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Category: Relationship Education

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.

How to stop domestic violence before it even begins

The time for token gestures and endless discussions about the physical, emotional psychological and financial costs of violence against women and the impact this has on individuals, families and communities has long passed.

In Australia, one woman every week dies at the hands of her partner. According to Our Watch, a not for profit organisation aiming to engage the community in action to prevent violence against women and their children, the combined health, administration and social welfare costs of violence against women is estimated to be $21.7 billion a year.

We must seek out new, creative ways forward.

And we must start walking the talk.

Women’s Community Shelters sees first-hand the pain and wasted potential behind the much-discussed family violence statistics. Since 2013 they have established six shelters in NSW and accommodate up to 100 women and children fleeing violence every night.

Yet they’re desperate to make their services redundant.

CEO Annabelle Daniel says: “Make no mistake, we are a vital service, but we’d like nothing more than to be able to eventually close our doors. We want to demonstrate that building capacity and providing education at the local level, and providing a practical application for this learning, will work to reduce domestic violence, provide channels for early intervention, and enhance crisis outcomes for local women and children.”

To this end, WCS have now entrusted me to launch their new education initiative, Walk The Talk, which is based on a pilot project I first ran in 2015 as a pro-bono board member for my local women’s refuge.

Phase one of the program involves my Enlighten Education team speaking to high school students about respectful relationships, teaching them conflict resolution skills, and inspiring them to be change makers. No lecturing. No scaremongering. Rather, it’s a strength-focused, inclusive program for both genders filled with laughter and connection.

The initial education component is then followed up with an opportunity for students to practically apply their learning; they are invited to adopt their local refuge.

Young people will support the work of these shelters through helping with fund-raising, assisting with raising community awareness, and volunteering at key events.

Capture their hearts and their minds, and hands will follow.

Already 12 schools (Catholic, independent and government) have committed to participating.

The 187 teens we launched the program with earlier this week in North West Sydney could not wait to “walk the talk” and put everything they learnt with my team into action by brainstorming ways in which they could help their local refuge, The Sanctuary.

I was particularly touched by the 15-year-old young man who was keen to call his Nanna.

He said: “She really does the best knitting. I know she’d knit blankets and toys for us. I can talk to her tonight?”

Then there were the groups who excitedly brainstormed possibilities ranging from the practical (setting up a box at the canteen so everyone can put their change in it) to the creative (painting art works for the women to take with them when they transition out and into their own new homes).

Their Year Advisor and I were both almost in tears of pride and possibility.

 

Dannielle Miller presented her Walk the Talk program at Oakhill College. She’s pictured with students Adam Taras (left) and Ryan Symons. Picture: Jonathan Ng

Statistically, we were well aware that within this cohort there will be kids who are currently directly affected by domestic violence; this was an opportunity to help reduce the stigma surrounding this, and an exercise that helped give them back a sense of their own agency.

I was heartened too by the young teen girl who told me she was going home tonight to teach her little sister everything she learned: “We need to pass these empowering messages on! We can solve hard problems!”

Yes. You can. As an educator who has spent almost 30 years teaching teens, I’ve always believed that if engaged in the right way, young people can (and will) change the world.

So when the teens who decided they wanted to build a vegetable garden to sell the produce questioned me on how helpful this might be as it would take a long time for their crop to grow, I smiled and reassured them they should simply go ahead and plant the seeds.

This article was first published by The Daily Telegraph, 22/2/19

Walk The Talk update – Phase 1, the student in-school delivery component, has now been completed to huge acclaim! I was really thrilled with the phenomenal feedback from the student participants. We have had almost 2,000 students from 15 schools complete the half-day workshop. 100% said they’d recommend it to other students, and (on average) over 97% of both boys and girls rated it as either Very Good, or Excellent! It’s safe to say they were both educated, and inspired. 

Phase 2 is now happening with schools completing their own projects to assist their local refuge. We’ve already had fund raising drives including sausage sizzles and Mother’s Day stalls and large numbers of students signing up to volunteer to help at events.

 

 

Policing the boundaries

Reports of improper teacher-student relationships are on the rise.

Earlier this month, in a Daily Telegraph exclusive it was revealed that sexual misconduct incidents have increased by two thirds in NSW schools.

While much has rightly been made of the role social media plays in contributing to professional boundaries being all too easily crossed, The Australian’s “The Teacher’s Pet” podcast series was a powerful reminder that inappropriate relationships between the adults we entrust to guide our young people and their charges can be fostered with, or without, modern messaging apps.

When I was 16 years old, I developed a crush on my high school English teacher. The object of my affection was middle aged. When my friends would tease me as he was balding, I’d shake my head in dismay at their youthful superficiality. It was his intellect that I loved!

When he’d read Shakespeare to us in class, I’d imagine what it might be like to sit across from him at dinner discussing the bard (in my fantasies, we spent a lot of time together reading).

I would occasionally say something to him that at the time I thought was outrageously flirtatious (“I like your tie Sir, you look handsome today.”). I’d spray myself with an extra layer of Calvin Kleins’ Obsession (and yes, that actually was my perfume of choice back then) before meeting him in the library for our 3 Unit English lessons.

And yet he never once fed his ego by encouraging my affections.

He did, however, encourage my feminism (he persuaded me to do an analysis of advertisements from the 1950s aimed at women and compare them to the marketing messages of the present day).

He did foster my love of literature.

And he encouraged me to question unhealthy relationships. We studied Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf in Year 12, a play about an ugly night of alcohol were two couples tear at each other. It resembled many nights at my home. Hearing him challenge the dysfunction was revelatory.

On the last day of high school, I convinced my classmates I should give him the farewell gift we’d all chipped in to buy him so that I could kiss him on the cheek after my speech. When I did this, and blushed afterwards, he very graciously covered for me by diverting my classmates with a speech about how emotional endings can be. And he gently explained to me privately afterwards that I really shouldn’t have kissed him, but shaking my hand would be lovely.

From the first to the last, he remained a professional.

And yet while he will always have my gratitude for what he taught me about words, he doesn’t deserve any special commendation for how he managed my crush.

Because the truth is that any teacher, regardless of their age or looks, is likely to be the object of a student’s affection at some point. And any teacher worthy of the title knows this, and knows how to manage it both professionally, and compassionately.

In fact when I started teaching English as a 22 year old, I soon realised that hormonally charged, bored teens will find almost anyone they are forced to stare at for 60 minute periods of occasional romantic interest.

And yes, I had a few teen boys who blushed when they approached me too.

When I’d notice a boy suddenly dousing himself in Lynx aftershave and calling me over more frequently to check his work, I’d know to be careful — and kind.

The same lad would often awaken one day as if from a trance and accidentally call me “Mum” in class, a sure sign that the hormonal spell had been broken and he now viewed me as a matriarchal figure rather than a hottie (which is, ultimately, a far greater compliment).

Our teens are emotional, impulsive and vulnerable.

Teachers know this, and behave accordingly.

It is predators who take advantage.

As we begin yet another fresh school year, perhaps it’s timely to reinforce this important distinction.

The bad apples need to know that there’s no excuse for them using their power to transform youthful admiration and affection into something far more self-serving and sinister.

This post was originally published by The Daily Telegraph, 1/2/19.

There’s an art to being alone and loving it

I spend a lot of time alone.

I’ve been single for about five years now, and I often work by myself from home.

My children are teenagers and although we are very close, they are swept up in their own whirlwind of assignments and social gatherings.

Although it can, at times, feel lonely, I rarely feel as isolated as I have been when I’ve been in the wrong relationship. Feeling a disconnect with the person you’re supposed to be most connected with feels far heavier.

And there are things I have learnt to do to help lift the loneliness. I will take myself to see a movie, or go out for a meal.

Although I am still alone, being surrounded by others and hearing their chatter feels less isolating, and not at all as awkward as some might expect.

Sometimes, I’ll strike up a conversation with someone and make a new friend. I might read a book, or play on my phone (who said social media is making us feel more isolated? I love the instant connection to my tribe who may not be able to meet up in person, but will happily chat away with me online).

Who said social media is making us feel more isolated? I love the instant connection to my tribe. Picture: iStock

In fact, there have been times when I’ve looked around at the couples dining near me and been struck by how crushing their silence seems. Less the amicable quiet shared between companions, and more the loaded, simmering wordlessness of the estranged.

Besides, I’ve come to recognise that loneliness is just another feeling. Like joy or sadness, for me it passes.

Yet for others, loneliness can lead to feelings of shame and desolation.

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”.

We have spent millions on campaigns aimed to deter children from smoking, and to be more physically active. However, our solution to giving young people the skills they need to respond with resilience to loneliness seems to be to convince them they should never experience this emotion.

“You must have more than one child to prevent your poor offspring feeling alone!” relatives will advise. “No child should ever have to sit by themselves!” well-meaning folk will decree.

Being alone can be deeply satisfying. Picture: iStock

None of us should be expected to cope with being ostracised, or with being socially isolated for long periods of time; humans are wired for connection.

But if our little darlings have the odd day when they feel lonely? Rather than panic on their behalf and rush to call their school to demand to know what they are going to do about this, perhaps we should instead encourage our kids to find out what makes them feel better in these moments.

Could they go to the library and escape into a book? Could they do their homework and then enjoy taking the night off? Perhaps they could go and practise shooting hoops on the basketball court (an activity bound to attract at least one other child wanting to throw too). Could they tell some classmates who seem nice that they’re feeling alone, and ask to join them (despite the popular belief that the schoolyard is dominated by bullies, most kids are actually kind and accepting).

And we can show our children too that we don’t always have to have a plus one to enjoy ourselves either.

Rather than lamenting the fact that none of our loved ones want to go and see a show we are interested in with us, we could go off merrily to have our own “me party” and chat about how much we enjoyed the experience afterwards.

Learning to be content in your own company is a vital life skill.

Let’s not deprive our kids from the opportunity to develop it.

It might just save them from rushing into the wrong relationships later in life simply to avoid flying solo.

This article was first published in the Daily Telegraph 1/12/18 

We must eradicate harassment from our schools

Were you surprised the recent Plan International survey on Sexism in the City showed that for most young women, experiences of street harassment are common?

If so, there’s a good chance you’re a bloke.

Because every woman I know has been catcalled, or followed on the street, or perhaps had a man lunge at her.

The first time I recall being sexually harassed in my community was when I was 12 years old, and just starting high school.

As I walked across a bridge with my friends, filled with nervous excitement about the new girls I might meet, and the stationery I had so carefully selected and packed in my shiny new sparkly pink pencil case, I noticed a man waiting under the bridge for us to pass.

He was masturbating in front of us.

I was so horrified that I ran straight to the local police station to report him. I’m not sure why the police never pursued this — although I do recall them laughing at me when they asked me what exactly I had seen him do and I replied, “wanking”; they hadn’t expected this ponytail-wearing schoolgirl to be quite so blunt. Their amusement only added to my feelings of powerlessness and humiliation.

But “The Wanker”, as all the girls at my school soon named him, remained waiting for us each morning for months. And eventually it became a game to run past him, yelling out our disgust. Shockingly, it no longer shocked me.

For many girls, high schools are a place of learning and harassment. (Pic: iStock)

This was by no means an isolated incident. Plan International’s Report confirms that despite all the education campaigns aimed at reducing sexual harassment, most young women first experience intimidation when in a public space between the ages of 11 and 15 (I sometimes wonder if the very same men who find it amusing to yell out “show us your tits” to school girls as they drive past them at bus stops are the same ones who rant on social media about how paedophiles should be castrated).

In my work as an educator of teen girls, I often hear stories about intimidation and harassment. And I hear the type of advice given to young women in order to help keep them safe, “walk in groups” “follow your instincts and move away if you feel unsafe …”

These offerings are not designed to make girls feel that they are somehow to blame for a culture that often doesn’t seem to like them very much, nor to limit their freedoms. But rather because short-term, while we work to help change the type of culture that allows sexual harassment to flourish, providing our girls with scripts and strategies for keeping them safe feels essential.

I’ve had emails from three different school principals in the years since we have been running our in-school courses thanking us for giving their students the information they needed when they were in a potentially dangerous situation. On all three occasions, not only had the girls known how to respond to stay safe, importantly, they also knew it was not their fault that they had been targeted. As one principal emailed: “They felt angry rather than ashamed which is just as it should be.” Any protective advice given must be carefully framed within a context of unpacking victim blaming and emphasising why violence is always the fault and responsibility of the perpetrator, and never the fault or responsibility of the victim or survivor.

But our girls are not just being harassed on the streets.

I’ve had many conversations with teen girls who feel sexually harassed in their classrooms. There are boys who flick their bra straps, they tell me. Or sniff their seats when they get up to change classes. Boys who talk loudly about porn in graphic, violent detail. What guidance do we give then, when there is no moving away? When speaking to a trusted adult may mean the aggressor is removed from class for a day or so, but is likely to return?

Our schools must make a strong stance against all forms of harassment and be safe places.

How can this be achieved?

We urgently need to do more work with boys in our classrooms on issues like combating violence against women, and helping them unpack toxic masculinity — action that not only helps create a safer environment for young women, but for other boys as we know that the type of boys who sexually harass their female classmates often target other boys they perceive as being more vulnerable too.

We must stop expecting young women to act as modifiers for male misbehaviour. So many girls have told me their teachers ask them to sit near the more disruptive boys as they think this will quieten the lads. But as one 14-year-old girl told me “these boys are just gross and it’s not fair”. And she’s right, it isn’t fair.

And our schools must realise that in the age of #MeToo, discussions around sexual harassment are not theoretical for most young women — but are part of their day-to-day experience.

This post was originally published in The Daily Telegraph, 2/6/18 

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. 

The right way for dads to parent teen girls

As a best-selling author and educator who works with teen girls, I tend to get streams of emails seeking parenting advice. But the calls for help I get from parents wanting to improve their relationship with a teenage daughter are increasingly coming from dads.

Despite the popular perception that it is mothers who fear losing their bond with their daughter during adolescence, it seems there are plenty of fathers seeking deeper connections too.

Many of these men tell me that they found bonding with their daughter when she was younger relatively easy, but now that her interests are more adult how, they ask, are they expected to stay relevant?

The hundreds of conversations I’ve had with teen girls (and the wide body of research that supports their claims) tells us what won’t work. Any attempt to control her changing body, or lock their princess in the proverbial tower, will be met with rightful resentment.

It’s understandable for parents to want to protect their children. But it’s important our girls feel empowered to know how to set their own boundaries; particularly as the reality is most romantic exchanges won’t happen under dad’s watchful eye.

When asked about how he feels about his teen daughters dating, entertainer Harry Connick Jr offered a refreshing perspective, “Everybody always says, ‘Oh your daughters are dating, you better get the shotgun’… it drives me nuts because I think that’s such an antiquated way to talk about young women. It’s almost presuming that they don’t have the good judgment to go out with a guy that’s appropriate for them… The way we raise our kids? Hopefully they will have enough self esteem so that they will be able to attract guys of a certain calibre, and then you don’t need a damn shotgun.”

Actively seeking to build the self esteem Harry Connick Jr refers to is vital work for fathers too. The gentle teasing some dads find amusing is likely to grate with a teen girl who may be hypersensitive, particularly to comments around her appearance (don’t let all the pouting selfies fool you — these aren’t necessarily indicative of a solid sense of self).

Comedian Dawn French attributes her strong sense of self to her father and in her memoir Dear Fatty, describes a parenting moment par excellence. As she sashayed down the stairs on her way to a party, dressed to impress a boy she fancied, her dad pulled her aside. Rather than delivering the almost obligatory, “You’re not going out dressed like that!” lecture, he told her she was his sun, moon and stars — and that any man would be bloody lucky to have a woman like her on his arm.

She got to the party, saw the hot boy, and decided he probably wasn’t good enough for her after all.

Smart fathers will also seek out opportunities where they can learn more about their daughter’s changing world. Whether it be by asking her to explain why she loves a particular band and listening to their music with her (hey, you sat through hours of the Wiggles, you’ve got this), or offering to take her to that Instagram famous art gallery she’s so excited by (#LetHerLead).

Smart father realise too their own world is also one worth sharing. A colleague says that some of her fondest memories of her father when she was a young girl were of going to the hardware store with him on a Saturday morning, “He’d scoot thorough the aisles looking for supplies for his latest project. When I got my first house? I found myself doing the same thing every weekend and thinking back fondly on all the things he taught me how to fix.”

We can all be taught how to fix things. Even if there are angry silences, and shut bedroom doors, bonds built on trust, empathy, and mutual respect may bend a little — but they rarely break.

This post was originally published by The Daily Telegraph, 22/7/17.  

The four things we tell little girls that set them up for future heartbreak

When I run my workshops on dating and relationships with teenage girls, I find myself having to debunk some of the messages they have been fed since early childhood that are not only unhelpful, but in some cases actively harming them. How much more powerful it would be if we could just reframe the discourse early on and set our girls on the right path to develop respectful relationships for life. Where to start? By eliminating the following phrases:

“That boy was only mean to you because he likes you.”

I get it. We tell little girls that when a boy pushes or teases, it may only be because he has a crush on her in order to make her feel better. Yet although there may be no malicious intent, it’s not only confusing to equate abuse with affection, it’s dangerous. Love never uses its fists, nor does it withhold, try to control, or belittle.

What should we say instead? You can start by telling her she has smart instincts for recognising when someone is treating her unkindly. We can advise her that when this happens, she is wise to move away, and let someone she trusts (like a parent or teacher) know she feels uncomfortable. And that if that person doesn’t listen to her concerns, she should tell someone else until she is heard.

The other reason why we should ban the he-likes-you-so-he-is-mean rhetoric is because we need to stop making excuses for little boys who behave badly.  Gender violence educator Jackson Katz argues that this type of dialogue is not only harmful to girls and women, but to boys and men too: “The argument that ‘boys will be boys’ actually carries the profoundly anti-male implication that we should expect bad behavior from boys and men. The assumption is that they are somehow not capable of acting appropriately, or treating girls and women with respect.”

“Oh, is that your future husband?”

There’s a swag of research that shows platonic relationships are very valuable for both genders. We shouldn’t be teasing kids who make these, nor should we be romanticising their innocent bonds. Keep in mind too that if you tease your daughter about a boy she likes as a friend, it’s almost guaranteed that when she does meet a boy she likes romantically when she’s older, she will want to keep that secret to avoid further ribbing.

“Your Dad will sit on the porch with a shotgun once boys start coming near you!”

It’s understandable for parents to want to protect their children. But it’s important  our girls feel empowered to know how to set their own boundaries with boys; particularly as the reality is much of the romantic exchanges won’t happen under Dad’s watchful eye. In fact, while 72 per cent of teens having embarked on a boyfriend and girlfriend relationship by age 14, or younger, most of these admit that it is conducted with secrecy so that their parents don’t know.

 

Cropped view of man (30s) hugging daughter (4 years), and holding 12-gauge tactical shotgun in his lap.

When asked about how he feels about his teen daughters dating, entertainer Harry Connick Jr offered a refreshing perspective, “Everybody always says, ‘Oh your daughters are dating, you better get the shotgun’….it drives me nuts because I think that’s such an antiquated way to talk about young women. It’s almost presuming that they don’t have the good judgement to go out with a guy that’s appropriate for them… The way we raise our kids? Hopefully they will have enough self esteem so that they will be able to attract guys of a certain calibre, and then you don’t need a damn shotgun.”

“One day you will find your own Prince Charming.”

She may meet someone she wants to partner with ( and this person may, or may not, be of the opposite sex). But she may also be single for at least part of her life. In fact, one on four Australians live alone.

It’s important for all young people to know how to enjoy their own company and realise that even if they are not one of two, they are still whole.

You can have a happy-ever-after even if you are flying solo.

This post originally appeared on Kidspot – 3/3/17. 

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

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

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

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

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

Currently, 80 per cent of teenagers access porn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sexting has become one of the ways to do this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rouse believes we’ve let kids down.

It’s time we step up.

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

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

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

But we can do the latter here.

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

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

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

Cash.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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