coping with crushes.

Let’s put more focus on the positive attributes of our teens. (Pic: iStock)

We seem to suffer from a collective amnesia about what we were like ourselves at this age. Case in point?

The successful, dedicated dad who attended one of my parenting seminars recently and tearfully asked me how he could bond with his daughter who he was worried was becoming withdrawn and snarly.

Before offering strategies to help offer him some perspective, I first asked what he was like as a teen. “Oh I was a real piece of shit,” he laughingly replied.

There are numerous very real issues teens (and many adults) struggle with that we do need to address: body image angst, dealing with stress and anxiety, navigating technology safely, developing and maintaining respectful relationships, just to name a few.

But while stereotypes might be easy to relate to, they are rarely helpful.

 The one thing I know for sure is the way forward lies in sharing positive stories about teens and in connecting with them, not in spreading moral panic, or in policing and patronising them.

And the way forward lies in reminding ourselves that even the one per cent who do act out deserve our compassion too.

A school I worked in recently had a sign in the staffroom that struck me as a timely reminder to us all: “The kids who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving of ways.”

This post was originally published by The Daily Telegraph, 23/9/17. 

 

Gratitude a golden ticket

Employers who think that paying staff well is enough to ensure their loyalty are in for a rude awakening — especially if they are hiring millennials.

New research conducted by a US human resources company shows that 66 per cent of all workers say they’d leave their job if they didn’t feel appreciated, and 77 per cent of those aged in their 20s say they’d walk out on an ungrateful employer.

It seems gratitude is the secret weapon in the battle to retain talent. Thankfulness, however, has also been linked to everything from strengthened relationships, to decreased absenteeism, to increased productivity.

Professor Robert Emmons, a leading researcher on gratitude, believes that far from being something employers can add to the bottom of the to-do list, focusing on how they can best foster appreciation is the key to developing positive workplace cultures.

“Most of our waking hours are spent on the job, and gratitude, in all its forms, is a basic human requirement,” Emmons told Stephanie Vozza in Fast Company. “Gratitude is the ultimate performance-enhancing substance at work.”

Aren’t cash bonuses enough to make staff feel appreciated? It seems money doesn’t always speak the language staff most need to hear. There is overwhelming evidence that performance-related pay can in fact be counter-productive and lead to a reduction in an employee’s natural desire to feel pleasure from completing a task.

Smart employers know that regular praise and more personalised tokens of gratitude are just as effective. From company-wide emails sent to staff acknowledging outstanding individual contributions, to handwritten thank you cards, to celebratory events organised not just for staff but for their families too — it seems frequency and authenticity matter more than the monetary value of the gesture.

Connecting to causes that staff care about is also enormously powerful. The Macquarie Group Foundation encourages employees to identify local causes that matter to them, and offers to match their donations and fundraising efforts.

This year, Division Director Terence Kwan’s team elected to work with Women’s Community Shelters, a charity that partners with communities to establish domestic violence refuges and house homeless women.

Apart from raising enough funds to support a shelter to run for 12 months, Kwan and his colleagues helped in more practical ways too. They rolled up their sleeves and offered unskilled support by physically helping WCS move offices, but also put their considerable professional expertise to use. Two team members, a lawyer and a operational risk consultant, joined the board of Bayside, a new refuge opening in southeast Sydney.

The partnership has helped foster a deep sense of connection within Kwan’s division. He notes that “it’s been an incredibly powerful way for me to learn more about my staff’s capabilities, about what motivates them, and to build trust.”

Dr Natalie Ferres, Chief Connection Officer at management consultancy Bendelta, believes that “thankfulness effects the bottom line. Not all workplaces realise how important it is for the leadership to show gratitude, but smart ones are starting to actively cultivate this and seek out leaders who intrinsically understand the importance of expressing appreciation in meaningful ways”.

It’s not just staff who can benefit from a little gratitude, if you want appreciative children like Charlie Bucket, encourage gratitude practices. (Pic: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory)

In my work teaching gratitude skills to schoolchildren, I’ve observed parents and teachers are eager to encourage gratitude practices as they believe these will lead to happier, less entitled children — that it will breed more young people who are like the ever-appreciative Charlie Bucket from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory than the “I want it now!” foot stamping Veruca Salt.

 Yet teaching thankfulness offers an additional, unexpected benefit — it prepares our young people for future professional success. It helps ensure our future leaders know how to create the type of work environments that will be both valued by workers, and that will add value to communities.

The eccentric Willy Wonka may have made his most astute and progressive management decision when he bequeathed his beloved chocolate factory to Charlie — after first testing all the golden tickets holder’s gratitude credentials.

This post was first published by The Daily Telegraph, 19/8/17.   To enquire about having me talk to your students about gratitude, please email: enquiries@enlighteneducation.com 

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