Bye, bye, baby, bye, bye

THE BABY started school yesterday. She didn’t want to, particularly, and the good-morning snuggle in our bed lingered on and on. It made her father laugh. It reminded him of how he had felt when I was expecting our first child and my waters broke in the middle of the night. He had dived under the Doona in dismay and said, “Just give me a minute.” Anything to hold off this momentous change.

Frightened to let them come, frightened to let them go. We had all worked hard on getting used to the idea of school. She had paraded around in her blue-checked uniform and sensible black shoes over the holidays, carefully packed and unpacked all the mysterious contents of the schoolbag, and played “school” every day for a fortnight.

It got to the point where even I was becoming confident that this quiet, shy little girl was going to be fine. Then came the time I couldn’t play teacher – there were potatoes to be peeled – and her big brother offered to stand in. “Hang on,” he said. “I’ll just get the strap and the ruler.” Her eyes widened.

No, no, I protested, they don’t hit children at school these days. It’s one of your brother’s stories, like the one about how you would grow antennas if you were bitten by a dragonfly. And remember how he fibbed that the dentist would saw your head off and screw it back on? That wasn’t true, was it? She nodded doubtfully. But I was reassured; it reminded me that her schooldays would be dramatically different from mine.

Yesterday she dressed herself except for the final tie of the shoelaces and tried the loaded bag on for size. “It’s too heavy,” she protested over her new harness. She lurched between over-exuberance and vulnerability, clowning about the room and then throwing herself into my arms and clinging.I rocked her and sang what I had always sung for them when they were feeling small and frightened, that old ’60s classic, “Be my, Be my baby . . . My one and only baby, Be my darlin’.”

The moment, when it came, was an anti-climax. Kids hate goodbyes, hate having to face that you are leaving them. They leave you instead. One minute she was holding my hand outside the classroom, the next the teacher appeared smiling at the door and our preppie slipped into the room without a backward glance.

Her dad and I stood, bereft, watching through the glass. It was like the scene in the film Father of the Bride, where Steve Martin, after organising the wedding from hell, realises that his daughter has left without so much as a kiss goodbye.

I’d been longing for milestones ever since the first child came. You long for their first word, their first step, their first night sleeping through, that first tinkle in the potty. And then comes the day you realise you’ve wished their lives away.

First published in The Age.

Children and trauma: chocolates, hugs and tears


The principal of Winchelsea Primary School mothered a whole town as it tried to cope with the drowning of three boys in a local dam.

JUDI Fallon still remembers too vividly the funeral of a small child that she once attended. “He was a two-year-old. His father walked down the aisle of the church, carrying this little white box. I will never forget it, even though it would have to have been 30 years ago.”
So she knew how to respond when it was suggested that the children at Winchelsea Primary School act as a guard of honour for the coffins of the three Farquharson boys. “I said, ‘We can’t do that, because I can’t expose little tackers to being near little white coffins.’ You’ve got to be thinking of those sorts of things. So we put the coffins into the hearses; the children were lined up in front of the hearses and the hearses drove through. There was a distance between the cars and the children, and the children knew what was in the coffins but it was the hearses they saw.”
Children and death are a grievous mix, a mix that Fallon, the principal of Winchelsea Primary School, has learned far too much about it in the past two weeks. Two of her pupils, brothers Jai Farquharson, 9, and Tyler, 7, died along with their two-year-old brother, Bailey, on Father’s Day when the car their father was driving veered off the road and into a dam. Their father, Robert, escaped but all three boys drowned in the car.
Fallon geared up for emergency measures from the moment she got the call from a parent telling her of the tragedy at 11.10 that Sunday night. Winchelsea is a small town of only 1200 people and 190 of those are children at Fallon’s school. In a rural community, she says, “the school is the town and the town is the school”. The children are also closer to each other than city children; those of the same age have often gone to the same kindergarten and been with the same classmates every year at school.
Fallon is a small, determined and practical woman. She talks quickly in this interview, the story pouring out of her. It is hard to know whether the speedy delivery is her normal mode or the result of the enormous tension she has been under for the past fortnight. She is clearly a warm and open woman; during this interview a small child knocks at her closed door to show her a painting he did in art class. Later, in the playground, a little girl runs over to show Fallon the new Band-Aid on her finger. Both are utterly confident of their welcome.
Fallon has been at the school for only 41/2 years but has embedded herself deeply into the local community, her networks extending to all kinds of groups, from the Lions Club to the local police. She knew the shock and grief would be enormous.
She also knew that there were few protocols to guide her; in the next two weeks, she would rely almost entirely on her instincts. She undertook many roles: informal counsellor, funeral planner, media liaison officer. Fallon became the woman who mothered a small town through its loss.
That first night, she telephoned an Education Department manager and told him she would need grief counsellors at her school first-thing in the morning. She did not ring her staff: “They needed a good night’s sleep.” She lay awake all night, thinking of all the people who might be hit by repercussions: teachers, parents, bus drivers, lollipop ladies. Then she got up at 5.30am to face the hardest day of her working life.
At 6.30am she began phoning her 15 teachers to tell each of them personally; over and over she recited the news. When the staff arrived at 8am the grief counsellors were waiting for them. Fallon told the weeping teachers about trauma and handed them pamphlets of symptoms that they or the children might suffer. Shock is not just an emotion; it has a physical effect on the body. Fallon sent her secretary up the road to buy chocolates and jellybeans for staff and students. “When shock hits, you get chemicals in your system and sugar is an excellent way of coping with them. Sweet drinks, sweet food.” She laughs bleakly. “We absolutely bought out their confectionery department, I think.”
Fallon herself was having trouble believing the news: “It’s like, ‘This can’t be happening!’ It took me a long while to accept that there were three little boys lost. I mean, I’m a mother. I can’t imagine imagine losing one of my children, let alone having your whole family wiped out. You ask yourself why. You ask yourself how. But I just go into what I call work mode. You’ve got a job to do. And if you fall apart, who’s going to lead?”
She had students bring the school flag down to half-mast. Then she took the morning assembly in front of 190 children and more than 50 adults. She explained that she had sad news and told them the facts as briefly as possible. She told parents that counsellors were available for them and for the children. “The counsellors were fantastic,” she says. “The children were allowed to come in and out of the library whenever they chose. Everyone was told that they were allowed to do a drawing or a picture or a story. The thing is to get children’s emotions out. Children actually cope better than adults. Adults don’t want to talk about it, but children ask the hard questions.
“We got the community policing squad in first-thing Monday and we sat the grade five and six kids (Jai’s class) down to explain how an investigation might go, hypothetically. Because the kids were asking, ‘Why did the car go down? How long did it take the car to go down? How long would it have taken before the boys died?’ They ask those horrible hard questions, and that’s what you’ve got to give them the answers to.”
Younger children were also imagining the children’s deaths but were satisfied with much simpler responses, often the ones they made up for themselves. Fallon spent a lot of the week on yard duty to keep the media at bay, for fear a distraught child would be further traumatised by being photographed. “I was down in the sandpit with the little ones and one of them said to me, ‘I know, Mrs Fallon, how Tyler died. He didn’t have his seatbelt on.’
“And I said ‘Oh, I think he might have had his seatbelt on. He probably released it to try and get out.’ But ‘Oh no, if you don’t have your seatbelt on you die.’ To him, that was the explanation.
“And another one asked me, ‘Do you think he would have drunk much water?’ And I said, ‘Let’s hope he kept his mouth closed.’ And the child said, ‘Oh yeah, that would have been sensible.’ To her, that was fine. To me, it was . . .” And she makes a strangled sound, as if no word can express the ghastliness. “They think those things. They have visions in their heads. Once we told them it was normal to have visions like that, normal to ask questions, normal to have trouble going to sleep or bad dreams, they got through that and moved on.”
It was suggested that the school should suspend specialist programs such as religious education. Fallon resisted. “I wanted to get the school quickly back to routine. That was just gut instinct too.” She peals with laughter: “It works for me! It also does work for children when they’re upset.”
As well as hovering over her students and staff – Fallon was particularly worried about Tyler’s teacher, a caring woman who had taught him in both prep and grade one, and Jai’s friends, who were old enough to understand the finality of death – Fallon phoned the grieving family every day.
“Mum was still in hospital (sedated for shock) and Dad was an absolute wreck. It took a few days to work out what their wishes were, how they wanted to do things. They were at a loss. And the coroner hadn’t released the bodies, we had to work our way through that. And then a couple of days later Robbie (Farquharson) was taken in for questioning; I had to deal with the homicide squad as well.”
Questions remain about the accident, which left no skidmarks on the road. The car was found with its lights and engine turned off. “My aim was to make sure that everyone was aware that the two parents were supporting each other,” she says firmly. “And the kids need to feel that too . . . This sort of thing can bring a town together. It can also destroy a town. At the moment, here, it’s brought them together.”
There was a torrent of communication in the wake of the tragedy. Fallon received more than 200 emails of support from other principals, and established a sympathetic correspondence with the principal of the Balwyn school that lost two boys to a stabbing just days after the Winchelsea tragedy, and to the Sunshine special school principal who lost a student in a house fire. She phoned her staff every night to see how they were travelling (“Because it’s when you get home that you reflect”).
And she fielded 50 or 60 media calls a day. “There must be a newspaper somewhere or a small radio station up in Upper Quambatook or wherever that hasn’t rung me, but I guarantee everyone else has. And that was something I hadn’t planned for at all.”
Fallon had been asked by two older members of the community to handle the media, a task she took on “to protect Cindy in hospital and Robbie at home . . . So I’ve learned a little bit about the media now. They’re doing their job, that’s all they’re doing. If you give them the little grabs that they need they are happy, and that keeps them off your back and everyone else’s.”
Fallon seems to have a native shrewdness that stood her in good stead in this regard. The grandfatherly man who edits the local paper was given hot tea and warm advice when he came around after the funeral almost too upset to write his report of it.
But when a bigwig from Channel Seven rang, Fallon bartered with him: she would give him an interview if he would put in a request for her to Essendon coach Kevin Sheedy. He agreed, and Essendon footballers – the Farquharson boys’ team – will come to the school next term to help with its memorial garden and to speak to the children on how to handle adversity.
And how does Fallon get through adversity? She schedules. She held her own grief at bay until Thursday morning, the day after the Farquharson boys’ funeral; she cried for the first time when her staff gave her flowers and a card to thank her for her strength and support. But then she rallied again and is holding off until this weekend, the start of the school holidays.
“I’m not quite sure when it will, but it will hit,” she admits. “It’s like you will stub your toe and all of a sudden the world will end and you will think, ‘But this was just a stubbed toe!’
“And it will have nothing to do with the stubbed toe, just with what you have bottled up and not let go. But I have a gorgeous family and two wonderful daughters, and they will look after me.”
· Born in Melbourne
· Degree in marketing, Monash Caulfield, followed by career in advertising/marketing
1975 and 1979
· Birth of daughters
· Returns to university to train as a teacher
· First teaching job, at Traralgon Primary School
· First principal’s job, at Hamilton Primary School
· Principal of Winchelsea Primary School

First published in The Age.

Babes in the woods

Australia has never been so rich, yet there are serious doubts about whether our children are reaping the benefits. Karen Kissane reports on whether the needs of children are compatible with the demands of modern life.
WHEN Anne Manne’s last child started school, Manne brushed off her CV and rang old university colleagues to inquire about paid work. One asked what she had been doing all this time. She told him she had been looking after children. There was an appalled silence.
“I’ve often wondered what happened to you,” he said wanly. “But I thought . . . you know . . . New York, London . . .”
Retelling the story in her new book, Manne, who had tutored in history and politics before she became a mother, writes: “I knew what he meant. A brilliant career. But here I was, down among the children. He sounded terribly disappointed, more embarrassed for me than if I had told him I had been imprisoned for embezzling university funds . . . How hard it is to explain; it is as if one steps back across a threshold into a different world with different values, a different universe. Everything that is a priority in the other, parallel universe is reversed, turned upside down. The centre of life in one world – children – is invisible to the other. There is no shared language.”
Manne’s is one of two new books to suggest that Australia’s children are falling into the gaps between those two worlds; that the next generation is at risk of being failed in a wholesale way by new-economy obsessions with long working hours, the financial bottom line and a self-absorbed individualism that is cruelly undermining the less visible sphere of the family.
While Australia has never been so rich, according to many yardsticks the health and well-being of its children is not improving in line with this increased prosperity. It is actually getting worse.
A barrage of statistics backing this claim can be found in Children of the Lucky Country? How Australian Society has turned its back on children and why children matter, which is co-authored by Fiona Stanley, former Australian of the Year and professor of child health at the University of Western Australia.
Anne Manne’s book, Motherhood: How should we care for our children? relates more to the needs of the early childhood years and, in particular, research findings about the potential emotional damage to babies and toddlers who spend long hours in day care.
Manne writes ardently of the grief felt by mothers and babies who are separated from each other too soon and calls for a new “maternal feminism” to fight for the rights of mothers to both work and care for children in the way they feel is best. “It is not just the ‘social construction’ of motherhood that makes us feel guilty. It is the expression on the face of a child,” she writes.
The increasing problems of Australian children begin before birth. The rate of “low-birth-weight babies” – those whose small size or prematurity makes them more vulnerable to conditions such as cerebral palsy and intellectual disability – is rising, not falling. Stanley says this is due to factors including mothers’ smoking, drinking or drug use, sexually transmitted diseases and the multiple births associated with IVF.
Autism is also on the rise, for reasons which cannot be determined. Asthma now affects 30 per cent of Australian children compared with about 10 per cent in the 1970s.
Obesity and type-2 diabetes in children rose by nearly 30 per cent between 1990 and 2000. This is predicted to lead to increased incidences of adult heart disease, high blood pressure, kidney failure and stroke, and it has been suggested that this generation of Australian children will be the first to have a lower life expectancy than their parents.
Anxiety and depression are more widespread among teenagers than they used to be; according to Stanley’s book, suicide rates for males aged 15-24 have increased four-fold and female rates have doubled since the 1960s. One national survey found that over 15 per cent of children and teenagers had a psychological problem that significantly interfered with their daily lives, and in disadvantaged groups the rate was as high as 40 per cent.
“People who live in good areas with nice facilities and children who are OK have no idea that (this picture) is true because they can successfully avoid evidence of it,” Stanley says. “Everyone says I’m gloomy but I’m not; I’m facing reality.”
Stanley argues that the nurturing aspect of society, its willingness to provide the services that are the community’s mortar, has been pushed aside in the personal rush towards money and success and the governmental push for a lean, mean economy. Parents are not valued enough, and nor are the educators and health professionals who try to help troubled families with abusive fathers or drug-addicted mothers.
Fixing these complex, deep-seated public health problems, Stanley says, will be “a damn sight harder” than targeting the scourges of childhood past, the infectious diseases such as polio and gastroenteritis. They could be fixed with sanitation and vaccination.
“There’s a significant amount of infrastructure missing in many families and many neighbourhoods. Map the learning disabilities and school problems and Melbourne suburbs, and then map the kinds of things needed to help them: how far do you need to go to a speech pathologist, how easy is it to see a GP for a child’s ear infection, do you have a good preschool and green space to play? Over the last 30 years we have dismantled many of these things, such as the maternal and child health clinic sisters who were the backbone of young families.”
Governments of earlier eras saw preventive support for mothers as crucial, but “economic rationalists of the 1980s and 1990s have pushed a lot of those things to one side because they don’t understand the relationship between healthy children and parents and a healthy workforce and society”.
Now, Stanley says, a child is often left to suffer disadvantage until he or she exhibits learning or behavioural problems at school, by which time the damage can be too deep-seated to repair. “Is the only answer to wait until they become little criminals and then lock them away?”
Manne, too, sees children as “the canaries in the mine of the new economy”. “Why do we have so many kids with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactive disorder), so many teenagers with depression?”
Manne writes luminously of the tenderness of early motherhood, of the importance of the little glances and touches that reassure a small child that the world is a safe place and which help the child regulate his own feelings. She writes: “What must be understood here is that child care for a baby intrudes into the midst of an intense love affair . . . There is both force and delicacy in what babies and young children feel. Their emotions are complex and deep before language. Part of my Toddlers’ Bill of Rights would include the possibility of climbing into the lap of someone who truly, deeply loves them, whenever they wish.”
Manne says that most child developmentalists agree that child care from the age of three can be a benefit, particularly in terms of a child’s intellectual abilities. But there is evidence that long day care under the age of two can be harmful: one recent US study found that 70 per cent of toddlers in “medium to excellent” day care centres had raised levels of cortisol, a hormone related to anxiety. High levels of cortisol at a time when the pathways in the brain are still being built might lead to long-term difficulties in regulating one’s emotions.
As hours of child care grew, so did the problems. One study found that at age four and a half, three times as many children (17 per cent) in more than 30 hours of care showed more aggressive behavioural problems than children in care for less than 10 hours (6 per cent). The long day care children were more disobedient and bullying, with more explosive tempers.
Manne also looks at the consequences for mothers at home who are not supported and whose distress might lead to depression and child abuse, examining the case of Sydney woman Kathleen Folbigg, an abused and neglected child who grew up to murder her own four babies. Manne asks: “Who cares for the carers?”
Manne believes that, for the sake of children, the world of work needs to be much more accommodating of the world of caring. She believes that the fertility crisis hands working women a bargaining chip in the battle for better parental conditions, and she backs the ACTU’s bid for two years’ leave after the birth of a child. And, she asks, what about the 120 days of parental sick leave offered in some Scandinavian countries? And the option of a six-hour working day, as offered to Swedish parents? And welcoming pathways back into the workforce for women who have taken time out to raise the next generation, so that they are not punished for their efforts?
For those under-twos who must attend child care because of a parent’s circumstances, Manne argues that the standard of care must be raised to one caregiver to three babies. At present, Australian regulations require only one staff member to five babies – but humans, her book points out, do not have babies in litters.
Children who are not securely attached to a trusted adult in the early years are called “insecure”, and one sub-form of that insecurity is “the avoidant child”, who shuts down emotionally, giving up attempts to connect with the parent and repressing his own needs for affection by busying himself with activities. Such children are more self-centred and hard-hearted in their dealings with others.
This might be one way in which those two worlds (described in these books) overlap. Manne writes about the possibility that we are becoming “an avoidant society . . . cooler, impatient if not hostile to the display of dependency needs in children and the vulnerable, attracted to ideas of self-sufficiency and independence, and dismissive of attachment needs.
“Another way of looking at the harsh new world, however, is to see (these qualities) as imperatives for survival in the hyper-individualist paradise of the new capitalism.
A good childhood, in (this) dog-eat-dog world . . . gives children unreasonable expectations.”
Motherhood: How should we care for our children? By Anne Manne. Allen and Unwin, $29.95.
Children of the Lucky Country? How Australian society has turned its back on children and why children matter. By Fiona Stanley, Sue Richardson and Margot Prior. Pan Macmillan, $30.
· 25 per cent of eight to 12-year-olds are overweight or obese.
· 18 per cent of four to 17-year-olds have clinically significant mental-health problems.
· Type 2 diabetes in under-17s rose about 2.8 per cent a year between 1990 and 2002.
· In 1970, the suicide rate for teenagers aged 15 to 19 was 8.4 per 100,000. In 2003, it was 12.7 per 100,000.
· In 1984, 33 per cent of 16 to 17-year-olds who drank alcohol were binge drinkers. By 2002, the figure was 41 per cent.
· Children under care and protection orders rose from 335 per 100,000 children in 1997 to 460 per 100,000 in 2003.

First published in The Age.

King of the kids: John Marsden

John Marsden likes to write about the gritty side of teenage life: sex, suicide and mental illness have all featured in his books.

John Marsden is struggling like a comedian at a grog-free gig. He tries to charge up his young audience, hitting them with one story after another like a doctor with cardiac paddles. He tells them about the boy who swallowed the goldfish and the child who called pins and needles “lemonade legs”. They sit still and silent.

He’s talking to the Islamic students of Ilim College in Broadmeadows about writing: voice, character, plot. He gives them Tom Clancy’s recipe: What if? What next?
Towards the end of the hour-long talk comes the part that makes them realise he’s on their side: the role of status in story-telling. “Low-status people apologise all the time. They get run over by a truck and apologise to the driver,” he says.

“I apologise for everything. I was buying a jacket at the January sales. I turned around and realised I hit someone behind me. Then I realised I’d hit a mirror and was apologising to my own image.” They giggle.

By the time he’s mimicking a pontificating principal – sending up the way high-status people speak slowly because they know they won’t be interrupted – they’re laughing out loud. John Marsden, king of the kids.

He’s an unpretentious monarch. He arrived this day in baggy pants and a windcheater, his face bearing a faint five o’clock shadow. He’d been digging up worms for an injured magpie just before he left home, he says later, glancing at his hands as if to check for lingering traces of excavation.

His fellow travellers on the train to Broadie would never have picked him for a millionaire. They would be unlikely even to know his name, unless they were teenagers or English teachers or plugged-in parents.

But Marsden, 52, is one of Australia’s most successful authors. His 31 books have sold three million copies worldwide and been translated into 15 languages, including French, German, Japanese and Korean. A poll by Angus and Robertson on Australia’s favourite books found Marsden’s best-loved novel for teenagers, Tomorrow, When the War Began, came in fourth, ahead of the Bible at number five.

Those who admire his work talk of his gift for taking on the adolescent voice and the way he believes in their ability to navigate a challenging world. His critics wish he would show the same faith in adults; they claim his teenage characters often inhabit bleak worlds bereft of adult strength or kindness, and that he exposes kids too early to adult themes such as sex and suicide.

“Why can’t we let kids be kids, and let them enjoy their innocence and freedom from these worries?” says Bill Muehlenberg, vice-president of the Australian Family Association and recipient of complaints from outraged parents. He concedes he’s had no reports of kids being upset.

That’s because they don’t see his work that way. Says Lauren Kenrick, 14, who attended one of Marsden’s writing workshops: “I love his books, especially the Tomorrow series, because they’re real and everything that they were feeling – I knew exactly how they felt. I would be, like, ‘Mum, get the next one, I need it!”‘

Marsden also knows what makes kids laugh. The Great Gatenby is a comic novel about the wisecracking Erle Gatenby. Erle’s mother erupts into anxious, inane reminders as she drops him off at boarding school (Krapp House) for the first time. He tells her in return, “Don’t go talking to strange men while I’m away. Keep off the hard liquor. Don’t answer the phone unless it’s ringing.”

But some of his work has been seriously controversial. In his guide to life for teenage boys, Secret Men’s Business, Marsden said boys looking for “trophy sex” should use a prostitute rather than exploit a trusting girl – and then told them how to find a brothel and what to expect upon arrival.

The book that caused the most outrage was Dear Miffy. Some booksellers refuse to stock it and schools often keep it off their shelves. The book is written as letters from a youth in prison to his old girlfriend, Miffy. The boy is violent, rage-filled and lacking in moral insight. A failed suicide attempt has left him savagely mutilated, as trapped in his body as he is in his mind. Utterly black, the book ends on a howl of hatred.

So what’s inside the head of this man who’s inside the heads of Australia’s kids?

MONEY might not buy happiness but Marsden’s home shows it can buy beauty. He lives in the country near Romsey, an hour north of Melbourne, on the 400-hectare Tye Estate: manicured gardens and Edwardian buildings surrounded by sweeping stands of eucalypts.

He bought it for just under a million five years ago and has since spent that much again buying the property next door. Together with the improvements, it’s an investment of $2.5 million.

He reels off the numbers politely when asked but it’s clear they don’t excite him. It’s different when he’s asked about the graceful figure in the fountain near his winding driveway: a 1930s statue of a woman with a cloche hat and a flirty swirling skirt. He found her in bits in a box and had her restored, he says, his face lighting up.

It lights again when he’s asked what one man does with 400 hectares: “Keep it as safe as I can for trees and birds and animals.” He is an ardent conservationist. At the last election he handed out how-to-vote cards for the Greens, and in the 1980s he served a week in jail for protesting against the damming of the Franklin River in Tasmania. (Ever the recalcitrant, he nicked the list of rules off the wall of his cell and later used them in a novel).

Animals are not the only creatures allowed the run of his place. Marsden, a former English teacher, runs writing camps for kids using log cabins set up as bunkhouses and a classroom. He seems to follow Dolly Levi’s dictum that money, like manure, should be spread around helping young things to grow.

He did try to be an idle sybarite. “I’d made good money from writing and I thought, ‘OK, this is the life.’ I bought the nice house (in Kew) and the nice car and I thought I’d have a coffee in Lygon Street every morning and Brunswick Street every afternoon.

“And after four months I thought, ‘This is ridiculous. I should be doing this when I’m 75, not 45.”‘
He shares his home with the arthritic Trevor, a refugee from the lost dogs’ home, and Coco, a shih tzu with a temperament that leans towards the Latin. As we lie talking on the grass she plants herself nose to nose with the interviewer, as if warning that there’s to be no messin’ with her man.

Marsden grew up in Tasmania, Victoria and New South Wales, the third of four children who moved around following the postings of their father, a banker. He is as cagey as the next person when asked about that crucible of tortured creativity, the family.

“I lived a very typical life for the 1950s, very protected, where you didn’t have any awareness of the wider world. Mum was at home ironing the sheets – at least I think she did, she certainly ironed everything else.

“When I was a child my father seemed to dominate every field he was in, which was powerful for me.

“The family was conservative; strong moral standards, we went to church every Sunday. Anglican. Sir Robert Menzies ruled and God was in his heaven and everything was Nice, with a capital N.”

Marsden is more forthcoming about the way his school helped make him the man he is today: an anti-authoritarian who carries a deep anger about the abuse of power and an equally deep empathy for outsiders and underdogs, especially teenagers. He spent his adolescence at The King’s School in Sydney. (“Don’t forget the ‘The’ or the world will stop spinning,” he warns.)

He had a rough time there. “I didn’t like the cruelty that was part of the school’s structure. I got punished in every way. I was ostracised, more by the teachers than the kids. But the prefects were the ones who really hurt.

“Prefects were allowed to beat you with a sandshoe on the bum. They’d do things like get in the biggest room possible, and they’d bend you over at one end and they’d stand on a window-sill at the other end and launch themselves at you. And these guys were big ¤ 14 stone, 120 kilos. They were powerful, and they’d do it for anything.”

Marsden felt duty bound to give them cause. “We challenged Australia’s commitment to the Vietnam war, and the compulsory militarism at King’s, by skipping corps parades, by dumb insolence.

“In year 8 my mother was told by the housemaster that the teachers were afraid of me because I was so ruthless with them. If a teacher made a mistake, I would ridicule him. But if I was bored and angry, it was probably a by-product of that.”

The most intense experience he had at the school was actually a positive one, at the hands of a new headmaster who arrived towards the end of Marsden’s time. Marsden had charge of a table of small boys whose dinner he had to supervise, “All very English 1890s.” One day none of them ate their meal because they didn’t like the white sauce on their corned beef.

Like Oliver Twist, Marsden braved the housekeeper, a notoriously fearsome woman, and asked if she could put the white sauce in jugs so the children could choose whether to have it. Enraged, she marched him up to the headmaster. “He listened, and he said to her, ‘It sounds like a very sensible suggestion.’”

Marsden was floored: “It was like I had just been struck by lightning.”

It might be one of the reasons he ended up becoming a teacher himself rather than fleeing schools forever. “The main motivation to teach was to prove that you could teach in a different way.”

For all its flaws, the school had provided a structure to Marsden’s life, and without it he crumbled. Half-way through his first year in arts-law at Sydney University he became suicidally depressed and spent two months in a psychiatric hospital. “It was comforting in many ways because I learned a lot. I really started to understand how the mind works, I suppose.

“To me it was a new world. When people are in psych hospitals feelings are laid bare because there’s no point pretending any more; you’ve hit rock bottom. You’re basically there because your life is not working. To admit that was quite a relief, and then you can go on somewhere.”

The experience has informed a lot of his writing. The main character in his award-winning first novel, So much to tell you, is based partly on memories of a silent girl he met in the psych unit. It is the tender, perceptive story of a girl with severe depression who has not spoken for months, her face and her feelings scarred by an acid attack her father had intended for her mother. Her counsellor tells her that she does not speak because she is afraid to face her emotions about her parents and about herself; they will be a mix of love and hate.

She has lost her identity – her face, her voice, her family, her friends – but by the end of the book has built tentative new connections. Only when she begins to talk do we learn her name, Marina. That was like a baptism of the new person, Marsden wrote later: “For many people adolescence is like that; a search for a new identity built on the realisation that one’s identity as a child has started to dissolve.”

Tony, the nihilistic boy in Miffy, also comes from real-life experiences. Miffy followed a time when Marsden had helped look after a state ward “who was leading a life that I thought was unremittingly bleak and horrifying, and I used to wonder why she was like that, and what was going on in her mind”.

He is irritated by complaints of the book’s grimness. He points out that most teen fiction is lighthearted. “Also, the bigger argument is that I don’t think reality is the problem. I think protecting people from reality is the problem. And to keep young people in ignorance is unforgivable. So you have to help them to come to terms with the world, and that includes the awful aspects of the world.”

What critics failed to understand about the book, he says, “is that Tony’s tragedy is that he lacks honesty and insight and because of that he’s trapped.”

Troubled boys led to Marsden writing his guide to manhood. He says about 20 boys he has taught in schools have died, either from suicide or risk-taking. After one funeral he decided to do something about it.

In Secret Men’s Business – Manhood: The Big Gig, he tells boys that to be a man who is mature, independent and wise takes more than birthdays. He lists 12 steps to a boy achieving manhood, including leaving home, earning his own money, recognising his feelings and experiencing success. Top of the list: defeating his father in a field in which the father used to be superior.

“The part they find the most powerful is the part about defeating your father,” Marsden says. “If I’m talking to a really wild audience ¤ about how, when the moment comes, you’ve got to have the courage and strength to defeat him, suddenly they’re absolutely intent.”
Most of Marsden’s advice on sex would pass muster with any grateful parent: your penis doesn’t rule the world, no one ever died from blue balls, betrayal and casual sex are always bad karma. So what’s with the brothel advice? How can a man who thinks male criminals are damaged children fail to recognise that female prostitutes often have similar histories of child abuse and drug addiction?

“I hadn’t thought that part of it through,” he concedes. “What I was trying to say was at least if you go to a brothel it’s an honest transaction. If you lie to someone to get sex, it’s a dishonest transaction ¤ I’m not saying it’s good to go to a prostitute.”

His book also gives kind, shrewd advice about depression and avoiding drugs and suggests that boys with no father figure find themselves one. But he sees dire problems with the western template for fatherhood.

“You’ve got to read the Bible to understand the fabric of our society,” he says. “There’s a lot of very dark and horrifying episodes in that book. Abraham and his son is just a foul story. And I think there is this pattern; Abraham takes his son off to sacrifice him on the altar, God sends his son to sacrifice him ¤
“Men in Western society have grown up with that as the dominant image of the culture, that fathers send their sons to be killed. That’s with us consciously and unconsciously every day of our lives. It’s a very straightforward message that your father’s gonna nail you to a cross and leave you there to die.

“Why fathers don’t just sacrifice themselves and be done with it is never explained. But I suppose it’s some sort of primeval understanding of the death wish that fathers have for their sons.”
It doesn’t seem quite the moment to ask why he has never had children of his own.

MARSDEN’S classroom on the Tye Estate is an airy log cabin bounded by gum trees and rosellas. On the shelf sits a Pooh poster with the verse, “Pooh’s whole world is the 100-acre wood/ He loves it as much as any bear could.”

Another frame holds a school permission form sent home to parents about one of Marsden’s talks. On it the father of Debbie from 8C scrawled, “I do not give my permission for my daughter to go to listen to an author of a novel. Novel writers are persons with a lawless mind.” An amused Marsden agrees: “All the best novels are subversive.”

The hostility between Marsden and parents is not all one way. When he talks about parents, it’s often with a spurt of irritation at their overprotective or controlling behaviour. He tells the kids about parents who phone about this camp and ask if the staff are trustworthy: “What’s the point of that conversation? Am I going to say ‘Oh no, they’re all paedophiles’ or ‘We specially recruit serial murderers?’ I feel like asking them, “What about your children – are they bullies or drug addicts or thieves?’”

He tells of asking one hairdresser about how parents respond when their kid gets a radical haircut: “The next day the parents are there waving their mobile phones and threatening to get the lawyers.”
For all his talk of revolution, his classes take a conventional form. He sits up the front behind a desk and does most of the talking.

But the content of his teaching is different. He offers the kids freedom. Says Lauren Kenrick, “When I’m at school, my English teacher says you have to have a beginning, a middle and an end, it has to be 1500 words, or you lose marks. John said, ‘Forget all that.’ And that’s how I like to write, from the heart.”

But he also structures their work with practical exercises. He asks them for stories, each student having to say a sentence starting with “I remember”, and then one with “I used to believe”. He comments on each short tale gravely, like a parent admiring the whorls and colours of a child’s treasured seashells. Sometimes he critiques; the penguin story needs more detail to come alive, he tells one girl.

He tells them that people who are unaware of the truth about themselves are funny, like Basil Fawlty, or tragic, like King Lear. He teaches them about voice by making them write a scene in which students answer a teacher’s roll call in ways that illustrate their personalities, and then he responds to each of their characters as if they’re real. The character who blows a raspberry: “He’ll be expelled within a fortnight.” The character who mumbles: “He might be on drugs. I’d be watching his pupils.”

On his desk sits Dr Seuss and Joyce’s Ulysses, for lessons in how to play with words. He had them write a short passage about a storm without using the letter ‘A’, an exercise that frees up the unconscious. Twelve-year-old Michael Biczok wrote, “The storm willed revenge. Every time lightning struck it struck with solid power, with brute force. Clouds frowned down upon the beings below. Fury in solid form.”

At break time the younger ones clamour around him in front of the big photograph of Crosscut Saw, a long ridge of rock in the Australian Alps that he used for the setting of his Tomorrow series. The books are about teenagers who hide out in the bush and become guerilla fighters after Australia is invaded; Enid Blyton meets Alistair MacLean, on one level.

But they are also stories about kids wrestling with growing up – do they keep themselves safe, as their parents would have wished, or do they risk going into town to see if their families are alive? They decide they have to live their own lives now.

His friend and fellow children’s author, Paul Jennings, says of Marsden, “Something really lovely about him is that he doesn’t just write for teenagers but he genuinely has an affection for them and their problems.” He cites the way Marsden got him to run a joint writing workshop at a school in Port Arthur on the first anniversary of the massacre: “It was his idea; nobody paid.”

At day’s end Marsden is tired but cheerful, talking about how teaching kids always energises him: “Makes me feel like I’m doing something valuable.”

The kids have taken off to be fed by his female lieutenants, three young women who cook and care for the visitors. He lounges at his desk in the empty classroom, Coco luxuriating tummy-up on his lap as he runs his fingers through her coat, plucking out burrs.

He’s had a difficult year. There was a heart attack early on – he’s had to give up the chocolates he used to chomp as he wrote – and another health scare more recently; nothing with a nasty prognosis but enough to focus the mind on mortality.”I find it frightening,” he says.

Does he regret that he has no children? “Yeah, I really do. I haven’t given up completely but I think it’s unlikely to happen.” Families are special, he says a bit wistfully.

“This kid told me … he used to go and stay with his grandfather every holidays and he used to hate it, because his grandfather was grumpy and uncommunicative.” The grandfather attacked the boy for reading the first Tomorrow book, saying war was terrible. The boy dared him to read it.

“His grandfather became besotted with the stories and it’s transformed the whole relationship. My eyes were filling when he was telling me.”

What happened that Marsden didn’t settle down and have his own kids? He looks away and leans back. “Most recently I fell in love with someone who didn’t love me, so that’s pretty simple¤

“I’ve had two major relationships. One would have been six years, the other four years. They both sort of fizzled out.” Suddenly he’s impatient. “Oh, I don’t know. How do these things happen?”

But the little boy whose teacher wrote that he would do very well once he got over his daydreaming has achieved a lot. “He’s made a tremendous contribution,” says Agnes Nieuwenhuizen, manager of the Australian Centre for Youth Literature at the State Library of Victoria.

She sees the Tomorrow series as modern classics: “All the responsibility and action is put back on to young people and he shows how intrepid and responsible and imaginative they can be. It’s a hallmark of his whole world view.”

She concedes, though, that “In some ways he doesn’t always give adults the opportunity to prove themselves; I think perhaps there are more good adults in the world than he makes it appear.”
Jennings takes a milder view. “People say his work’s subversive but I don’t think that’s the word. He has a dark sense of humour, but I don’t think he’s so much against adults as he is on the side of the kids. Someone’s gotta be.”

Maybe the benefits flow both ways. Marsden has a new book out, a fairy tale commissioned by Australia Post to provide pictures for a series of fantasy stamps. In his story, an old man needs healing water from deep in a forest, and it is kids who set out to find it for him.

Do they get it? “If anyone’s going to write a fairy story where they don’t find what they’re looking for and return empty-handed, it’s me,” he chuckles. “But no. They find it.”

Is he cured? “That’s left unresolved.”

First published in The Age.

Kindergarten teachers shape lives

IN Ben Elton’s book Stark, a character describes British Army pre-mission briefings in which officers first state the bleeding obvious – just in case people hold different assumptions about what the bleeding obvious is.

A similar restatement of basic facts is required in the row over the pay and functions of kindergarten teachers, who recently went on strike to win a better deal on the basis that their degrees are the equivalent of primary teachers. A Melbourne radio broadcaster responded: “Really, how educated do you have to be to mind four-year-olds?”

Minding is what the teenage babysitter does sprawling on your couch while your children are tucked up in bed. It is unskilled and passive. If your kids are alive and well when you get home from the movies, child-minding has been successful.

It’s not what kinder teachers spend four years at university learning, although many spend a fair proportion of their social lives trying to convince ill-informed acquaintances otherwise. The notion that they’re just kind girls who like playing with children, and that this is an innately brainless activity, is apparently widespread.

This is partly because their largely female profession suffers from a perceived link with “motherhood” and its associated baggage, including the belief by some that caring for and educating the very young is a bovine task (children being the equivalent of backward adults, and mothers having had the tattered remnants of their intelligence expelled with the afterbirth).

There is also a view that, because women are innately nurturant and like educating children, society is not obliged to reward them materially for their skills (a principle that does not extend, strangely enough, to mechanics who love fiddling under car hoods or surgeons who never feel more alive than when they are cutting and stitching body parts).

So here comes a statement of what should be the bleeding obvious: preschool education is a complex process crucial to many children’s futures, and teachers who undertake it deserve a decent wage comparable with their primary school colleagues.

Australian research has time and again confirmed that kinder children reach that potentially defining year of prep physically, intellectually and socially prepared in a way that far outstrips non-kinder children.

American research reported by Laura Berk in her text Child Development is alarming: it suggests that preschool interventions are more important to a deprived child’s later success in life than what happens in the years when formal literacy and numeracy are taught.

Since 1965, the US Head Start program has provided thousands of economically disadvantaged children with a year or two of preschool education. In the first few years of school, children who have been in Head Start score higher in IQ and achievement than children in control groups, although these differences later decline (possibly because their high-quality preschool experience is often followed by education in deprived public-funded schools).

But Head Start kids maintain their lead on many other measures: they are less likely to be placed in special education classes or held back a year, and more complete school. Some benefits, such as lower rates of delinquency and teenage pregnancy and a greater likelihood of employment, last into young adulthood.

A separate experiment called the Carolina Abecedarian Project took 100 babies at risk of school failure (risk factors included low parental education and income, a history of poor school achievement among older siblings, and other family problems). Half were assigned to a “control” group that received only nutrition and health services. The “treatment” children were enrolled in full-time daycare where they received stimulation aimed at promoting motor, cognitive, language and motor skills, including – after the age of three – the kinds of pre-reading and math concepts emphasised in kindergarten activities. Both groups then went on to normal schooling.

Even at age 12, treatment children had a higher IQ than control children and were achieving considerably better, especially in reading, writing and general knowledge. School-based intervention had little impact on changes in IQ; the effects of early intervention were far more powerful.

Other research suggests environmental stimulation actually helps shape the structure of the developing human brain. Children learn more in the first five years of life than at any time thereafter. They learn how to manage their bodies and emotions and how to manipulate the physical world. The cardboard-box kinder creations a parent regards with such amused indulgence might have taught the child mathematical concepts (volume, length, weight, strength), artistic basics (which colors must be mixed to make purple) and social skills (how to ask nicely for the scissors).

Kinder teachers should be paid wages attractive enough to maintain their numbers, especially in rural areas and poorer suburbs where the need for family support and activities outside the home is great.

A nation with 700,000 children below the poverty line is already taking enough risks with its future.

First published in The Age.

The curse of being `gifted’

`CHRIS” is 11. He has just finished several year 10 subjects and written a 26,000-word novella. Next year he will study VCE English literature.

You’d think he’d be a catch for any school; don’t they love having smart kids who boost their academic results? Not if catering for them requires too much effort, they don’t. And gifted students like Chris can be hard yakka.

Chris isn’t even “in” school. Plodding along with other children years behind his mental age made him miserable, so for the past three years he has studied at home with his mother. Their suburban house is walking distance from two schools, but he is learning under the distance education system set up for rural kids.

“Gifted” is a curse of a label. It makes a child sound blessed, endowed with nature’s riches. It makes him sound like he needs no help.

“Gifted” is the kind of label that might confuse even a Labor government oriented towards equity. To the uninformed, it seems hard to justify special resources for children with high IQs when there are slow learners needing help just to learn to read and write. It seems like robbing the poor to give to the rich.

Alarmed parents recently wrote to the Education Minister, Mary Delahunty, following rumors that the gifted education section of her department faced the razor. This week they learnt that its already minuscule staff of four had been reduced to three.

Worse had been feared, and the gifted section has not been singled out for cuts. The department is reorganising to put more resources directly into schools. But it is worrying that a spokesman for the minister this week guaranteed only that there would be no cuts to gifted programs in schools next year.

Is their long-term future guaranteed? Does the department understand that gifted children are also special-needs children? Their classroom needs are as far from the norm as those of the learning disabled.

If they don’t get what they need, we lose them. In Australia, home of the decapitated tall poppy, gifted children have almost the same high-school dropout rate as slow learners and, as adults, twice the average incidence of depression and a correspondingly high risk of suicide.

A 1986 Senate select committee found gifted children were among the most educationally deprived students in Australia. Given that none of the committee’s recommendations was acted upon, they probably still are. (Victoria spends only $500,000 on gifted education out of a total schools budget of $4 billion, even though up to 5 per cent of children are gifted.)

Standard classrooms drive these children bananas. They need only one exposure to new ideas or information that normal children must repeat half a dozen times to master. Repetition is purgatory to the gifted child, who becomes bored and frustrated and turns off learning. Too many are diagnosed as gifted only when they’re sent off to a psychologist for behavioral problems.

They need to work at a higher level than children the same age and at a faster rate. Most of all, they need to work with students like themselves: children who get their jokes, spar with them academically and tolerate their idiosyncrasies.

Many dumb themselves down or become the class clown in an attempt to win acceptance in a country that values sporting excellence, but derides its intellectual counterpart.

“In Australia, the kid who’s going over the high jump higher than any other child in her class is applauded and cheered by the others,” says Dr Miraca Gross, professor of gifted education at the University of New South Wales. “But the kid in the classroom who uses a wide vocabulary and comes out with unusual ideas often will get negative feedback, so the child will bring her vocabulary down to the point where she’s not mocked.”

Teachers are sometimes no better, she says: “Many are afraid of the idea that there might be kids in their class who know more than they do about some things. But piano teachers and sports coaches would never fear a child being more able than themselves.”

In Victoria, about 20,000 children have been identified as gifted and at least 20,000 more are estimated to exist. Girls, migrants and underprivileged kids are least likely to have found the help they need. Australian studies show that when teachers without special training were asked to identify their gifted students, more than 70 per cent of those they picked were boys and more than 90per cent came from the Anglo middle-class.

Some Victorian state schools are setting up gifted programs, but these are few and usually limited in nature. NSW, which has set up “opportunity schools”, is way ahead.

The gifted education section educates teachers (many of whom learnt little or nothing of giftedness in their initial training) and initiates programs for students. Its work should be expanded, not cut.

Gifted education is not elitist. “From each according to his ability” really does depend on “To each according to his needs”.

First published in The Age.

Macabre or madcap, it’s all child’s play

In the Nazi concentration camps, the Jewish children played “Germans and Jews”. Everyone wanted to be German because they got to chase and hit the others. They played gravediggers, digging a pit for one child – the “Hitler” – to lie in and pretend to be dead. Sometimes, in the ghettos, they played in the street near the bodies of children who were not just pretending to be dead.

Dr June Factor, who has been studying Australian children’s games and folklore for 25 years, tells the stories to illustrate the significance of play.

She says that children’s need for play is acted out in even the most desperate situations. Play helps children make sense of their world, and is often an expression of themes in the adult culture.

For Jewish children under the Nazis, she says, it was “play as resistance … Play doesn’t necessarily ensure your survival, but it may ensure your sanity as a human being for the moment”.

Dr Factor has preserved thousands of mementoes of children’s play in the Australian Children’s Folklore Collection, an archive she donated this month to Museum Victoria.

It contains more than 10,000 card files listing children’s games, rhymes, riddles, jokes and superstitions, as well as photographs, audio and video tapes and playthings.

The toys Dr Factor has collected are mostly home-made, make-do playthings that recall another time, and sometimes another place: a rolled-up wad of newspaper tied with string that was some boy’s footy; old milk tins that were pulled along with wire in the “roller races” of outback Aboriginal children.

The card files list thousands of playground chants, taunts and rhymes recorded by Dr Factor and her students when she was an academic at the Institute for Early Childhood Development (now part of Melbourne University).

The most vulgar are bluntly joyous about sexual and bodily functions.

Dr Factor is a free speech advocate (she is a former president of the Council for Civil Liberties) but acknowledges she was shocked – and amused – when she first heard what comes out of the mouths of our babes when they think themselves out of adult hearing.

Knowing that adults are the gatekeepers of children’s reading material, she censored out the ripest rhymes (as well as the racist ones) when she published some of them in the children’s books for which she is best known (Far Out Brussel Sprout!, All Right Vegemite!, Real Keen Baked Bean! and Unreal Banana Peel!)

She didn’t censor enough for some parents, and her books are among the most challenged items in Australian school libraries.

Dr Factor is now a research fellow at the Australian Centre at Melbourne University and is writing a dictionary of children’s slang.

She has long fought to dispel the adult fantasy that childhood is a time of sweetness and light. She argues for children’s right to play and talk largely as they please, without too much adult regimentation.

Her fascination with the gritty realities underlying children’s free play was sparked when she was teaching literature and found that her young students were appalled by the ferocity of portrayals of children in books such as Lord of the Flies.

Realising that few of the students had had contact with children since their own childhood, Dr Factor told them to go into the playground on teaching rounds and document what they saw and heard.

She was fascinated by what they recorded: “It seemed to me that here was a window on the nature of being human.”

It also confirmed her suspicions that children were not the Brady Bunch characters her students had imagined them to be. “All those rhymes they learnt at their parent’s knee when they were wide-eyed innocents have been changed by the time they are seven or eight and growing in independence. One of the means by which they express that independence is in parody: Ding dong dell, pussy’s in the well, if you don’t believe me, go and have a smell.”

She says much cultural – and multicultural – transmission continues to happen in the playground.

She has a recent photograph of a small Turkish-Australian boy in an inner-city primary school playing marbles with a technique the children called “the Chinese flick”; Vietnamese and Cambodian children had taught them to put the marble on a raised middle finger and shoot it like a shanghai.

Dr Factor is particularly fond of shanghais. They embody much of what she loves about children’s play. Little boys have been making them for generations – she has a fine specimen from the 1920s – despite adult strictures on their dangers.

In a world where over-zealous schools are banning marbles because they are “too competitive”, she says :”I take much encouragement from the evidence that children are continuing to engage in the kind of play they wish to engage in, adapting whatever materials are at hand with very little regard for adult proscription. Children are making shanghais all over Australia.”

First published in The Age.

The truth about children of gays

IT’S the sort of thing that happens in fiction: a young woman lies heavily pregnant in a hospital bed, ill from the stress of a police investigation relating to her child’s conception.

Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood wrote about such scenarios in her chilling book The Handmaid’s Tale. She created a futuristic America in which a fundamentalist state regulated how and with whom women bred children; police prosecuted – persecuted? – any who dared to breach the rules.

Such a vision seemed far removed from Melbourne – until this week. A pregnant mother who is a police officer has required hospital treatment for a stress-related illness after a police inquiry into the way she and a gay colleague managed to conceive an IVF child.

It has been alleged that the two falsified a document to get into an IVF program, a claim the couple denies. They face the possibility of criminal charges and the loss of their police careers. Gays are not licensed to breed – not in ways that require medical assistance, anyway.

The reasons for that are a matter of common sense, aren’t they? Bans on gay access to IVF arise largely out of concern for the children who might result from it. Everyone knows that children need parents of both sexes if they are to be sexually normal. Everyone knows that children in gay families are more vulnerable to all sorts of emotional and social problems. How could you justify visiting that upon a child?

But here’s the rub: it seems that 20 years of studies by social researchers comparing the children of gay parents with the offspring of heterosexuals have failed to discover any significant negative difference between the two.

In 1992, American researcher Charlotte Patterson analysed the findings of 12 studies that had assessed more than 300 children of gay or lesbian parents, often comparing them with the children of divorced heterosexual women. They found that adult children of gay people were no more likely to be gay than were the children of heterosexual parents.

They did not differ from “normal” children in terms of gender identity (how good they felt about being male or female) or gender role behavior (lesbians’ children played just as often with “feminine” toys such as dolls, and as adults were just as
likely as others to choose jobs that fitted with conventional sex roles).

The studies found no differences in terms of intelligence, self-concept, emotional problems and development of moral judgment.

The significant differences they did find were nothing you could base a discriminatory law upon. One study reported that lesbians’ children saw themselves as more lovable and were rated by others as more affectionate and more protective towards younger children.

Another reported that lesbian mothers were more concerned than heterosexual mothers that their children have good relationships with adult men; a third, that children of lesbians saw more of their fathers than the children of heterosexual divorced women.

No evidence here of ideological brainwashing against heterosexuality. Maybe that’s because gay parents know how painful and destructive it is to be pressured to deny your true self. Maybe they don’t want that for their own children, gay or straight.

If a child’s healthy development depends not on family structure, but on the quality of family relationships, what precisely are we protecting potential children from when we ban gays from using technology to conceive them? Our own prejudices?

A 1995 survey of 732 Australian lesbians found that 20 per cent already had children and another 14.5 per cent planned to have children within five years. Using conventional means to conceive must be abhorrent to them, and exposes them to the health risks of unsafe sex with people who are not their chosen partners. Under current laws, illicit artificial insemination attracts a penalty of up to four years’ jail.

If it cannot be shown that gay families are detrimental for children, then the only remaining justification for refusing them access to artificial insemination is based on the religious notion that homosexual activity is ungodly and somehow against “the natural order”.

“The natural order” tends to be a euphemism for “the status quo”. It was called upon often by those who tried to keep women out of voting booths, universities and pulpits. It’s a concept that has had its day.

First published in The Age.

Becoming a Barbie-wise mother

(Fetish: object worshipped by primitive peoples for its supposed inherent magical powers or as being inhabited by a spirit).

Parenting books don’t talk about the Barbie thing. They’re full of advice about tantrums and bedwetting and vegetable-aversion, on spending sticky hours with playdough and sleepy ones with storybooks. But when it comes to making an ideological call on toytime’s blonde plastic fetish, you’re on your own.

We resisted as long as we could, which wasn’t long at all. Our then four-year-old femme informed us tragically that any girl without Barbies (note the plural: purchases must be multiple so that visiting friends can play Barbie at the same time as the hostess) was a social pariah.

“What about the huge box of Duplo that kept your brother and his friends so happy when he was your age?” we inquired hopefully. (We like to think of ourselves as an equal-opportunity household.) No go.

Mindful of the psychology studies that say children pick up color-coded messages about which toys are appropriate for each gender, we bought a set of Duplo houseblocks in girly pastel colors. Our princess unwrapped them, swallowed her disappointment long enough to thank us politely, and handed them over to her brother (who did pay attention to the color-coding and never touched them again).

I didn’t get it, this Barbie thing. My childhood had been a Barbie-free zone. I vaguely remember a dolly called Diane dressed in royal blue velvet, whom I carried around out of a sense of duty – I knew little girls were supposed to love them – but in whom I had no real interest. Post-dolly-depression, perhaps. No doubt she came to a bad end.

But my daughter and I trawled through the hot-pink aisles of the local toy department and finally compromised on Dr Barbie, with a white coat and a stethoscope. At least there was an element of positive role modelling, even if the overall effect was of a blonde bimbo from a daytime soap moonlighting as a Chicago Hope wannabe.

Of course, we had to throw in a few disco-glitter minis for the kid, and personally, I couldn’t resist the wedding frock – to the point that, when we finally got home with the feminists’ nemesis, we fought over what to put on her first (mortifying for me, gratifying for my daughter; it proved her point about the need for a reserve bench).

Now I get it. Barbie isn’t about playing mummy to a baby, the way other dollies are. Barbie is about wanting to be a big girl – maybe even a thoroughly modern princess, glamorous and admired – and trying that role on for size. Not too realistically, of course; comedian Wendy Harmer used to do a routine about how Barbie’s teeny-tiny accessories should include itty bitty tampons, but for some reason Mattel has been slow to pick up on the idea …

(Although Barbie has turned out to be a useful starting point for home-based health-and-relationships studies – you start with analyses of the bits she is missing, above and below the waist, and gradually move on to their functions).

I still feel guilty about the doll’s platinum hair and impossible body and the way she encourages the child to be preoccupied with clothes and appearance. I still worry that the doll reduces “womanhood” to something that is shallow and vacuous – and hopelessly unachievable, this side of plastic surgery.

But the doll is only one half of the relationship. She takes a form decided by the wider world, but the spirit that inhabits her is actually the individual child’s, and some important things are worked out in the process.

My daughter is a bit older now, but still young enough to feel quite unselfconscious about bare bodies. She knows, though, that a time will come when her body changes and she will feel differently.

Recently she locked herself in a bathroom, something she has never done before. We inquired as to whether everything was all right. It was. Barbie was having a bubble bath in the hand basin, and “Barbie likes her privacy”.

I get it.

First published in The Age.

Don’t tell Mum, please!

She’s 15. She’s pregnant. And she arrives in a GP’s surgery, boyfriend in tow, asking for an abortion – ASAP. She and her boyfriend have talked it over at length and decided they are too young to have a baby. She asks the doctor not to tell her parents because they are religious and would never agree to the procedure. What should the doctor do?

Doctors themselves disagree. Seventy-nine per cent of GPs responding to a recent survey said they would respect the girl’s confidentiality and not talk to her parents without her permission.

Most – 82 per cent of women doctors and 75 per cent of male doctors – also regarded her as competent to make her own decision about having an abortion.

They were not so sure about their own competence. More than 70 per cent of the 300 doctors who answered the survey felt ill-informed about the legal issues underlying such cases, and 26 per cent felt that they had too much responsibility for serious decisions about underage patients.

Some parents, such as Mary Helen Woods, of the Australian Family Association, would agree with them on the latter point. She argues that doctors should inform guardians of serious physical or emotional problems in a young person. Many parents (and some doctors) would be surprised to learn, though, that the law says parents do not necessarily have a right to know.

Raising awareness of this issue was one of the reasons Terry Bartholomew, a lecturer in psychology at Deakin University, conducted the study, Young People and Informed Consent. The project was run in conjunction with the Centre for Adolescent Health and was funded by the Commonwealth Department of Health and Family Services. It surveyed 1000 GPs, of whom 300 responded.

Bartholomew asked doctors about four typical scenarios (including the pregnant teenager) in which teenagers asked for confidentiality or the right to make their own decisions regarding treatment:

The parents of “Adam”, 17, take him to the doctor when they discover he has been using heroin on and off for six months. They want him to see a psychiatrist; he rejects that idea and asks for some pills to ease his anxiety. “Liz”, 14, goes to her family doctor looking for birth control. Sixteen-year-old “Josie” presents with tonsillitis but is found to be suffering weight loss and an eating disorder.

Bartholomew says such situations are legally, medically and ethically complex. “Doctors are highly accountable, highly exposed and highly vulnerable,” he says. “It’s hard for them to err on the side of caution, because what’s the side of caution? They wonder, ‘Can the young person take me to court?’ ‘Will there be trouble from the family if they find out?’ ”

There were big differences in doctors’ responses, Bartholomew says: “Seven out of 10 doctors found Adam competent to make that decision. Three out of 10 didn’t. That’s an amazing discrepancy. These are significant levels of difference. Imagine if you went to doctors suspecting a broken leg, and seven out of 10 said ‘Absolutely!’ and the other three said ‘No way!’ ”

Doctors took the same factor and used it differently to come to opposite conclusions. In the Josie scenario, the girl admits her eating and exercising patterns have become problematic, but promises to stop dieting. “Her acknowledgement that there was an issue was interpreted in different ways,” Bartholomew says.

“The first was to decide that ‘Because she’s insightful about her problem, therefore she is competent’. The second was to say, ‘She’s pretending to have insight in order to manipulate my perceptions of her. That’s a classic tactic of someone with an eating disorder. She is not competent and needs help’.”

Other doctors argued that the very fact that Josie had symptoms of an eating discorder meant that she was “fundamentally pathological” and so could not possibly be competent to make decisions about her own care.

Doctors who arrived at the same conclusion often did so via different routes. Some decided confidentiality and competence simply on the basis of the patient’s age; others, according to whether they had a relationship with the young person’s family.

The law says parents do not have an automatic right to be informed. It is up to the doctor to decide whether the teenager is a “mature minor” capable of understanding the consequences of his or her choices.

The principle was established in 1985 in a British case involving Victoria Gillick, a Catholic mother of 10, who was seeking just the opposite. She took a doctor to court for having provided her 14-year-old daughter with a prescription for the pill. She lost the case in 1985 when the House of Lords ruled against her.

The “mature minor” principle was affirmed in Australia in 1992, when the High Court agreed with the Lords that “parental power to consent to medical treatment on behalf of a child diminishes gradually as the child’s capacities and maturities grow, and this rate of development depends on the individual child”.

The High Court said parental rights derived from parental duty and existed only as long as they were needed to protect the child: “The common law has never treated such rights as sovereign or beyond review and control.”

Mary Helen Woods is concerned that a single professional’s assessment of a teenager is all that is needed to determine their maturity. “GPs are often very overworked. Many of them are great people and they do a fantastic job, but you do hear stories of people in and out in five minutes, and there are GPs who are not particularly vocationally orientated in their outlook. These people, who may not have the best interests of the patient at heart, should not be allowed to make these decisions.”

Woods believes it would be dereliction of duty for a doctor not to inform parents of a condition that has the potential to be fatal and says any teenager suffering anorexia or taking drugs “could very well not be competent at all”. She goes so far as to argue that a responsible GP who feels uncomfortable withholding information from parents should tell the young person to find another doctor.

She says: “We are very sensitive to the rights of young people, but we also need to be sensitive to the rights of the parents who have brought them into the world and devoted their lives to them for 14 or 15 years. And, ultimately, it will almost certainly be the parents who will keep these children alive in such difficult, complex situations.”

But professionals working with adolescents emphasise the importance of confidentiality in maintaining the young person’s trust. Dr Danielle Mazza, medical director of Family Planning Victoria, says young women seeking advice about an unplanned pregnancy, for example, “often tell you they have enormous fear of reprisal, of being kicked out in the street. One of the reasons they come to see us is because of the confidentiality we offer them”.

The association’s policy is that if a young woman has sufficient awareness of the issues to seek out counselling, she also has sufficient awareness to make her own decision.

Dr Margaret Kilmartin, president of the Australian College of General Practitioners, says difficult issues with underage adolescents are a constant part of the GP’s work, with underage pregnancy one of the most common problems.

Nothing good would come of breaching confidentiality, she says, and doctors would be obliged to do so only if the situation involved danger to the patient or society.

While doctors should not usually ring up the family, they should encourage the young person to reach out: “You work with the young person to see if they can bring themselves to confide in their parents. The major problem for a lot of these young people is that there are no parents available to them.”

Dr Kilmartin believes troubled adolescents tend to seek her out partly because she is female. Bartholomew’s study confirms female doctors are twice as likely as males (15 per cent compared with 7.4 per cent) to report often facing decisions about underage competence.

That may be partly due to another of the study’s findings: that there is a gender gap in attitudes to young people. Female doctors (and younger doctors) were generally more likely to be liberal. Ninety per cent of female doctors found “Liz” competent to request a prescription for the pill, compared with 76 per cent of males. “Liz” was found competent by 97 per cent of doctors aged 25-34, but only 56 per cent of doctors aged over 55.

Bartholomew intends to follow up the survey with focus groups of interested doctors to discuss the issues and help him formulate, with the Centre for Adolescent Health, written guidelines for doctors to use.

He warns, though, that no guideline can cover every eventuality, and that no matter how carefully “objective criteria” are applied, in the end, individual doctors will still have to make personal judgments: “There will always be a subjective element
to the decision.”

First published in The Age.