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One year anniversary – why write a book?

It’s been a little over a year since I published my book and released it into the wider world.

Writing a book before the age of 30 was a pretty major life achievement for me. It was one of my bucket-list goals.

I just never thought my first book would be a childhood sex education resource! But it was such a worthwhile undertaking.

At the start of my teaching career, I felt held back from anything other than teaching. I felt pressured into giving 100% of my energy, 100% of the time and I burnt out. I didn’t feel any sense of encouragement for taking on anything outside of school – in fact, it was actively discouraged on many occasions.

In fact, I think releasing a book on the topic of conception in lesbian families could have cost me my job or at the least, gotten me into a lot of trouble. The environments I was in early in my career were very conservative with a lot of religious freedom to discriminate. The fear and anxiety were real.

Before I left that environment, I spoke to someone who had donor-conceived children, but she hadn’t told them. There was fear about it ‘getting out’ and what her children may experience if others knew about it.

I understood the concern, but I think this approach only protects the parents. The psychological outcomes for those children when they eventually find out (and they will), have the potential to be dire and distressing.

That was when I knew I had to write my book. I wanted my son’s story to be filled with pride and openness. Even if he never shares that part of his life with others, I wanted him to know.

After all – donor conception is nothing to be ashamed of. Nor is infertility, IVF conception, or having two mums. Some people choose not to talk about their fertility journey to others because they feel it is highly personal – and that is okay. An individual’s choice to keep it private still doesn’t mean they are ashamed or that they should be. 

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I wanted to write a book about my future child’s life and conception, even if it made people uncomfortable. I knew my child would deserve to know his story, whether people liked it or not.

I changed jobs at the end of Term 2, 2017 – but I had the two week holiday period to fill, so I realised that was my time to create.

The first draft was terrible. God-awful. Too many words, not enough story. Too much awkwardness.

So I went back to the drawing board and thought about what it was I was trying to do, and why? What would I want from a book like this, if I were purchasing it myself?

I wanted:

  • A narrative – to connect with a child at their level
  • A scientifically accurate explanation – no pet names or silliness around body parts and sex
  • Inclusivity – to see various reproductive situations represented, including insemination, and IVF
  • Cute illustrations…. of course

The thing is, I am not an illustrator – I just like writing. So I contacted Anil Tortop at Tadaa Book who illustrates in a range of styles, and once I had a draft I was happy with, we got started on bringing it to life.

I will spare you the experience of looking at any of my drafts, but understand that by the time the book went to publication, it was on version 18. Thank goodness for patient publishers.

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When I looked back and stared at my creation for the very first time, I realised that I had achieved what I needed to.

It represents my child’s experience. Children benefit when they see themselves or people like them in books and other forms of media. Knowing their life is important enough to be represented bridges that divide between child and world – through that, they know they are not alone. The research in this area is preliminary, but ask any teacher to give you an anecdotal experience and I almost guarantee you they will have more than one. Children can’t be what they can’t see.

It normalises the idea of IVF, donor conception, and living in a same-sex family. If you try to teach a child about sex education but their conception has to be explained as an add-end, it sends a message that their differences can’t be talked about, or that it makes people uncomfortable. If it is seen as ‘just another method’ or ‘just another way to bring children into loving families’, this creates a sense of normal. Which is great, because I feel our lives are pretty standard, even with all the differences.

It casts my wife as a main character in the story of our child’s life. I want my wife to experience equality in all ways as a parent and if she is not a main character in the story of our child’s conception, then she becomes less important – she is as capable of raising our son as I am and gets the same sense of joy and challenge from him as I do.

It works towards making us ‘just another Australian family.’ I know we’ve got a long way to go with this one, but casting our life stories on the periphery (which they have been for a long time), makes us seem vastly different to other families. The more we are seen on the bookshelf, the more conversations we can start and the more we will become ‘just another character in the story of Australian public life in 2019.’

I do feel that Australia is mostly inclusive, with some exceptions. I am fortunate enough to live in a very progressive postcode and for the last year and a half, have worked in secular, progressive environments that have included me for all I am.

However, when I introduce the fact that I am in a same-sex relationship in conversations with new people, that part of my identity can sometimes take over. So I am no longer the friend, the colleague, the parent, the new acquaintance. Once I’ve dropped ‘wife’ into the conversation, I then get to field silly questions like, ‘Who is the man? How did you make a child? When did you tell your parents you were gay? How’s that weather…. etc.’

My vision is that when I introduce this part of my life, it doesn’t become my persona.

Yeah, we have a long way to go, but when I look at how far we’ve come, I have great hope. In order to get there, we need to start more conversations, write more stories, and spray those into the world like cans of Fanta that have been shaken too hard.

Even if people don’t like it.

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Book review: Safe4Kids book series

One of the most challenging aspects of working with young people is acknowledging the reality that we have the responsibility to protect them from potential harm. It is sometimes hard to do this without terrifying them or preventing them from doing anything out of fear. Protective education aims to equip children with knowledge of their feelings and the language to set appropriate boundaries with others around relationships and touch. This aims to help keep children safe as well as to help them understand they have a network of people who can help them if they feel their trust or personal boundaries have been violated. These measures can help children to protect themselves and feel comfortable in everyday situations.

Safe 4 Kids have released a number of books alongside their protective education program to support parents and educators in starting these crucial discussions with children. Their guidebook introduces the language children can use to assertively set boundaries, and also how to identify a network of safe people. It also includes worksheets for children to draw what their early warning signs look like. The other books in the series cover different situations that can occur in childhood and ways of dealing with them, all linking back to the same key ideas of having a safety team, using the 5 private rules, and identifying safe/unsafe feelings.

Matilda Learns a Valuable Lesson

This book is about safe and unsafe feelings – how to identify them, which situations may lead to different feelings, and how to articulate boundaries to others, including adults. The illustrations show different situations, such as having an adult try to kiss a child who doesn’t want it. It introduces the idea of ‘early warning signs’ and the safety team (a network of trusted people a child can go to when they need help with situations that make them uncomfortable).

Hayden-Reece Learns What To Do if Children See Private Pictures or Private Movies

Because mobile devices are so ubiquitous in our modern age, it is important to start the discussion about pornography early. It can be confronting to use this word, but this book introduces the topic in a child-friendly way by talking about private pictures and private movies, without any graphic images. It talks about where a child might see them, what they are, and how to exit the browser, then talk to a trusted adult. The book reinforces that a child won’t get into trouble by telling someone.

Gary Just Didn’t Know the Rules

This book addresses peer-to-peer sexual behaviour in a non-threatening and non-judgmental way. It introduces the 5 private rules for staying safe. This reinforces that nobody – including other children their age – can touch a child’s private parts or create private images of their body.

Hayden-Reece Learns a Valuable Lesson that Private Means ‘Just For You’

Using a playground scenario of a student who tries to go into the girl’s toilets to look over the stalls, this book talks about what private parts and clothing items are, their correct names, and how to respect the privacy of others at school and elsewhere. It  reinforces safe/unsafe feelings and the use of a safety team if these boundaries are violated.

More information

These books are an excellent resource, particularly for educators who are delivering protective education programs or bodies and relationships lessons as part of the health curriculum. They are non-confronting, child-friendly, and use the same consistent language and ideas around protective behaviours, which benefits children in their learning process. If you need more advice or resources about protective education, make sure to check out the the Safe4Kids Facebook page here and their website here to browse the full range of resources and training for protective education.

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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.