A principal’s view

by Briony Scott

MY OFFICE IS an eclectic mix of cast-off furniture, books, ancient gaslights and modern technology. As parents enter, often with their daughters trailing behind, they initially appear startled as they try to make sense of the strange scene in front of them. It is, after all, the sum total of nine different principals who have run an all-girls school with a history spanning well over a century. Principals in this room have grappled with women's suffrage, world wars and family feuds, increasing educational expectations and the changing roles of women in society. From the turn of the 20th century till now, we have dealt with the timeless joys and challenges of raising young women.

Schools are the most wonderfully complex ecosystems, a melting pot of human nature, hormones, mixed agendas, and young people trying to make sense of their journey. Few students travel through 13 years of schooling without issues and challenges emerging. It is normal to have good times and bad. They will discover interests, develop passions, have fights, get hurt, learn to forgive, move on and hopefully, if all goes well, grow up balanced, well-educated young women. While this journey is simple it is also complex, and as one of the sole remaining community hubs, if not the only one, parents gravitate to schools for community, connection, and friendship. They also connect with schools when unsure or needing some advice.

Every era has its issues and ours is no exception. But the issues are not always what they seem. Young women today are often portrayed as challenging, unable to cope with stress, prone to 'depression' and emotional issues. As I write this, newspaper articles surround me with headlines such as 'The perils and pitfalls of raising girls', 'It has never been harder to raise a daughter' and 'The problem of raising "good girls" '. Teenage girls are regularly portrayed as fragile, vulnerable to crippling bouts of anxiety and depression, eating disorders, self harm, and narcissistic obsessions. The overwhelming message is that to grow up female, without dysfunction, is almost impossible.

It is this uniform acceptance of the belief that girls are struggling as a gender that often renders many parents helpless and quick to despair when life doesn't go to plan.

And life won't go to plan for most of us. For a start, our plans and dreams are perfect and idealised and romantic, while life is not. Girls will be sad. They'll get hurt by their friends' gossip, and think that no one loves them or understands. Many will go through a period of using extreme language, and adopt an unhelpful binary way of thinking. Nearly all will feel lonely when excluded, and despair when parents argue. Some will sleep with boys they shouldn't sleep with, drink alcohol they shouldn't consume, and engage in high-risk behaviour when we wish they wouldn't.

But contrary to popular belief, this is not true of the vast majority of girls, and certainly not true for any girl all of the time. Most girls will grow up beautifully, and learn about courage, strength and resilience along the way. They will learn to comfort themselves when they're sad, stand up when they want to sulk, persist when they fail, delay gratification for worthwhile goals and develop the courage to protect those who are without voice. For every anonymous phone call I receive from a community member complaining that my girls haven't offered their seats on the bus, I would have twenty examples of unsolicited acts of service, compassion, kindness and care. And my experience is not reserved to young girls in any particular educational sector. In Australia at this time, the majority of our young women are, without doubt, amongst the best educated women in history, engaging and developing in areas of expertise of which previous generations could only dream. They are young women growing up, learning about courage and strength, what it means to be brave and to give things a go. They are inspiring and interesting, thoughtful, and funny. They're quicker to say sorry than their adult counterparts, and gutsy when it comes to trying something new. As a generation, their sense of social justice is extraordinary, sustained and refined by their use of technology, and access to wider world.

As a principal though, I know that when things don't go well, it can be heartbreaking. I listen to the very real concerns and fears of parents for their daughters, slowly and carefully untangling what is happening. Our girls are not immune to grief, abuse, illness or death. Whatever the situation, we work out if there is a problem that requires medical or psychological intervention, or some form of additional support.

Normally though, the greatest issues involve dealing with the typical ups and downs of growing up. The situations are not always easy, nor straightforward, and they can be tough but they are not situations requiring therapy or medication.

In the years that I have been a principal, it is abundantly clear to me that families are doing a magnificent job but they do so in the face of cultural expectations that would lead them to think otherwise. There is a social and cultural normalising of the belief that raising girls is an almost impossible task. Along with this comes a presumption that when anything does goes wrong for girls, it must be because they are depressed, mentally fragile, and/or prone to anxiety. Such a view, apart from being inherently presumptuous, trivialises those young women (and men) who genuinely struggle with their mental health, and pathologises what is fundamentally, a normal developmental path. It does an extraordinary disservice to young women who are simply navigating the road to adulthood.

BUT YOU WOULDN'T believe this if you were to accept the cultural quagmire surrounding young women.

Martin Seligman, a famous American psychologist, tracks the increased rate of depression across society generally and women in particular. He argues the exponential growth in 'mental health issues' is neither biological nor evolutionary. It is all happening far too quickly to be solely a result of better education and diagnosis. Instead, the rapid escalation of depression, particularly in women where the onset of the first bout of severe depression is now around fourteen, is the product of cultural forces where such behaviours are learned and expected.

Fourteen brings this debate into my territory. This is about Year 8 or Year 9. And I can tell you that while there is a wide range of personalities and characters around this age, a fourteen-year-old also relies very heavily on others to determine what is 'normal', what is expected of her about who she can be, and how she can behave. And what they (and their parents) read are articles that assume raising girls is an unfathomable task. And like I did, they may join their local gym, only to be confronted with eight television screens. One showing The Simpsons in a relentless loop, six covering different men's sporting events, and one showing women gyrating to loud pulsing music, presumably designed to inspire us all to greater sexual awareness. The message to sixteen-year-olds is palpably clear.

In our post-modern culture, it is acceptable to believe that truth is a relative concept. No one will give absolute answers, or set concrete boundaries, or say enough is enough, particularly with our young women. And I understand this. Who would be brave enough to challenge a girl claiming to be anxious or question the feelings generated by hurtful friends, or even the desire to self-harm? These feelings and thoughts are real and need to be respected as such. It is what happens from this point that I challenge. With the best of intentions, we feed and foster thoughts as if they were king. We listen carefully and respond to emotions as if they are real and unquestionable. Thoughts and emotions are not seen as clues but as facts. Our children are taught to be thinkers only so far as they follow a thought, or a feeling, wherever it may go. Yet as David Foster Wallace states 'learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.'When we blindly follow our thoughts, we allow other forces, usually cultural, to interpret and to create the narrative. Yet our girls, if taught how to truly think, can create a more positive narrative than our culture can offer.

The cultural schema that girls are fundamentally prone to psychological weakness or emotional vulnerability is everywhere and so accepted that it is increasingly difficult to argue against something that may not technically exist. And the impact of these expectations is marked.

In the 1960s Rosenthal and Jacobson conducted what is now considered to be a somewhat unethical educational experiment. They randomly mixed students between two classes, and then told the teachers that the classes were effectively streamed. The students who were believed to be brighter performed better than those who were classified as 'normal'. Expectations influence outcomes.

So what are we expecting of our young women? Typically we expect that our girls are psychologically vulnerable and prone to emotional weakness. Medical history is littered with examples of unexplained symptoms or feelings in women being attributed to a psychological weakness or some form of genetic gender-based predisposition. Such prejudices continue to exist. I had one articulate and competent sixteen-year-old girl who went to a hand doctor to treat aching pains in both wrists, pain that had flared up relatively quickly and was strong enough to stop her writing for her examinations. She was a naturally stable, relaxed child, prone to laughter, brightly painted nails and a desire to do well in Modern History. The doctor was gentle and kind, yet confidently dogmatic as he explained that the MRIs had shown nothing but not to worry, these things happen to 'girls of her age' and it was undoubtedly stress related. It will pass. In the absence of physical evidence to the contrary, the doctor assumed a psychological trigger, reflecting a strong social bias towards to attributing unexplained physical ailments to a psychological state.

What do you do at sixteen when the default assumption is that you cannot cope, that your physical pain is psychological, that your sadness is probably depression, and cutting or self-harming is an unpleasant but not uncommon way to cope with your emotions?

You begin to believe it.

SOMEONE WILL RAISE our daughters. Someone will be whispering in their ear about who they can be and what they can do. Someone will role model how to behave, what is 'normal', what is acceptable. Someone will give them the language to use when they need to make sense of their world. And if not us, then other forces and other people will do it for us. They will do it with great authority and with great confidence. And they may be right, but they may also be deeply and profoundly wrong.

Young people, by virtue of their age, are too ready to believe what they think and to believe what they feel. They need to be taught to question both their feelings and their thoughts. Not everything they feel should be taken as gospel. Not every thought is productive or helpful. To challenge both thoughts and feelings is not to question their validity but to help keep them in perspective. By challenging the cultural paradigm that women are inherently 'weak' and instructing our girls in the rightful place of thoughts and feelings in constructing their own narrative, they are less likely to fall victim to the stereotype of the 'difficult' girl.

Anyone who works in schools will recognise the fine line I walk with defining this argument. I have seen young women go through extraordinary pain, or crippling depression, or have to face situations that are profoundly and utterly unfair and usually well beyond their control. I know life is tough. I'm not arguing or turning a blind eye to the cruelties of life, or to the language that articulates depression, or mental illness. As a teacher, I constantly walk with families as they navigate the tough times, and I will stand in the background and cheer when they go through the good. This is life.

What I will not indulge is the assumption that young women are not capable of dealing with the good and the bad in life. I see no evidence that they are inherently weaker, or psychologically vulnerable, by virtue of being female. To assume they are has two implications. First, it denies women their rightful place in society as fully contributing adults by assuming they are inherently weaker, following whims of emotion and thought, and second, it does an extraordinary disservice to the small percentage of women who are genuinely struggling with mental health concerns.

And for those who do struggle with mental illness, I have been privileged to witness some of the best examples of extraordinary courage, great character, and impressive resilience. These women may have challenges but they are rarely weak. Mental health and physical health are interrelated domains of adolescent development but they are not characteristics of gender. This blurring of character and health, and this subsequent lowering of expectations for all women, is a self-fulfilling and damning prophecy.

There is nothing inherently wrong with our girls as a gender. On the whole, they are growing up beautifully, despite the predictions of doom and gloom that abound. There are challenges to be sure but alarmist generalisations about an entire gender are not helpful to parents or their daughters. As a principal, I will do all I can to educate them so they can create their own story, making sense of the good and bad along the way. Like generations of principals before me, I will always have high expectations of those in my care. I know that young women, when expected to be so, can be strong and courageous and wise and compassionate. Corporately we challenge the cultural belief that to grow up female is inherently fraught with dangers. All of us need extra support from time to time but this generation of young women are all we would hope they would be, and more. Our girls are strong and doing well, and with strong women standing by, helping to craft a narrative of hope, the future is in great hands.

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 40: WOMEN & POWER © Copyright Griffith University & the author.