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Let them eat cake – Mother’s Day, in families with two Mums

“Happy Mother’s Day!”Around this time of year, the shops are brightened with pink cards, soaps, and boxes of chocolate. It is the day set aside to acknowledge and celebrate the motherhood journey and the unique sacrifices that parents make in the pursuit of greater things – the wellbeing of their children.

Bouquet of purple and orange tulips on a table with a note reading "love" in cursive

I have always wanted children. Like many little girls, this was a desire that started in early childhood, when I first practised caring for dolls in my preschool’s doll hospital. When I first started telling people that I wanted to start a family, one of the first questions people would ask was, “How are you going to do Mother’s Day, if your child has two Mums?” Of all the questions that could create understanding and empathy towards others, this was one that a lot of people seemed to think about first. These conversations sometimes became a lot less tactful when, “And what about Father’s Day?” was dropped on to the end of the conversation, usually through smug crossed arms and raised eyebrows.

During the plebiscite, many no-voters fixated on the idea that some stores were starting to stock cakes to celebrate special people in the lives of children, not just mothers and fathers. Far from being a slight against the traditional family, I feel that no-one should begrudge a child of the opportunity to be proud of the people they call parents or role models. It takes a special type to be incensed about beautifully decorated confectionary and positive relationships. So, how exactly will we let our child eat cake? We have already creatively considered it.

Our family will always be unique on Mother’s and Father’s Day in that we have two of one and none of the other. We both have different roles in our relationship, but equally desire to be fully involved parents. I have chosen to be the bearer of our child and to stay home for awhile to get the most out of the precious first years, but I do not believe that this negates or lessens my wife’s role as a parent. We will both be there to cut up lunches, provide cuddles, read bedtime stories, placate during tantrums, encourage, plug in seatbelts, apply band aids, make sure they wear sunscreen, and of course, pay the bills. My wife and I are a team, and she has been there through every high and low of IVF treatment and will continue to be there for every bump and every milestone in our child’s life. Everyone chooses to approach this differently, but in our lives, we feel that we have both put in the hard yards as parents and we both want our very own day to celebrate with breakfast in bed.

So, how will we approach the inevitable Father’s Day crafts at school? When you consider the length of childhood, a few activities in the classroom are unlikely to upset the applecart of a child who has grown up with loving parents. I am not worried that my child will be ostracised or feel left out because other children are celebrating their fathers, nor would I begrudge other children of their pride. As a teacher myself, I know that it is not all that difficult to track down some craft ideas that I can send to school with my child so they can use Father’s Day as a second Mother’s Day. I have worked with many children who do not have a father in their lives for a range of reasons; if we do decide to do Father’s Day crafts, I come up with an alternative or make contact with the parents to see how they would like it approached. Some children whose fathers have passed still celebrate Father’s Day as part of their grieving. A little bit of sensitivity and pragmatic planning can go a long way – as well as a good Pinterest board.

I have asked other families with two mothers how they approach this occasion. Some have a Mother’s Day extravaganza for both Mums, with Father’s Day being used to celebrate other special people in the child’s life (aunts, uncles, grandparents, family friends). Some people have relationships with their donor, which they celebrate with their children. After all, it doesn’t really matter how people spend their days, but it is important to show gratitude to the people who love and edify our children. After all, it takes a village to raise a child.

As well as having two mums and two Mothers’s Day, our child also has the benefit of grandparents. Through our relationships with our own parents, our child will one day see the role that our own mothers and fathers have played and be able celebrate their love for their grandparents on Grandparent’s Day. On days such as these, I have seen children share their grandparents with others at school whose special relations have passed or live far away. The compassion that children naturally have in being able to see families at face value is strikingly different to the questioning adult’s desire to have everything fit neatly into the heteronormative status quo box.

I believe that is the key difference between the traditional, nuclear family of times past and the modern family; we have more diverse families that are not just defined by gender or biology. A family can be made up of many different people who contribute to the love that children need to grow up strong. Celebrating Mother’s Day and Father’s Day to extend thanks to these people does not set out to destroy the family unit, it instead serves to strengthen real families that exist. Just like people who are not religious still celebrate Easter with chocolate eggs, I reserve the right to celebrate our Mother’s Days over two days in the year. I am looking forward to the day when I can open hand-made cards over a spread of smashed avocado made with love. As for the children? Let them eat cake!

A chocolate covered bundt birthday cake with coloured candy and candles on top

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A case for disclosure

In light of my book’s success, including recent media appearances in newspapers and magazines, the haters have started to come out of the woodworks – though in my case, they have been fairly harmless keyboard warriors. The most regular comment is:

“Ew – this is too much information for children.”

This has prompted me to respond – not because I feel a need to justify my personal decisions, but because this is new territory in society and perhaps we need to talk about it a little more openly so that people have the opportunity to understand and empathise.

Making the decision to conceive a child using a sperm (or egg) donor is a big decision. To a lesser extent, using assisted reproductive technology to undertake the process has its own considerations. Some people choose to use known donors who have a role in their child’s life, other people (myself included) choose unknown donors where we get a lot of information but no contact. Neither decision is wrong, but both provide different considerations for how disclosure happens. Fortunately, where science has intervened to create families, social research has not been too far behind in offering some insights into these situations.

There is a growing body of research that demonstrates the positive adjustment of children born into a range of different donor situations, but there is one caveat – that is, full disclosure. For gay or single women, there is really no choice but to disclose. However, in roughly 85% of heterosexual families where donor sperm or eggs are used to treat infertility, parents choose not to tell their children about their origins. This can profoundly disrupt family relationships and cause long-term psychological concerns for the children involved. Many parents in these situations cite ‘not knowing how to start the conversation’ or ‘shame around not wanting their child to feel different’ as reasons for choosing not to disclose. These are perfectly valid challenges, but I dare say it’s better if people consider their options carefully and have resources available for starting conversations when the time is right.

The other, equally messy side of choosing not to disclose birth origins and paternity comes about when the child grows up. What if they meet and fall in love with a donor half-sibling? What if they discover later on that they have a health issue and no access to their records to investigate their genetic background? What if they’re just curiousas to where they go their long eyelashes and brown eyes when their parents don’t have these traits? Or – what if the child is angry that they’ve been lied to for their whole life and it sets a whole existential crisis about identity into motion that probably didn’t need to happen, if only for truth of the adults in the situation?

For us, the decision to tell our child from day one (and to write a book about it) comes from a place of integrity and concern for long-term outcomes. I want our child to trust us because we tell them the truth. I want them to understand and embrace the beginning of their life for what it is – an amazing, beautiful, and wonderful blessing – not a family secret that nobody cares to talk about. The earlier you disclose this information, the better the long-term outcome for the child as it is a truth they’ve always known.

For all of these reasons, we have a scrapbook with pictures of our donor, a letter from him, a page with facts about his life, and of course, our copy of One in Many Millions sitting on the bookshelf. Too much information? Sure – but I’d rather that than a life of heartache and distrust with my child because I was too scared to talk about it. That ‘aching void’ that the morally-panicked far right talks about happens when there is a lack of truth in the situation; it doesn’t tend to happen when a child is raised in a home full of love and the power of truth. Research has proven this time and again.

To read more about this topic, click here and here for something a little more academic. Some reading about the wellbeing of donor-conceived children can be found here and a more in-depth look at wellbeing in same-sex parented families is here.

Happy academic reading.

 

 

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IVF and assisted reproduction – 4 of the biggest challenges (and one positive!) that no-one talks about

If you’ve struggled to fall pregnant, you already understand the grief that can occur when it doesn’t happen according to plan. Infertility affects more people than ever. In fact, more than 200,000 IVF babies have been born in Australia and New Zealand since 1980. The process hasn’t been as uncomfortable as I thought it might be – in fact, there has been a great deal of joy along the way. With that being said, there are certain things I wish I’d been more prepared for that I’d like to share with you.

An expectant mother in a sweater affectionately touching her stomach

You may be judged – from a range of angles

With IVF being so common in the modern world, many people are compassionate to these struggles. Some people consider it their duty to say that you are playing with nature, to judge your faith, to tell you that they wouldn’t consider using assistive reproductive technologies because those fertilised eggs you’re freezing are real babies, or to offer endless reams of advice that may be well-meaning but difficult to listen to. There is an added layer of judgment if you are using donor sperm as a gay or single parent. Depending on how equipped you feel to manage this judgment, sometimes it can be better to choose your confidants carefully.

People feel like they are entitled to know your business

Before my egg pick up, someone saw me dropping a Berocca into a glass of water and felt that it was completely okay to ask me if I was trying to fall pregnant. The fizz hadn’t even settled in the bottom of the glass yet! I got a lot of intimate questions – even if I used an ‘out’ like saying that I wasn’t thinking about it (oh, really? Why aren’t you thinking about it?) Maybe because I’m too busy wondering why my pee is as fluorescent yellow as a disco glow stick from 2002. Cheers, vitamin B!If you are gay, you may be asked relentless questions like, which one of you is carrying? Who is the donor? Why aren’t you choosing a friend as a donor? Surely your child has a right to know who made them… and on it goes. If you feel unable to deal with this onslaught without raising your blood pressure, only share what you’re comfortable with. You aren’t everybody else’s science project.

Your employer may not be as supportive as you think they should be

Depending on which EBA you are under, your IVF days may not be counted as sick leave or you may be completely prevented from using any sort of leave for IVF. If you work for a religious organisation, they may be covered by ‘lifestyle clauses’ which can give them power to say no to requests that they deem as unChristian in nature. Some EBAs do not consider IVF appointments as making a person ‘unfit for work.’ Depending on your circumstances, you may have a chat with your employer or pursue alternatives that don’t involve disclosure.

Pregnancy vitamins are harmless but they can make you feel dodgy

Your doctor will prescribe vitamins that can help to prepare your body. While many people don’t have a negative reaction to vitamins, they can cause bloating, nausea, and vomiting. Although I was prepared for the impact of the hormones, I was in no way prepared for the nausea I got from taking a cocktail of vitamin supplements before my egg pick up. I wish someone had told me.

There are so many networks out there, you can find a supportive group of people who can relate to what you’re going through

In the Facebook world, there is a group for anyone under the sun – whether you do or don’t want contact with donor-siblings, you are a single parent by choice, a lesbian parent trying to conceive, or anything in between. These groups offer support, book resources, and comfort for what can be a difficult process. My advice is to sign up for one or two, as too much fertility discussion online can be an information overload – something that can be quite unwelcome when you are just starting out with it all.

 

 

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Social media and body image – it isn’t just magazines doing the damage these days

The reality of our Web 2.0 age is that social media is ubiquitous and not exposing our children to this technology robs us of the opportunity to teach them how to use it responsibly. Conversing about the content on these platforms also gives us a window into the world of the children we work with or parent, which we shouldn’t readily dismiss at a time when they might close off. Like with drugs and alcohol, we need to start this conversation and keep it going as our children grow up.

I love social media. I also love health and fitness. I have completed two marathons, lifted weights for six years, and played sports for my whole life. I tend to follow Instagrammers who share content related to this. I have an obsession with watching food preparation videos and my feed is full of people who create meals and snacks. A few years ago, I followed a girl who had her own business making protein balls and I loved trying to make them myself.

A few months after I started following her, she began posting about how to get a fitness model body. She posted pictures of her transformation from “fat” (she was never fat) to fit and started selling an eBook full of recipes and tips. She had tens of thousands of followers, mostly young girls, many of whom bought this book. It didn’t seem to matter that she had no qualifications in nutrition or personal training – her eBook was popular and made her a tidy profit.

Three years later, she fessed up about the eating disorder that had plagued her life throughout her fitness model career and how disheartening it was to eat chicken breasts and broccoli religiously. She talked about how limiting her food and exercising so much had altered her hormones. After recovering, she started eating with no limits and her Instagram demonstrated a very poor relationship with food overall.

Throughout this unhealthy process, she profited massively from the insecurities of young girls, all of whom still supported her after she came out as having an eating disorder. This is worrying. I understand that people have different journeys with food and fitness, but the danger of documenting them online is that impressionable young people can be influenced and some aspects of these journeys are not always positive and healthy. These trends affect both boys and girls, with so much content targeted at “fitness” on all social media platforms. Some of it is so relentless and influential that it is hard to ignore, especially for young people.

Image result for instagram fitness

When a teenager is bombarded by billboards and glossy magazines, it is easy to tell them that those images are not real – they are photoshopped, airbrushed, and enhanced by make-up. When the images are drip-fed to our teenagers via Instagram and they are posted by regular people who are similar to us (only behind a filter), it is more difficult to establish expectations around body image and self-love.

This is not a sit-down, quick-fix conversation to have all at once, but as part of an ongoing thread about staying safe online and body positivity. There are a few themes that should come up in these conversations:

  • We are all different – including our bodies
  • Even though Instagram is full of “real people”, they are still behind a filter and presenting images from their best angle
  • A person who promotes fitness food tips without any qualifications could just as easily be presenting habits that are disordered and unhealthy – be critical!
  • Subscribing to these users and filling your feed with their content will give you a skewed (but relentless) idea of how your body should look
  • As a teenager, the best way you can take care of yourself is to eat a range of fresh foods and participate in physical activity that is enjoyable for you – your body will become what it is meant to be

As we continue to live through the Web 2.0 age, it is really important to think critically about the content available to our children. That way, we can be empowered to support them in making healthy decisions that fuel positivity.

The beauty of our diversity and positivity towards our bodies is something that we should never allow popular culture nor social media to take away from us.

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Three key considerations for educating children and teenagers about pornography

I was discussing this blog with a friend and she asked for my opinion on pornography – do I think it should be banned? I would like to clarify that an adult has the right to choose what they access. However, I believe that an child without any conceptions of healthy relationships can have their experiences of sexuality permanently damaged by accessing pornography. We know that children and teenagers are being exposed to pornography through their devices and social groups. They are at a higher risk of being affected by this content if their time online is not supervised and if they have not been educated about healthy forms of sexuality. This situation is very different to watching sexual material as an adult with formed views. Even in an adult context, there are always caveats.

Burning Man wire sculpture with baby dolls in Black Rock Desert
We as educators, parents and adults have a responsibility to inform our children and teenagers about the risks involved and in the formative years of sexual development, it is up to us to educate ourselves on the consequences of allowing children to access pornography through lack of supervision.

Here are three key considerations:

  1. Accessing pornography in childhood can lead to inappropriate sexual behaviours or peer-to-peer sexual abuse.

Sexual acts perpetrated by young people (aged 10 and 19) increased by 36% between 2012 and 2014. The only way a young child can know about sexual acts is if they are told, if it is forced upon them, or if they view these acts in pornographic images, which as we know can be innocently accessed via platforms such as Instagram and YouTube in content suggestions. Even children’s games (such as Minecraft) have videos created by users that portray sexual scenes using the game’s characters. These videos appear on the side without a child needing to search for them.

If a child sees these acts portrayed without explanation, they become normalised and they may try to imitate some of what they’ve seen on their peers. This is not a sign that the child is a deviant, they are merely copying what they have been exposed to. Although none of us set out to allow our children to access this material, all it takes is five minutes without supervision. Close supervision can curtail this exposure, but if a child has seen this material by accident or through a peer, it is important to reinforce with them that these are private acts that occur between adults, and a child’s private parts are subject to very important rules:

  1. No one can touch my private parts (except for medical reasons, with consent), and you are not allowed to touch other people’s private parts
  2. No one is allowed to show you private pictures or movies
  3. No one is allowed to take private photos of you
  4. You are not allowed to take private pictures of yourself

I found these rules inside a useful resource that explores this topic, which is called Gary Just Didn’t Know the Rules. It is really important to understand that a child who sees pornography and then emulates it usually doesn’t know any better. These children need support and education, not condemnation.

  1. Accessing pornography in the years of early sexual development can lead to the formation of inappropriate expectations, issues with instant gratification, and pornography addiction.

Although some pornography portrays positive, consensual experiences between adults, there is also a significant amount of material (particularly online) that portrays sex with multiple people, anal sex without appropriate protection, ejaculating in a person’s face, sex acts involving bondage/injury, or other sexual acts that may be out of the comfort zone of an inexperienced teenager.

Young people exposed to these ideas may feel pressure to try them, even if they do not feel comfortable, as they are often portrayed as being what a stereotypical male/female should do. Further, if a teenager becomes used to being aroused by these forms of pornography, they may be dissatisfied with their first sexual experiences or disappointed when their partner declines to try what they’ve seen. Over time, repeated exposure to these images can cause addiction and issues with instant gratification, which can cause a person to struggle to enjoy sex or reach climax under regular conditions with a sexual partner. It is difficult for a teenager to understand these consequences because logical thoughts can be overridden by the instant pleasure that pornography can bring. We need to have conversations about these consequences with our children in the same way we would about the risks involved with alcohol and drugs.

  1. Some pornography shows violent or dominant acts that degrade the participants and demonstrate unhealthy relationships.City Protest sign reads "abuse of power comes as no surprise"

Although the causal link between high consumption of pornography and sexual violence has not been 100% established, some evidence demonstrates that there is a link between certain forms of pornography and the formation of negative sexual attitudes, particularly towards women. Many of the acts depicted in online pornography are not standard fare and can influence a young person’s view of what sex should be. Some videos also don’t make consent obvious, and certain acts are portrayed as non-reciprocal (e.g – a man in pornography may receive oral sex, but won’t give it to his female partner).

Some teenagers report changes in attitude after viewing pornography that aren’t necessarily problematic – for instance, that it is okay to enjoy sex or to have casual encounters in the right context – but many of the most commonly accessed forms of pornography put forward the view that men cannot control themselves once aroused, that women or men can be sex objects, that women need love to have sex, that women say no when they mean yes or that the way a woman dresses can invite consent. These messages can blur the lines of what constitutes a respectful, equitable, and healthy relationship for a teenager who doesn’t have a great deal of life experience.

Awareness by parents of what children are doing online decreases with age but their time online tends to increase. As children enter this developmental space, any generational gaps in digital literacy and awareness about the impacts of content available online need to be addressed with greater understanding of the Web 2.0 platforms and how they can be used safely. For children and teenagers, it is really for the best if they are not consumers of this material. Because we know they will likely be exposed to it at some stage, using these three key considerations is helpful in shaping our conversations around this topic.

Sources

Australian Institute of Family Studies

https://aifs.gov.au/publications/effects-pornography-children-and-young-people-snapshot

Safe4Kids

http://safe4kids.com.au/

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Children and Cyber-Safety – A guide by age

As much as people love to talk about the ‘good old pre-Internet days’, there is no doubt that those days are history. I think we have also passed the transition stage of it being reasonable to opt out of the technological world. Smart devices are a reality in schools and many students experience connectivity through games and content on their own time. Some people respond with a complete ban of all technology in the home, or an expectation that children will just figure out the boundaries on their own. Both of these extremes are dangerous.

Instead, we need to empower our children to become smart digital citizens and manage screen time.  Here are some tips by age:

Age 0-4

Paediatric advice states that children will get little benefit from any screen time before the age of 2. Some people may choose to select high-quality programs to be viewed on a tablet device or simple educational games as a child approaches 3 or 4, but it is important to view these actively. Passively allowing children to consume content on a device puts them at risk of finding inappropriate videos that often appear in the sidebar of YouTube and are easily clicked. At the least, it can encourage children to enter into a distracting spiral of mindless content. To avoid this, using YouTube kids can be helpful. That can be found here.

Using a device as a family activity also demonstrates that it is not a passive, isolated activity and that parents will always be involved to ensure digital safety. At this age, it can be useful to set an egg-timer on how much screen time is allowed, giving a 5 minute warning when the time is running out to ensure that children learn how to balance their screen time with other activities. The general recommendation is less than an hour per day.

If your 4 year old is a whiz kid, you might also try early coding on HopScotch https://www.gethopscotch.com

So much fun!

Age 4-7

At this age, children are more capable of comprehending some of the risks of using the Internet. A great starting resource is ‘The Internet is Like a Puddle’ by Shona Innes. This book is reviewed here by Sex Ed Rescue. Children at this age may be more skilled at using regular YouTube as they will use it at school. However, leaving them to it opens them up to accessing content that is inappropriate. It is also easy for time to slip away and for children to scroll and click on video after video, which can encourage distraction from mindful, social activities. Parents and educators can set a great example by limiting their own digital distraction and explicitly setting and adhering to limits to engage with a range of activities that don’t involve devices.

It can be a lot of fun to access child-friendly videos via a parent’s account, again, with very close supervision and time boundaries. A child’s best learning at this age and younger is done offline, particularly in the development of their attention span and intrinsic motivation. With that being said, there are some amazing coding resources that are very safe and private for children to use which can complement early reading and problem-solving. Have a look at https://www.codecademy.com and https://code.org although an adult will need to create the account. There are forum options on these sites, but they are easily avoided with supervision.

It should also be noted that social media is not recommended at this age, as there are privacy risks for such young children.

Age 7-12

A child at this age may start to have their very own device. Some key measures for good digital habits include setting up a filter, ensuring that they are charged and used in a common area, setting time limits on usage, and not using devices within two hours of bedtime to promote restful sleep. These habits should continue into the teenage years with some increases in time allowed on devices.

As early as it may seem, this is the age at which it is time to start talking about healthy relationships and at the older side of this age range, pornography. I always introduce these discussions as an educator with open questions – what do you know about cyberbullying? How can you keep yourself safe online? Where can you go if you get into trouble or someone is saying things that make you feel uncomfortable?

From here, you can lead into the values and expectations you have about communicating with technology – that the way you expect your child to speak online is the same as face-to-face conversations. Although 7-12 year olds may have limited access to social media as the age limit is 13 for Instagram and Facebook, some parents allow their children to use iMessage or email services to communicate with friends. Keeping the conversation open is important, as is checking in on their online activity. Sometimes, children won’t talk about online bullying without a bit of probing, so it is important that we take an active role. They need to know that there are places they can go for help if they get into trouble online and schools in Education Queensland have even installed a help button on the desktop for children to use in cases of cyberbullying.

As uncomfortable as it makes us feel, around half of children surveyed in sex education research studies disclose that they have been exposed to pornographic images in some form from the age of 9 onwards, and some younger children have also been exposed to it. Rather than pretending that it isn’t happening, we need to broach this conversation early.  Using open-ended questions is the least threatening way to do this, so children don’t feel ashamed or accused – what do you know about pornography? Do the kids at school talk about it? Have you seen it, how did it make you feel? What have you seen? If using the word ‘pornography’ is too confronting with young children, it can be better to describe these images as ‘private videos’ or ‘private pictures’ with explanation as to what sort of content you are describing with your child’s maturity in mind. Of course, it is better to be clear with children that you are talking about images that show private parts and behaviours. Don’t use euphemisms.

A younger child may say it makes them feel ‘yucky’ or ‘weird’, whereas an older child may express discomfort, which is a good opportunity to talk about some of the negative attitudes encouraged by viewing objectifying forms of pornography – violence, humiliation, lack of consent, and disrespect. Depending on the age and maturity of the child, aspects of these attitudes can be discussed, but a parent may also compare what has been portrayed in explicit images to close, healthy relationships between people.

Now is also the time to set house rules (and consequences) about not seeking this material out and install filters that can limit the content as much as possible.

Age 13-15

At this age, a teenager may start dabbling with Instagram and Facebook, which can be a positive and fun experience. When setting up accounts, it can be worthwhile to be part of that process to ensure that their profiles are private and don’t contain any identifying information (such as their school and location). There are functions on Facebook that make it possible for the user to elect who can send them friend requests. The ‘view as’ function also shows what can be seen to someone who is not connected with them and allows settings to be changed on each individual post.

Screen Shot 2018-01-11 at 1.24.42 pm

In response to their burgeoning sexuality, many young teenagers are curious and will use their devices to look at explicit content if they have free reign to do so. It is vital to ensure that the earlier conversation about healthy attitudes towards sex and relationships is an ongoing one. At this age, it is also important to talk about ‘sexting’ – rather than waiting for it to happen to your child, start the conversation early. Give them key ways to turn down requests for sexting, including:

  1. How to straight up say no and stand by it
  2. Use humour – “I wouldn’t mind striving for Jennifer Lawrence’s freebies, great wardrobe, and chill attitude, but getting involved in an accidental leak of nude photos is one thing I don’t really want to have in common.”
  3. Being able to tell someone without consequence – make sure your child knows that you are that person.

These tips and others were found on the Sexting Handbook by Common Sense Media, which you can find here.

The other concerning aspect of Instagram that is rarely spoken is the influence of the of Insta-famous. One trend is the Insta-Fit movement, which portrays people who share training regimes, recipe, and other fitness tips. These pages can be benign, however, there are some users who exhibit unattainable ideals and disordered eating behaviour. I have personally followed a fitness page that started off sharing cute protein slice recipes, only to turn into a fitspo affair where the user dropped weight rapidly, surviving on broccoli and chicken breasts. All of the commenters were encouraging her and about a year later, she came clean and said she had been hospitalised for an eating disorder – not before cashing in on her eBook full of “fitness tips.” This so-called “fitness” model had no qualifications in nutrition or personal training, yet her eBook sold thousands of copies, mostly to young girls. It can be difficult to distinguish between healthy portrayals of fitness and disordered behaviour through filtered pictures, so it is important to have conversations around the way these images can portray unhealthy body goals. Knowledge is power!

Age 15+

By this age, it is time to loosen the reigns a little to provide some independence, but definitely not time to close off the cyber-safety conversation. Keep on talking!

My next post aims to unpack some of the impacts and considerations regarding pornography (sexual and otherwise). This is relevant to young adults, but it is a topic that requires an entry of its own.

A woman using a MacBook on a sofa with a white iPhone nearby

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Let’s talk about sex – myth busters edition

As far as we’ve come, educating children about sex remains taboo. This was demonstrated by the national response to Safe Schools which, above anything else, brought anxiety about what children would be exposed to in the curriculum – gay and lesbian sexual health, masturbation, and reproductive anatomy were some topics that caused upset. I found the three most contentious myths, presented with a side of factual evidence. Enjoy!

Talking about sex will encourage it

A very common fear about introducing sex education early is that this will encourage children to do it. However, the most significant influencers for early sexual debut are:

  • Childhood sexual abuse
  • Exposure to pornography
  • Peer or partner pressure
  • Drugs and alcohol
  • Media
  • Volatile family relationships

Current findings have demonstrated that the majority (69%) of senior school students surveyed across schooling systems (including Christian schools) are sexually active in some way. This rate of sexual activity has remained fairly static over the last decade. As sex education and access to contraception has increased in comparison to previous decades, rates for this age group are at a historic low.

Rather than being morally panicked, it is worth understanding that sex will find its way into children’s lives whether it is through the media, their peer group, or worse, pornography. Less education, particularly when it comes from unreliable sources, is more likely to lead to risk-taking behaviour or poor preparation for eventual sexual activity, both of which can lead to the contraction of STIs, unwanted sexual experiences, and unplanned pregnancy.

Sex is an inevitable, natural part of development that, like driving a car, requires a solid base of knowledge for success. This will increase the likelihood of safe sexual behaviour and the understanding of how to confidently deal with situations that may arise. If knowledge is power, then conversely, lack of knowledge in this area is vulnerability and risk.

Learning about anal sex is an unnecessary minority group issue and it doesn’t need to be taught as part of sex education

Although less common (around 10% of students surveyed reported that they had tried it), anal sex does occur during the teenage years, and not just in gay partnerships. Various forms of oral sex are also common in teenagers, usually as a prelude to becoming sexually active. This may be surprising but anal and oral sex among teenagers and adults is nothing new and didn’t come about because of gay rights, as the Kinsey report on human sexual behaviour uncovered in the 1950s (yes – as conservative as this era was, people still experimented and disclosed this to researchers). This seminal report on human sexuality pre-dates Safe Schools, the plebiscite, and any significant gay rights action by more than half a century.

Many teenagers are experimenting with various forms of sexual activities, whether the matter is spoken about at school or not. Not educating them about the preventative measures against sexually transmitted infections puts them at risk. Even if anal sex were a ‘minority group issue’, being more educated on the whole picture of sexuality helps to challenge ignorance and there is no harm done by simply knowing more – in the same way that it does not harm boys to learn about menstruation. I dare say teenagers are not at risk of adding anal sex to their repertoire merely by learning about it, given that it is a fairly adventurous activity, even by adult standards.

And – as I always say – if two years of hardcore abstinence education in a fundamentalist Christian school didn’t turn me straight or abstinent, a few lessons about different sex acts given to senior school students will not force anyone to go out and try them.

My child isn’t watching pornography so I don’t need to educate them about it

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Pornography exposure (for boys AND girls) is far more common than most people would assume. Even teenagers (and children!) with the most vigilant parents had seen it at some stage. These images often contain violent, objectifying, unrealistic, and otherwise inappropriate depictions of sex. Repeated exposure to pornography as a teenager’s first experience of sex can cause their brain to be conditioned to instant gratification and unrealistic ideas of what can be expected from a sexual relationship. The real event can turn out to be a let-down because genuine sex lives don’t work in the same way as pornography. This can have life-long implications for a person’s libido and relationships, in the same way that excessive exposure to technology can harm a child’s social skills. Nonetheless, there is no getting rid of it so educating our young is our best counter-attack.

Taking phones out of bedrooms and changing the Wi-Fi password is no longer enough. If we don’t want our teenage sons and daughters to have their sexual peak in front of a smart phone with a handful of moisturiser, we need to ensure that we educate them about the long-term sexual risks of engaging with pornography. In the same way that we warn our children about photos in magazines not being conducive to healthy body image, we need to safeguard their expectations about what healthy relationships and sexuality looks like.

Quite frankly, it is about time that we all started talking about sex more openly with our adolescents and seeing quality sex education as a seatbelt, rather than a guidebook. That starts with educating ourselves and identifying, then challenging, some of the misinformation that is prevalent around these topics. Sexual health is as important as financial literacy, digital technology, and the core curriculum. We need to treat it with openness and be the grown-ups in getting the conversation started, including the parts we’d rather not talk about – so our children aren’t dealing with consequences they’d rather not deal with in their future.

Sources

Australian Institute of Family Studies

https://aifs.gov.au/cfca/2016/05/04/children-and-young-peoples-exposure-pornography

Amanda Dunn – The New Puberty (2016)

Anne Mitchell, Kent Patrick, Wendy Heywood, Pamela Blackman, and Marian Pitts (LaTrobe University)

http://www.redaware.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/31631-ARCSHS_NSASSSH_FINAL-A-3.pdf

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Six steps to recalibrating puberty education for the 21st century

I am currently reading and contemplating on The New Puberty by Amanda Dunn (great read, by the way), which has confirmed that the clutches of puberty are encroaching further into childhood than ever before. Some people believe that this early development is the end of childhood as we know it, as previous models of puberty education have been packaged with sex and relationships education more suitable for teenagers.

I don’t believe that this is the beginning of the end. Like anything that changes with time, it means that we need a pro-active strategy in how we educate and empower our children. A recalibration of our approach to puberty education with developmentally appropriate resources and conversation starters is what is really required.

Here are six ways we need to respond to our children, developmentally.

  1. We need to keep a check on our expectations.

If a child noticeably develops before their peers, different expectations seem to be applied to their maturity. Although the child may be taller and more physically mature than their friends, they are still exactly that – a child. They may not be ready for independent responsibilities that you would expect of an early teenager or older child. Socially, they will still have the same struggles as their age-related peers. It is really important to encourage them to act their age, and not burden them with expectations that belong to older children.

To give an example, I once overheard, ‘Should that child still be playing with Shopkins at her age?’ The child in question was eight years old – so, yes. Just because she is undergoing puberty at a younger age, does not mean that her desire for age-appropriate childhood play should stop. Some children may have the beginnings of an adult body, but they are still not adults.

  1. We need to educate about body changes before they happen, not in the midst of it

 Teaching children about the changes that they will go through at the same time we are buying them pads and razors is unlikely to equip them with success and confidence. The body education our children need should ideally occur before these changes happen, that way, they are not unexpected or difficult to deal with. Which brings me to my next step….

  1. We need to educate in an age-appropriate way, using correct terminology 

Many adults shy away from the puberty talk with younger children because they don’t feel their children are ready for the sex talk yet. Fortunately, there are many resources that deal primarily with puberty without any mention of sex or sexuality. This can be a great place to start the conversation. Some parents may want to introduce the sex talk at the same time, whereas other families feel their children would benefit from learning about puberty first. Fortunately, there are books that suit both purposes.

Two awesome starting points are:

Help! I’m a Tweenager – Rosie Luik (girls’ puberty)

I’m a Boy – Special Me and I’m a Boy – My Changing Body –  Shelley Metten (boys’ puberty)

These books require adult interaction, as the reading level of the content is not quite as simple as picture books, and there is some mention of puberty’s role in fertility, though not sexual content as such.

Or for the comprehensive, illustrated introduction to almost everything sex and puberty for younger children:

The Amazing True Story of how Babies are Made, which I reviewed here.

Unfortunately, this one doesn’t talk much about managing periods (which is very important for young girls), but it introduces all things related to puberty and sexuality and serves as a solid introduction. All of the above resources use correct terminology. It is really important that children hear the proper names for their body parts and not slang words, which can encourage shame and embarrassment.

Reading the books alone first can help with nailing the terminology and dissolving awkward feelings. The best place to start this conversation may be in the car on the way to school (for parents), and in the form of a Q and A dialogue (for educators). Have fun with it! After all, these changes happen to everyone, so we should be able to talk about them without feeling weird – this sets a positive example for the children in our care.

  1. We need to encourage physical activity and find ways to mitigate the sometimes-negative impacts of puberty on participation in sport and other activities 

A young woman in black boxing gloves kissing one of her gloves

Physical activity and other childhood hobbies have benefits for a child’s mental and physical health, although some activities can become difficult once children begin puberty, particularly if they are developing faster than the children around them. This is when we need to be pro-active and provide strategies that support continued participation, without the child needing to ask – this could include getting a quality sports bra fitted, teaching a girl how to manage periods in various situations, and discussing adequate protection for boys who play contact sports. It is really important to nip this one in the bud so children are empowered to continue participating without the awkwardness of needing to ask. Which brings me to my next step…

  1. We need to instil body confidence, relentlessly

Alongside the practicalities of helping children to stay engaged with their interests, we need to explicitly reinforce the idea that it is still useful for a child to be physically active, even as their body matures. Although there are many positive role models in every sport, it can’t be left up to chance for a child to realise that their bodies are amazing vessels that are capable of doing challenging things, even after they have matured. Body comparison will begin alongside these changes too, so it is important to explain (repeatedly!) that bodies are diverse and feeling confident in your own skin is what matters most. Drawing attention to a range of capable role models with different body types can help to dispel the myth that there is only one image to aspire to.

Shirtless boy squeezing and playing with large inflatable ball near parked car in Oceanside

The average timing and considerations of puberty may have changed over the last couple of generations, but that doesn’t mean that children should lose their childhood because we are scared to talk about it. We need to keep on reviewing our approach to ensure that our children receive the best and most age-appropriate education that will equip them to pass through these inevitable transitions with their confidence intact.

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You can’t be what you can’t see – why teachers shouldn’t live in the closet

When we first start to learn important life skills, our success hinges on watching someone else model the task before we try. Leading our own lives isn’t any different from mastering basic life skills; we all have the desire to form human connections that influence us and form our ways of being in the world. We know that young people look up to the world around them and so we try to steer them towards good role models to fight against the negative messages they will undoubtedly consume from the wider world.

Although there are positive role models everywhere, it is more meaningful when a child sees a person just like them in a position of success, in a place where they can connect with them. Young people adopt habits and attitudes by looking at people who share their gender, cultural background, or other life circumstances. When a child belongs to a group that is in the minority and over-represented in suicide and mental health statistics, knowing individuals who have succeeded in spite of stereotypes offers hope that their future can be bright. The most common place for a child to connect with a role model is at school.

This is why I find it so perplexing that being a gay teacher in Australia is still such a silent idea. To be fair, nobody is going to stop a gay person from attaining a Bachelor of Education, but implicit forces that propagate institutionalised heterosexual norms can crush an early career teacher into silence. It happens frequently in the independent sector where parental satisfaction = business and lifestyle clauses (aka religious “freedom”) can make it very easy to sack those who do not comply. Even if you don’t consider these factors, the impact of silence on teacher wellbeing and mental health can make some of these positions untenable. In many schooling contexts, there is an underlying message that having an out teacher encourages children to believe that it is okay to be gay. For some parents, this represents a fear of the unknown.

One of the most significant “no” arguments that got a lot of airplay during the lead up to the plebiscite was that gay marriage would pave the way for talking about homosexuality in schools. My question is, why aren’t we talking about it? In any classroom, there will be students who have homosexuality in their lives – whether it is through having a gay relative, gay parents, or even being gay themselves. At some point throughout their life, they will likely meet a gay person or work with one. For some students, they may not yet realise that they are gay, but are grappling internally with feelings that they can’t explain. They might be looking for confirmation that they are completely normal and loved regardless.

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Thinking about this takes me back to 2004. My family had relocated to a regional city in Queensland, and the intent was to lead a quieter life while my father developed his business. I had always known I had those feelings and had never said anything because I wasn’t certain that I actually was gay, because I lacked life experience. In my family and friendship groups, nobody spoke about it. Popular culture at the time didn’t contain many visible role models, or at least none that I had been exposed to. YouTube and social media were in their infancy and so I was somewhat in the dark. Furthermore, the Christian education program at my school had explicitly stated that being gay was not an option if you were to lead an acceptable, moral life.

Towards the end of that year, I developed a close friendship with a girl that turned into a somewhat-relationship behind closed doors. We never spoke to anyone about it because we attended a very conservative Christian school, and we knew there would be consequences. I finally plucked up the courage to pull one of my favourite teachers aside to tell her about what had been going on. I was not seeking spiritual guidance nor did I need advice about how to change my feelings; what I was seeking was reassurance. Instead, I was forced to see a counsellor and forbidden from telling my parents. When the ‘counselling’ did not produce the desired result, my parents were called into the school. I was asked to leave and walked out in a cloud of absolute humiliation.

After enrolling in a public school, I felt lost and scarred by shame. I never spoke about my past relationship and threw myself headfirst into dating boys, drinking, and other destructive behaviour. I went from being a straight-A student to barely handing in assessments. Towards the end of Year 11, I honestly thought that I had completely screwed up my future prospects. Instead of looking forward to graduation, I feared the future because I had been told that gay adults didn’t have functional relationships and I knew that my career prospects would be very dim considering how little work I had submitted towards my senior certificate. The most traumatic aspect was that I thought I would never recover my academic prowess because of the dark night that had descended upon my mind, sucking all the life out from the inside.

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During that year, my senior music teacher resigned and was replaced by a bright and talented teacher who played numerous instruments and rocked a shaved head like nobody’s business. She unabashedly wore jackets with gay patches stitched onto them, and considering where the world (particularly Bundaberg) was at in 2007, this was a bold move. Not only did she impart her amazing musical taste on all of us, but she spoke about the life she had built, complete with a career, mortgage, world travels, a dog, and a (nearly) wife. Suddenly, here was this person who profoundly disrupted everything I had been told at my previous school, who was living proof that I could have the aspirational life I dreamed of with a wife by my side. This realisation was the wind that changed the direction of my sails.

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Not long after I met this teacher, I came out to my parents. I wrote a song about a woman I loved and sang it on school assembly. I stopped caring what other people thought about my life and lived as my true, authentic self. A decade on, I have a successful career, an impressive passport, a published book, a dream home, plans to have children, and a beautiful wife, whom I will marry now that the laws are in place. I did not fall into some mythical drug scene. I did not catch a disease. I did not become an outcast of society because of who I am. However, it would have taken me a lot longer to figure this all out, had I not had a visible role model available to me at a very formative and vulnerable time in my life. Without a strong, like-minded influence to model the possibility of a good life, I could have become another statistic.

This is why the idea of silencing gay teachers is anathema to me. If we are to fulfill the mission of the Educational Goals for Young Australians as set out in the Melbourne Declaration, then we need to help young people find their voice. It is challenging to do that if we must cower behind our desks and hide our wedding photos from plain sight. Having a gay teacher will not make a child gay, and furthermore, there is absolutely nothing wrong with identifying as a gay person. What visible role models will provide are two very important messages to our young people;

  1. You are not alone.
  2. Those of you who identify as gay have equal worth and you have just as much chance of fulfilling your dreams as anyone else. Here are people who have walked similar paths to you and succeeded. It is possible for you. 

In the past, gay students have had to navigate these paths without any guidance and I don’t believe it needs to be like that now or in the future. By keeping our teachers in the closet, we are limiting our young people and contributing to a world that divides and separates people on the basis of unchangeable differences. Learning more about these differences will challenge the discomfort and biases that people have and in time, most people will realise that there is nothing to worry about in allowing people to be more open. A child can’t be what they can’t see and pushing their role models into the closet is sending the message that who they are isn’t part of the conversation.

I think every child’s diversity should be represented visibly in the schooling system, through teachers, coaches, parents, students and curriculum materials that acknowledge a variety of life narratives. Only then will we see change and open up a brighter future, not just for some students, but for every student. I think that’s worth standing up for, don’t you?

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YES! YES! YES!

This week has been a satisfying one. I have completed my report cards and am currently kicking back at the hair salon, getting my six-monthly cut and colour before I leave the country for six weeks. In just under a month, I’ll be setting off on a much-needed adventure to Sri Lanka, Qatar, and the Caucasus (Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan).

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I have also seen the first full-colour illustration from my book, One in Many Millions. It has been a very positive week for me. However, the highlight was being able to witness the YES vote ruling the same-sex marriage postal survey. What a glorious time to be alive. As unfair as the process was, the result is history in the making and it brings us one step closer to being a more just, compassionate society where people are not excluded from legal rights and privileges afforded to the majority. .

The ‘no’ camp has put forward the view that same-sex marriage will bring forth an ideological rampage in our schools that will see gay and lesbian topics explored in sex education. Personally, I think the time has come to ensure that every child is equipped with the knowledge to make sound decisions regarding their sexual health, regardless of their orientation. If history has taught us anything about disease and social attitudes, having a culture of silence can only bring negative consequences.

I say YES to love, YES to legal recognition of adult relationships and YES to comprehensive sexuality education!

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