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Category: Schools

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.

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 

 

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 

For girls, 10 is the new 15

Worried that your little girl is 10, going on 15?

You’re not alone.

When I first started working in schools with young women to give them the skills they need to move beyond mean girl machinations and body image blues, I envisioned I’d be working only with high schools. The frequent SOS calls from primary school teachers soon made it apparent, however, that this type of proactive work needed to start in Year 6.

And yet in the past twelve months, it’s been Year 4 girls that seem to be causing the most concern. Although it is well known that relational aggression tends to peak in the middle school years (Year 5-Year 8) this demographic does seem to be more vulnerable than ever before.

Why might this be the case?

1. A significant number of girls are hitting adolescence at a younger age. Over the past 20 years, the average onset of menstruation has dropped from 13 years to 12 years and seven months (although it is increasingly common for girls to start menstruating as early as eight and nine years of age). Significantly, the hormonal surges associated with puberty, known as adrenal puberty, will be happening even before any physical traits become apparent and can cause heightened emotions. There is also often a divide that forms between girls who may look very childlike still, and others who will begin to look more like young women.

Friendship groups, social media and physical development all contribute to girls growing up before their time. (Pic: iStock)

2. Rather than finding childhood carefree, many kids of both genders report feeling overwhelmed. They may be in families that are experiencing financial hardship, or relationship breakdown. With only childlike strategies to fall back on, many can’t cope alone; a recent University of Sydney study found the largest increase in the use of antidepressant medications was among children 10-14 years old.

3. There is increased external academic testing happening in our primary schools. Parenting expert and passionate proponent for play, Maggie Dent, blames NAPLAN for damaging our children. “Too much emphasis in the younger years on testing steals time away from the vital work of play” says Maggie, “and it through child-led play and caring human interactions that we learn how to build relationship and resilience.”

4. The average age for first exposure to porn is 11 years old. The type of messages young people receive about their emerging sexuality via this medium are often both confusing and confronting. One Principal shared with me how a young girl at her school was being asked by a male peer to send nudes, “This little girls was literally playing with dolls one minute, and being thrown into a situation where she had to try to cope with sex based harassment the next.” Parents who bury their heads in the sand and think there’s plenty of time for conversations around sexuality and respectful relationships later are doing their children a dangerous disservice.

Parents who bury their heads in the sand and think there’s plenty of time for conversations around sexuality and respectful relationships later are doing their children a dangerous disservice. (Pic: iStock)

5. Social media platforms such as Snapchat and Instagram stating the minimum age to sign up is 13 years. Despite this, surveys have shown that three-quarters of children aged 10-12 years have ignored the age limit, many without any parental guidance or monitoring. While we tend to be (rightfully) alarmed at the possibility of our girls being groomed by predators online, or bullied by their peers, we put far less thought into how we can support them to make sense of the narrow definition of beauty and messages around materialism they will be bombarded with when following their favourite influencers. Teachers tell me they are concerned about students in Year 4 who are already dieting, or refusing to participate in swimming as they fear looking fat in their costumes.

Once our girls reach double digits, we might be fooled by their increased desire for independence and more grown-up appearance to take a step back. Yet the reality is they still desperately need us to hold their hands just a little longer and support them to safety navigate the path to womanhood.

This post was first published in The Daily Telegraph, 8/9/18.

‘I cried when my son told me he wants to be a teacher’

We’ve been bombarded with reports lately about how depressed and depleted educators are, so when my 16-year-old son recently announced he wanted to become a high school teacher when he graduates, I cried.

These weren’t tears of dismay, but rather of pride and happiness. Because I know that despite the seemingly endless piles of papers to mark, the ever-encroaching administration, and the increasingly challenging student (and parent) behaviours teachers are expected to manage, it remains an incredibly rewarding role.

And it’s high time we stopped trying to deter young people from the profession.

Bombarding those who aspire to be educators with tales of woe is nothing new. When I announced at the end of Year 12 that I wanted to study education, a number of the teachers I admired most, and who indeed had inspired me to want to shine in my own classroom, tried to talk me out of it. The pay is dreadful, they said; it can be thankless, they insisted.

Despite the naysayers, teaching can be an incredibly rewarding profession. (Pic: iStock)

Yet despite the doom and gloomers, I did teach in a government high school for five years. I was then promoted to running special programs for our most at risk kids in the Catholic education sector for a further six years, before setting up my own social enterprise aimed at creating more resilient teens.

After working alongside hundreds of teachers in a variety of schools, here’s what I will tell my son about the profession:

1. Teachers matter. For some young people, their teachers are the most constant and caring adults they know; they are the ones who will bring them a sandwich and discreetly give it to them before class, who will hear their dark stories about abuse or neglect and who will hold their hand through the process of seeking a way forward. Parenting expert and ex-teacher Maggie Dent shared with me why she loved her many years in the classroom, and still cheers those who aspire to teach on: “I loved being the bringer of hope for kids who had none.”

Even the students who you don’t think you’ve had any particular impact on may have been inspired by you in ways you may never know until when, many years later, they will stop you at the shops and gush about how some advice you gave, or encouragement you offered, helped shape their lives.

2. You will get to immerse yourself in a subject you love on a daily basis. And although it might at times feel incredibly frustrating that your Year 7 history class don’t quite share your passion for Ancient Rome, discovering how you can engage them in this will be almost as fascinating as the content itself.

Teachers can have a huge positive impact on the lives of their students. (Pic: iStock)

3. Watching young people grow and develop is a joy. Cheeky little lads become deep-voiced, thoughtful young men. Timid girls who blush red when they are asked to answer a question in class bloom into confident, articulate young women. You get the proud-parent style moments, without the laundry and messy bedrooms.

4. The skills you develop are highly transferable. While many teachers do make it their life’s work, those who later wish to explore a new vocation will find they are highly employable. I may have started my career as an English teacher at a high school in Blacktown, but since then I have founded my own company, become an author, a newspaper columnist, worked on television, and consulted to business. Maintain your own love for learning and you’ll go far.

Dr Natalie Ferres from management consultancy Bendelta agrees that while it’s vital we openly discuss the challenges our educators face, support those who are struggling, and be open to make system-wide changes, we must also not forget to celebrate the wins: “All we seem to hear in the media is the negative. Without tuning into those positive voices that say the intrinsic rewards outweigh the hardships, we run the risk of negative contagion through the profession. This social contagion is the spread of affect or behaviour from one source to another.”

What price might we pay for creating a culture of dismay? “The pervasiveness of negativity about being a teacher could repel top talent,” Ferres warns.

My son hasn’t always found learning easy, nor as he always liked school. Yet, thanks in no small part to the dedicated teachers he has been fortunate enough to have been taught by, he has decided school’s a place worth sticking around. He won’t always have A+ days at work (nor do any of us), but I also know it’s a profession worth passionately pursuing.

This post was originally published in The Daily Telegraph, 16/6/18 

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. 

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. 

Malala’s learning curve

Just what advice on starting university would one be so bold as to offer the youngest ever Nobel Laureate?

Five years after being shot in the head in an attempt to silence her protesting the right for women to have an education, Malala Yousafzai has started at Oxford University — and she’s reached out online asking for tips.

Perhaps due to the fact Malala is such an extraordinarily impressive young woman, the guidance offered up on Twitter so far has been notably earnest; various note-taking software programs have been recommended, a mattress pad was described as essential due to the beds being rather hard, she was even prompted not to forget her toothbrush. Yawn.

Boldly going where no-one else has dared yet go, I’m prepared to offer Ms Yousafzai the low-down every young woman really needs before commencing tertiary studies:

1. Take a course that delights you — even if it has no obvious connection to your future career goals

There’s plenty of time in life for focused, purposeful study. If ever there was an opportunity to immerse oneself in learning simply for the joy of it, it’s during first-year. Universities cater to this desire by offering courses such as the intriguingly titled The Physics of Star Trek (Santa Clara University) and Duke University’s California Here We Come: The O.C. & Self-Aware Culture of 21st Century America. In the latter course, students have the opportunity to “analyse Californian exceptionalism and singularity in history and popular culture, girl culture, 21st century suburban revivalism and the indie music scene.” Don’t walk, run!

2. Maintain a sense of humour

I suspect every time Malala opens her mouth to speak, a reverential hush will descend upon her classmates as they lean in to hear her words of inspiration — only to have her ask, “Excuse me, could you please tell me how to get to the Lindemann Lecture Theatre?”

A sense of humour will help her cope with the scrutiny too; she’s already been trolled on social media simply for wearing skinny leg jeans and heels on campus.

3. Brace yourself for disclosures

A 2017 Guardian newspaper investigation found that Oxford University reported the highest number of sexual assault and sexual misconduct allegations against staff by students, and also had the highest number of staff-on-staff allegations.

Studies have shown that sexual assault victims will often first disclose these types of incidents to a trusted female friend, and that how that listener responds will significantly impact on the victim’s capacity to recover.

Nina Funnell, an ambassador for End Rape On Campus Australia, says “Research has found that most victim-survivors are terrified that they will not be believed or that they will be blamed for the violence they have experienced. The most powerful thing a person can say is simply: I believe you; it’s not you’re fault; you’re not to blame, and you’re not alone.”

Malala started at Oxford University earlier this month. (Pic: supplied.)

4. Learn how to deal with drunken bores

Universities are notorious for their binge drinking culture. In fact, former Prime Minister Bob Hawke famously downed a yard of ale in 11 seconds while he was a student at Oxford University, putting him in the Guinness Book of Records as the record holder (not quite a Nobel Peace Prize, but nevertheless an honour that many have aspired to since).

5. Pack a selfie stick

 In 2013, “selfie” was the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year, yet I’m unable to find a single self-portrait of Malala online.

As we are so quick to judge young women who post selfies as narcissistic, the very act of taking and publishing pictures of oneself can indeed be a revolutionary act of sorts. Art critic John Berger pointed out the inherent hypocrisy in a culture that relishes in objectifying the female form, yet scorns women who are perceived as approving of their own reflection; “You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity…”

Ignore the haters. Capture moments on your own terms; you are the one wearing the trousers now.

This post was first published by The Daily Telegraph, 21/10/17. 

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. 

 

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