THEY are fiercely Australian, devoutly individualistic, indifferently agnostic. Although only 12 and 13, they are worldly wise about drugs – powder’s bad, chroming’s cheapest – and knowing but sweetly insecure about sex.
They are not so much teens as ‘tweens, just starting to cross the bridge towards adolescence and away from a childhood that seems to end earlier with each generation. For their parents at that age wholesomeness ruled: it was The Brady Bunch, hoola hoops, the Monkees. Today, they read AIDS posters on the back of dunny doors and learn to put condoms on bananas at school. They see other kids swap porn and marijuana. Their favorite TV fare is the black humor of The Simpsons’ dysfunctional affections. Reality bites.
They can be scornful of those who have been more sheltered.
Says Daniel McLeish, 13: “Someone came up to me the other day, and they’re in Year 8, and they said, `Umm, can you get AIDS from having sex?’ In Year 8!” The students with him, all in Year 8 at Princes Hill Secondary College, join his laughter.
They are the product of education-as-inoculation; parents and teachers warn them of peer pressure and dangers such as smoking, drinking and drugs in the hope it will keep them safe until they are old enough to make responsible decisions.
It gives them a veneer of sophistication about the gritty side of life that is not always matched by greater emotional maturity. It’s one thing to know the facts about lung cancer but quite another to be able to forgo membership of the cool gang at school because you refuse to smoke. How are they finding life past the age of innocence? For this group from Princes Hill, many of their day-to-day problems are the ordinary ones their parents and grandparents had too: mostly they are happy with life at school and at home but there are still teachers they dislike, subjects they’re no good at, siblings who can drive them nuts. Says Tobi Poland, 12: “Sometimes I have to take care of my sister when I don’t want to; sometimes I want to go out when I’m grounded.”
The restrictions of life as a not-quite-grown-up are maddening, agrees Mishaal Kumar,13: “They say you have to be mature, but if we show some maturity no one notices and they still treat you as a kid. Like with M-rated movies: `Can I watch this?’ `No, you’re too young’.”
Then there is the minefield that is relationships with other kids. Careful alignments must be made – with the cool kids, the goody goodies, or the I’m-just-me’s, depending on one’s predisposition. Both sexes agree that friends are important, and they have seen what life can be like for those who are disliked. Schoolyard bullying can be merciless, to the point where some victims have had to change schools. It is not physical violence but relentless verbal malice. Says Catherine Williams, 13: “(The bullies) find the littlest thing about someone and they just go on and on about it.”
“If someone’s fat, oh, that’s a beauty!” says Daniel, almost with relish. “They just don’t stop – `Lard arse!’ – ‘cos there’s a rumor going around that the McDonald soft serves are made of lard or something, and people say, `You could work in McDonald’s soft serve, you could feed ‘em your stuffing!” “And if they cry . . .” says Mish darkly, shaking his head. But, he points out, all the kids who are bullied hang around together. Come the revolution, “There’ll be so many of them they’ll come and belt up the cool people.”
They will talk about what they have seen happen with others but are old enough to want to veil what goes on in their own friendships and families. Most of this group are children of divorce but will not be drawn on what it has meant for them, resorting one after another to the same non-committal summing up: “It’s OK. You get used to it.”
A couple acknowledge that it can mean grief for kids, telling stories about how they have struggled to help friends devastated by parents splitting up.
J. P. Sammons, 13, says he has heard that often kids blame themselves for a divorce. But they are unanimous that it is better for parents to separate than to subject the children to an endless Punch and Judy show.
“If they stayed together it would be 10 times worse,” Tobi says. “There was a couple that stayed together and just fought all the time and the kid committed suicide because he couldn’t handle it.”
Relationship problems are the ones that kids this age find most distressing, judging from the 148,000 calls a year made to Kids Help Line, a national phone counselling service whose main clients are 12 to 15 year-olds. “Most of our callers are in that transition between primary and secondary school and they are also experiencing all kinds of family pressures, ” says Max Kau, state liaison co-ordinator for the service.
“In the ’60s and ’70s, youth work was done primarily with 14-year-olds plus. We never dreamt, in those days, that 11- to-13-year-olds would have anything but a blissful existence in their happy little Australian family. In fact, many of them are going through extremely traumatic experiences.”
MORE than half of callers phone about isolated incidents of conflict or intermittent family problems – rows with siblings, disagreements over discipline, wanting more time or affection from parents – 15 per cent face major problems, such as conflict with step-parents, on-going parental fighting or custody battles.
A further 15 per cent are severely distressed with their family situation and just want to get out.
Many phone after school when they are home alone or looking after younger children. “They often felt lonely,” Kau says.
“Some were quite anxious about being left home alone, not sure whether they were safe from intruders or likely to be abducted, an idea they have been exposed to by the media. Often they ring up just to debrief their day; their parents are out at work and they have no one else to talk to . . .
“A lot of young people are sad; they have got sad personalities, because they don’t see that the world is a safe place for them to grow up in.”
While the sheer volume of calls to the Help Line indicates widespread problems, it is also true that kids who call a counselling service are likely to be more unhappy than the average. What concerns researchers such as Richard Eckersley is that even Australian kids who seem quite cheerful about their personal situation tend to be deeply pessimistic about the wider world.
Eckersley has spent years researching young people’s views of the future. He has found that the older they are, the more gloomy and jaded they are likely to be, feeling helpless in the face of worsening problems, such as violence and environmental degradation.
Even primary-school children’s poetry is apocalyptic, he says, full of fears that the Earth or its atmosphere will be destroyed by pollution, or that the world will be further wracked by war. “My gut feeling is that we are burdening children too much and too early with the troubles of the world, before they are an age where they can cope with it,” he says.
“Other researchers have warned that this fear of the future could produce cynicism, mistrust, anger, apathy and an approach to life based on instant gratification, rather than long-term goals or lasting commitment.”
Tobi Poland has two traits Eckersley has repeatedly found: concern over pollution and a fear of advancing technology.
“I reckon your generation has stuffed it up because of the scientific stuff, all this modern technology, cutting down forests and moving factories in . . .” she says. “I like olden days sorts of stuff. If everyone keeps on inventing machines and weapons and things, everything’s going to stuff up.”
THIS is a moral generation, full of political correctness, says John Kellett, who has been researching teenagers for his Sydney agency, Loud! Advertising.
He says they dislike pollution, know sexism and racism are bad, have a strong sense of personal values – but think nothing of minor law-breaking such as dope-smoking, under-age drinking, petty theft.
In these terms, the Princes Hill group seems an abstemious bunch. A few have had a taste of alcohol but none of them drink.
They say smoking is common: “When you go to the park there’s usually a big bunch of people sitting around smoking cigarettes, everyone – every age group,” says Bill Rogers, 12.
“It’s cooool,” sneers Daniel, exhaling with a flourish, aglow with the self-righteousness of the ex-smoker; he gave up his scabbing habit last year, he says, ” ‘Cos I thought, save my lungs.”
Jemma Rossel, 13, is the only one who confesses to occasionally lighting up now: “I’m not doing it to be cool or anything because I’m doing it at home, not at school. I’m not addicted or anything.”
Mish says teachers overdo anti-smoking education, ensuring that kids will take it up just to annoy them. But some of the information must stick because he then lists a string of smoking-related health problems including “it stunts your growth and lowers your sperm count”, which amuses the others.
Some of them have seen marijuana offered about but it is not available to them the way cigarettes are. The people who carry it, says Mish, “are all tight-arsed. I mean I’m not saying that I asked anyone; I don’t take that. But you hear other people asking and they’re told, `Nah, get stuffed!’ ” The group is almost unanimous that smoking is stupid and that kids take it up just to impress others; their self-esteem, at this stage anyway, relies heavily on their sense that they make their own choices uninfluenced by “peer pressure”, a term
they use with practised ease.
They are more divided about marijuana and a heated debate breaks out on whether it should be legalised. Leah Thampicha, 13, thinks making another mood-altering drug easy to get would lead to more social breakdown; Jemma argues that it’s probably not as bad for people as tobacco because they wouldn’t smoke it as much.
“It’s not like the worst drug in the world,” Mish says, “but I know that it really changes your attitude. You’re, like, lazy, you lie. I have a friend and he was a really nice guy and then he got addicted to dope; he’s just lost, that’s all he talks about, he doesn’t do anything.”
As for those who pack a spray can: “Chromers are just low.
They just hang around doing nothing, just at a loss, staring and stuff – it’s just stupid.” At 13, this is much more than a textbook understanding of the effects of drugs. “(Kids today) are exposed to drugs in a way that we just didn’t have access to, sometimes in the very school yard,” says Glenn Bowes, director of the Centre for Adolescent Health and professor of adolescent health at the University of Melbourne.
“In the 1960s I didn’t have the media ramming negative images of the world down my throat, I didn’t have drugs put to me, I didn’t have to make decisions about whether to shoot up or smoke marijuana and I had an intact family.
“By . . . removing their innocence, we have exposed kids to a whole range of things at a stage of their development when they are just not neuro-psychologically equipped to make well-informed decisions about the future.
“There’s a much greater availability of alcohol, too, because of the clustering in large cities where there’s no sense of collective spirit about caring for children. Where I grew up, everyone knew I was Johnny Bowes’ son; if I went to a pub they’d say `Piss off or I’ll tell your dad!’ Then there’s the greater prevalence of sexual behavior, and its earlier onset . . . The exposure to potential harm is much greater in our society today.”
In 1992, the centre surveyed 3000 high school students across Victoria and found that about 10 per cent of year 7 students smoked (45 per cent by year 11) and 17 per cent drank alcohol (75 per cent by year 11). Eight per cent of boys and 1.8 per cent of girls in year 7 had had sex, as had just over a third of both sexes by year 11. Most of those had experienced it on only a few occasions and most used condoms, although 10 per cent reported never using them.
Those who had abstained were asked why; a third of year 7s said “No one’s asked”. But most said “not having met the right person” was the main reason. More girls than boys were “not ready for it”, which might help explain why more boys than girls said they “had not had the opportunity”.
Traditional sexual morality appears all but dead, with only 5.9 per cent of year 7s saying they had abstained because it was against their religion and a mere 2.3 per cent citing “parents against it”. But at Princes Hill, at least, a rather savage moral code regulates sexual activity – if you’re a girl.
Tobi says if it gets around that a girl has had sex, she is treated like a pariah by the other students. Says Jemma, “They think, `Oh my God, she’s sleeping around, she’s such a slut,’ but it’s different for the guy.” The boy, says Tobi, struts about thinking he’s great: “The girl loses all her friends because she had sex once.”
The girls know it’s unfair but don’t seem particularly angry about it; they accept it as a lesson in keeping quiet about one’s private life.
Bill Rogers says it’s wrong to make such a drama over something that will happen to just about everyone at some stage, but he, too, accepts that it is inevitably tougher for girls: “There are a lot more things that can trouble a girl. If the boy has sex he doesn’t have anything to worry about but the girl has to worry whether she’s pregnant or not, so the girl has to worry about abortion as well.” In fact this group don’t feel they worry about much at all and look startled when asked if they do. But there is a vein of bitterness running through them about the gap between the rich and the not-so-rich in this country; for them, it comes down to a fear that going to a state school might limit their chances of success.
Few of them have a strong sense yet of what it is they want to do, although Bill would like to be an actor and Catherine hopes to work with children. Tobi would like to be famous – “but not famous for murder or anything” – and Jemma doesn’t want to have to struggle financially.
But several of them have a sense they are starting from behind in the race for success in life. J. P. says, “There are heaps of newspaper articles saying that private students are better off. I’ve also heard that, say, if I got a really good VCE exam grade, up in the 90s, and there’s also a kid in the 90s who’s from a private school, that he gets preference at jobs.
“You’re just not getting a fair go in the world. I think . . . it all comes down to who’s rich and who’s not, and the rich will get preference.” It is a grim reality to face at 13, but they do face it.
These kids fit David Chalke’s description of the average 10 to 14 year old as “sensible, cool and level-headed; remarkably mature in many of their attitudes to life”.
CHALKE is an independent consultant for AMR Quantum, a market research company that surveys 1000 teenagers every two years.
Thirteen-year-olds are questioned on topics including social issues and their main concern about the future (getting a job); their average weekly income ($21); favorite goodies (bikes, CD players, tapes and joggers) and favorite brands (Nike, Reebok,
Billabong, Sony and Stussy).
The survey finds that the sexes do quite different things in time out, Chalke says: “As young as 10, girls are much more into the things that you would typically associate with female behavior, such as shopping and talking on the phone, relationships. Boys are more into competitive things like sport and lone things like computer games.” Both sexes like reading magazines, watching videos, hanging around the local mall.
Kids have definitely been battered by family change, Chalke agrees; a third would love more time with their parents, and 16 per cent wish their parents weren’t divorced. Even those whose families are intact worry more about the risk of their parents’ marriages breaking down than distant issues such as AIDS.
But he thinks they generally are standing up well to what social researcher Hugh McKay has called The Age of Uncertainty: “They accept that they actually have to take on board some responsibility themselves for getting on with things. With AIDS, for example: Yes, there is a real danger, but they feel that learning to avoid it is just one of the things that living is about. I think they are smarter and more capable of accepting harsh truths than we thought.”
Glenn Bowes worries about those who are not. His survey found that, while most teenagers across the three year levels were healthy and happy, 8 per cent of girls and 4 per cent of boys had true depression, and one in 20 kids had deliberately tried to hurt themselves – “cutting, burning, playing chicken with cars”, he says. Depression and self-harm are both linked to a risk of suicide.
Bowes says overseas studies indicate that the resilient teenager needs three things: a sense of connectedness to one caring adult, a sense of connectedness to school and a sense of spirituality – “Not necessarily religiosity, just a sense that there’s more to the world than your material being; a sense of culture, or a sense of community.”
It is here that Richard Eckersley believes that we are failing kids. In modern western culture, he argues, meaning is increasingly invested in the individual’s attributes and achievements, leaving young people vulnerable to a “collapse of meaning” when things go wrong in their personal lives.
“A guiding myth is almost entirely lacking,” he says. “Our culture is just not doing what cultures are supposed to do, providing the myths and stories and beliefs and values that give people a sense of place, or purpose, or meaning, or belonging.” MOST of the Princes Hill group don’t believe in God and none have regular links with organised religion. Any tenuous hold on a wider system of belief, or a sense that there is a purpose to life, has come from a casual encounter with television or a passing word from an adult at a sensitive time.
J. P. says, “I do believe in reincarnation. There was this program a while ago about Tibetan guys; they talked about reincarnation and how, after you died, 48 days later you found a new body. I guess that might be true. And I believe that everything happens in your life for a purpose.”
Jemma, too, thinks “there’s a meaning in the way you are born and where you are. I asked one of my Mum’s friends once why couldn’t I be born somewhere else, and she said, `Well, I think there’s a reason why you were put here’. I’ve always remembered that.”
Daniel believes in karma: “You do something bad to someone, it’ll affect you back one day.”
Mish agrees, “What goes around, comes around.”
But they are confused when asked what values they think are important to live by, and in the end plump for ethical relativism: people should do what feels comfortable for them.
“To be a good person . . . ummm, I dunno. Just be me,” says Tobi.
Bill agrees: “It depends on what sort of person you are.
” But they do have a strong sense of themselves as Australians: Bill volunteers that he wants a republic, Daniel’s fed up with American shows on TV, J. P. shakes his head at the way other nations misjudge us. And, although they cannot always articulate it, they also have a strong sense of what’s right and wrong.
Tobi is disgusted by boys from another school who trade porn videos and dirty pictures on the bus; Mish was going to be a lawyer until he realised it might mean having to defend someone who was guilty of a crime like rape.
And while all these great issues wash over their lives, they get on with what really matters. Mish is up at five every morning for swim squad and Daniel cruises the streets on his skateboard and Tobi lives in hope of one day scoring that longed-for pair of Doc Martens . . .
INTERVIEWS: KAREN KISSANE. PHOTOGRAPHS CATHRYN TREMAIN.
Daniel McLeish, 13.
On money: I get $10 a week. It goes into my bank; I can just do the EFTPOS thing if I need something. My parents get paid and then $10 goes into my account from theirs. I have $2500 because I used to have a job at a chemist delivering medicine to old people.
On TV: I like Australian shows. Australian movies are better.
Blue Heelers and Fire, that’s a really good one . . . American accents really annoy me.
On music: I don’t like that homey rap stuff. More Spider Bait . . . just rock ‘n’ roll. All music’s good, except rap. Techno’s really bad.
Catherine Williams, 13 On leisure: I go to the city and hang around with friends, even if it’s only at their houses. I window shop, look at CD shops and clothes.
On money: I’ll say can I borrow $20 to get a dress and Mum says, “No, go and get a job so you can buy it yourself.” I’d like to get a job, but I don’t know . . .
On playground politics: If you never get into trouble that’s like being square, or straight. You’re a goody goody.
Mishaal Kumar, 13.
It’s all crap. I’m not sure if this is true or not , but I’ve heard that cocaine eats its way through your nose, and you can’t taste often.
On playground politics: I used to get picked on by a mean cool group, but then my best friend – he’s left now – he saved my arse, ‘cos he said `Don’t pick on him or else I won’t talk to you’.
Jemma Rossel, 13.
On drugs: I reckon they’re bad for you. I wouldn’t take them, but if I knew they were going to be safe then maybe, maybe I would have a try. I wouldn’t get hooked or nothing.
On her future: I want to be wealthy. I don’t want to be majorly rich, I just want to be wealthy, so I have enough to keep me going.
On abortion: They say”Oh my God she’s killing a life”, but they kon’t even understand how awful it would be for, let’s say, a 15 year-old girl, to have a baby. It’s the mother’s choice.
Tobi Poland, 12.
On music: I like listening to Beatles records. I love them.
I only have one other friend into them. They all say “Oh no, not the Beatles, you can’t be into them, they’re not ’90s stuff!” I think, “Oh well, get lost.”
On fashion: I wear whatever I want. I don’t care what anybody thinks. I don’t care if they say “That’s not cool, you’re not going to be our friend any more!” I don’t care, this is my choice, this is me.
J. P. Sammons, 13.
On the environment: I can see that the way we’re going this Earth is not going to be lasting too long. You think of how much oil is dumped at sea, how much gas we let up into the ozone layer . . .
On school: Sometimes school’s a pain, but I like sports. Sport’s not that bad at this school, despite all the government cuts.
On TV: I watch Star Trek – the original – and the news. I like Deep Space Nine.
Bill Rogers, 12.
On leisure: I play sport seven days: tennis, basketball, cricket.
I do homework and on the weekends I like to go and see a movie with friends. I’ve mainly watched action films but I like comedies.
On sex: if you’re 20 years old and had sex on a first date, then you might hate the guts of this person after a week.
On puberty: Now everyone’s learned about puberty, it’s a matter of who can get through it first. it’s like a race.
Leah Thampicha, 13.
On family breakdown: I think it would be better for them to separate if the parents are fighting most of the time. It would be hard at first, but it would be better later on.
On drugs: If you are talking about good drugs, medicine, that’s OK. But some people overdo it, like with sleeping pills. Marijuana can be addictive. It’s not for me.