Sunday, 29 November 2015

Parenting a teenager:"It's all about sacrifice!"

I'm constantly writing about the bizarre parenting, particularly around alcohol and partying, I see or hear about as I'm travelling across the country and I have been criticised for what some see as 'parent bashing'. I'm not a parent (as my wonderful sister-in-law has told me after hearing me present at an Information Evening a few years ago) and it's extremely easy for me to criticise what parents do or don't do in this area when I don't have to deal with the issue myself. That said, I always try to make it clear in anything I write (or say for that matter) that I believe parenting is the toughest job in the world - there is no 'rule book'.

Every family is different and within each family, every child is going to have their own personality and potentially their own issues. You'll be different as well. Raising a child, with all the fears and anxiety that comes with first-time parenthood (combined with all the reading you have likely done about how to do it properly), is likely to be very different the second time around. You know more and you have actual life experience. You are going to be a different parent, no matter what you try to do, and you are dealing with a completely different human being - what may have worked extremely well with your first may go down like a lead balloon with the next! So, as I said - there is no 'rule book' - you can only do the best you can at the time!

So instead of 'parent bashing' I thought I'd do the complete opposite in this post and talk about a wonderful father who shared with me what he believed was the key to parenting a teenager. He was a teacher who had agreed to drive me home after a Parent Night held at his school - it was quite a long trip and my visit to the school had obviously struck a nerve. He had a 15 year-old daughter who was just starting the whole teen party roller coaster and he just wanted to talk. When he dropped me off at my hotel I asked him if he'd mind sending me an email with his thoughts as I was in the process of writing a book and was looking for personal anecdotes that I could use. I received the email the next day but for some reason the piece never ended up in the final edit. Here is a slightly edited version that was included in an early draft of my book ...

"Thanks for yesterday and for the chat last night. When I got home after dropping you off I had a long talk with my wife and talked through all the issues you raised in your talk to parents, as well as the discussion we had in the car. As you asked, here are our thoughts on parenting a teenager (and I have to say that this is definitely a work in progress!)

My wife and I believe that when it comes to parenting a teenager, it's all about sacrifice. Our daughter is the most important thing in the world to us and we would give our lives to keep her safe. Although there were some challenges when she was younger, nothing compares to the issues we are facing now. She's a smart young woman but, as you said in your talk, she's certainly missing a piece of her brain at the moment! She's a typical 15 year-old who wants to fit in with her friends and go to parties and we seem to be constantly fighting with her about almost everything.

We believe that to get through this time we have to sacrifice two things, one of which is proving to be far more difficult than the other. The first (and without doubt the easiest) is sacrificing our social life to some extent and particularly drinking alcohol on the weekends. We have always made ourselves available for sporting commitments, music practice and other activities, but when our daughter first started getting asked to parties we quickly realized that we were going to have to be 'on-call' 24 hours a day, particularly over the weekends. We have always made it clear to her that if something went wrong and she ever needed us, we would be there ASAP, no questions asked. Hopefully the need will never arise but if she calls us, we need to be able to hop into the car and get to her. We couldn't do that if we had been drinking. We did think about the whole designated driver thing, one of us being able to have one or two glasses of wine one week and then the other the next but in the end, we're in this together and alcohol isn't that important in our lives anyway. We also plan to be the parents who take her to parties and also pick her up (at least for the next couple of years) - we don't want to rely on others to do our parenting.

That's the easy one, the second sacrifice is much more difficult - i.e., sacrificing our daughter liking us. I know you said that your kids aren't meant to like you, but let me assure you, it's the hardest thing in the world to have your daughter tell you that she hates you and you're ruining her life! But the reality is that although this is so hard, we know it is the most important thing we can do to keep her safe. Making those tough calls and saying "No" when we have to is never going to be easy but sometimes it has to be done and she's not going to like it. Yes, it's true that she forgets she hates us pretty quickly but for that time when she says she does, it eats your heart away and that's the ultimate sacrifice!"

I wish I still had the original email as I would love to make contact and see how things went - his daughter would now be in her mid 20s! I have never forgotten the conversation I had in the car with this amazing Dad and in my view I think he and his wife got it right - to some degree, effective parenting, particularly where teenagers are concerned, is all about sacrifice ... Some sacrifices shouldn't be too hard to make, while others will be so difficult but worth it when you consider the end result!

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Should we be surprised that teen parties get out of control when we give them so much when they are so young?

I've been putting this blog article together for some time now ... Each time I receive another email from a concerned parent who is struggling on how to deal with their teen being invited to a party or gathering that they just don't feel is going to be safe, I have a little more ammunition and some more evidence that I believe justifies me asking "What in heavens are some people thinking?". But last night when I read an article in the 'Essential Kids' section of the SMH (you can find some really interesting pieces there!) called 'Are primary school graduation formals getting out of hand?', I thought, I can't hold back any longer ...

I recommend you read the whole piece (the author, Kylie Orr, makes some great points throughout) but essentially it was written because of the following 'incident':

"It's now my 12-year-old's turn to "graduate" from primary school. We didn't use the word "graduate" when I finished grade six. We were simply closing one chapter and opening the next. In the excitement around this year's graduation ceremony, talk has turned to limos. Yes, limousines: the extravagant purchase many adults may have invested in for a Year 12 formal, or even a wedding. Now, grade six children are discussing that mode of transport to their primary school graduations."

Later in the article she asks the question, if we're talking about limousines in primary school, should we be expecting them to ask for helicopters when they graduate from high school? That of course sounds totally ridiculous until you read a Canberra Times article from September of last year titled 'School leavers chopper in for formals - limos on the outer' where the reporter claims that there are actually parents in some parts of the country who charter a helicopter for their teen's school formal!

"Red carpet looks have become the new standard for many Canberra school girls, while interstate students are increasingly eschewing limousine hire in favour of helicopter charters to take them to the formal venue in style. The practice has become big business in Queensland and parts of NSW and one helicopter operating service in the Hunter Valley said there was no reason it wouldn't fly to Canberra to do school formal trips if demand was strong enough and the money was right."

I can't imagine that there are too many parents who are that stupid, but if there's even one who has ever done it - absolutely unbelievable! But let's get back to the primary school issue ... over the past year here are just a couple of examples of parties for primary school aged (or younger) children that I have been told about:
  • parents hiring an entire I-Max theatre for a group of 15 pre-primary aged girls to watch 'Frozen'!
  • a party for a class of Year 3 students (they're around 8 years old!) who were driven to Gold Class to watch a movie in 2 hummers and provided mocktails on the way there! 
  • parents paying for a well-known Australian amusement park to be closed for the afternoon so that their Year 6 daughter could celebrate her 12th birthday with 30 of her closest friends and have the attraction all to themselves 

And then of course, last September the SMH ran a piece called 'Kids parties go all out' that highlighted one particular party for a one year-old that offered the following experience for those lucky enough to attend:

"Pocahontas was there, and plenty of teepees too, and a balloon artist and a face painter and a petting zoo with 35 animals. There was a cowboy and Indian photo booth, and craft stands, and Wild West-themed snacks, plus oodles of "gorgeous champagne and incredible food" for the adults."

Now if you have that much money and you want to do these things for your children, who am I (or anyone else for that matter) to say that you shouldn't? Kylie Orr says the same thing in her article but she also asks parents to consider what are the possible implications in the long-term of giving so much to those so young?

"If other families want to fork out money then that is their prerogative, I get it. My concern lies in the short-sightedness of such decisions. Have we completely ignored the joy of working hard, achieving and being rewarded, in an age-appropriate way? Have we considered the consequences of allowing our children to be privy to such extravagance, so young?"

I've said this before but when I speak to young people and ask them what makes a safe party, most respond by saying that it is vital that there is a guest list and that the number invited is capped. That sounds great until you hear how many they think it should be capped at ... the average response is usually 200! I believe the reason this is happening is because of the expectations we are setting up early - in primary school and now, even earlier. Today's parents are the first to ever invite a whole year group to a birthday party - think about it, did you ever get asked to a party where there were anymore than 10 other invitees? It would have been unthinkable to ask 30 children to a birthday party 20 years ago - it just wasn't done! Set up the expectation of the whole year group being invited to a party in primary school and that's what they want when they turn 15! And remember, when they're 15, there's a whole lot more of them in a year group and they're going through adolescence it's a recipe for disaster and pretty scary ...

No-one can tell any parent what to do when it comes to putting on parties for their children (certainly not me - I don't even have kids of my own!). But be warned, give them too much when they're young and you're undoubtedly going to be setting yourself up for some pretty extreme requests when they're older ... Well-known parenting expert, Michael Grose is quoted in Orr's article as saying the following:

"As parents, we don't say to our children anymore, 'you are a child and these are adult concepts.' They need to learn to bide their time, wait their turn ... We need to ask, is this appropriate for their age and stage of development? The easiest way to parent is to go with the crowd. The hardest is to swim against the tide."

Never a truer word spoken!

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Is cannabis really being laced with 'ice'?

For some time now I have been asked by a range of people (parents, teachers and health professionals) whether I believe it is true that cannabis is being 'laced' with 'ice'. My response has always been that I have seen no evidence to support the claim and realistically if such evidence actually existed then I am sure the police and other agencies would be getting that information out to cannabis users and the wider community as soon as they were able to - not only is it an important public health message, it's also a great story and would generate some pretty major headlines across the country! I haven't written anything about it because I hate giving stories like this any oxygen ... they feed into the mythology and hysteria around drugs and drug use and I wouldn't be surprised if one of the tabloids grabbed a line from something I wrote that said I didn't believe it was the case and twisted it around to say that drug educators were concerned about the possibility that cannabis was in fact being laced with methamphetamine!

Unfortunately I have recently visited schools where statements have been made to students by visiting speakers about this practice, with figures being quoted about the actual percentage of cannabis seizures found to be containing ice. Now I am not here to knock anybody who makes a living from giving talks in schools about any topic - none of us are perfect and we all get things wrong once in a while (as I often say to students, if you leave my presentation saying "Paul Dillon said it, it must be true!" then you're an idiot! Be a critical thinker, talk about it with others, go and find out more), but making claims like this is dangerous and irresponsible without damn good evidence to support what you are saying (and having a police officer or an alcohol and other drug worker tell you that it's true is not good evidence!). In addition, a story ran about a woman in the Hunter region of NSW who was found to have cannabis and methamphetamine in her system when she underwent a roadside drug test who claimed she had never used the drug. The conclusion was that the cannabis was laced with ice, with the magistrate quoted as saying "When you buy off the street, you don't what you are getting."

I have spoken to a number of police officers that I know in reasonably senior positions, as well as some people in toxicology, and they have all said the same thing - yes, they've heard of this, but none of them have actually seen any toxicological evidence to support that it is actually happening.

It's important to know that stories about one drug (usually cannabis, but also ecstasy and LSD) being laced or intentionally adulterated with another potentially more dangerous substance have been going around for a long time. Back in the 90s there were many stories in the US about cannabis being laced with PCP, in Australia there was lots of talk about the dissociative anaesthetic ketamine (or 'Special K') being used. The first reliable reference I can find about meth-laced cannabis comes from the US in 2008 (although I was also able to find a 2006 online news article from Canada which also makes huge claims without any actual evidence) and I have included a copy of a news release about a warning apparently issued by police at that time below:


If you look carefully at this story, once again, it states that "the police have not actually seized any tainted marijuana", they've just heard about it ... Interestingly, it's not only the authorities who promote these stories, tales of adulterated cannabis are often spoken about amongst those who smoke the drug themselves. If you take a look at drug user chat rooms there are many references to this issue. Here is one that I have edited down a little ...

"I feel like everyone I meet has some story about smoking weed that had been laced with something by the dealer. They always go something like, "Oh yeah dude I smoked some weed one time a few years ago that was secretly laced with meth" and then they go on to perfectly describe all the symptoms of a weed-induced anxiety attack. It's annoying as hell that people actually believe this old wive's tale invented by mothers to scare kids. Has this ever actually happened to someone in a provable way? Or am I right in thinking it's just an urban legend?"

So why don't I think it's happening? It's simple, it just doesn't make sense, particularly economically. Why would anyone put the most expensive drug currently available (i.e., ice, currently more expensive than cocaine or heroin) onto cannabis? The usual reason given is that it is done in an effort to try to introduce users to other more expensive drugs and hopefully get them addicted ... I love this response to that argument that I found in a drug user chat room - it really says it all!

"Ok, I will buy that there is benefit in getting your customer hooked to a harder drug (if you are certain he will be a faithful customer) but wouldn't the customer have to know it to buy more? I mean, if they bought weed, thought it was weed, they would just go back to get the weed, not the more expensive drugs. I know that cutting drugs occurs, and that they are not scrupulous about what they cut with, but is there really a documented case of a drug dealer trying to hook people by adding a more expensive drug to a cheap drug?"

So say, for argument's sake, you've been smoking 'ice-laced cannabis' for a while and now dependent on methamphetamine (not quite sure how that works and how you would know but let's go with it for now!), does your dealer then start giving you 'normal' cannabis and wait for you to notice the difference? Once you have, do you then go back and say that you want what you were being sold before? If at that point the dealer then said that they had actually been giving you 'ice-laced cannabis', I'm pretty sure you wouldn't be too happy ... Seems like a whole pile of extra work and grief for a dealer - as I said, it just doesn't make sense!

Also, how in heavens do you get ice to stick onto cannabis? Most readers would not have ever seen the drug but let me assure you, it's not sticky! Some people have suggested that it could be sprayed on in a liquid form and would then crystalize onto the plant matter over a period of time. If it was to be heated and applied onto cannabis it certainly wouldn't end up being translucent and clear - no matter what process was used (take a look at this discussion from an online drug user forum where the moderator finally shuts it down with the statement - "you simply cannot lace cannabis with meth'). And once again it boils down to the most important point of why would anyone bother with such a labour intensive process when there is a market for ice anyway? A market that is willing to pay a whole lot more for their drug of choice than they are for cannabis ...

I'm not exactly sure what's going on here but my guess is that it is most probably a combination of things ... certainly it's a fear-based thing and feeds into the whole 'evil drug dealer' stereotype and the idea that taking one drug inevitably leads to the use of other drugs. But I think there's another issue and that's got to do with what cannabis can look like when it is being harvested and at a time when the community is so conscious of the whole ice phenomenon and much more aware of what that drug looks like, it's not too difficult to see how people could mistake what they see as the presence of crystalline methamphetamine or ice.

If you look at the three photographs at the top of the post you'll see firstly in the top left a typical cannabis 'bud', below that some ice and then the larger image on the right shows a bud that looks like it is covered with some sort of crystalline product. What that picture actually shows is 'trichomes'. According to the website Marijuana Growers Headquarter, trichomes look like little white crystals (you can see them quite clearly on the image) covering the plants buds, leaves, and sometimes even stalks. When you look at them closely they are not actually pieces of crystal but translucent resin glands that come out of the plant. These are present throughout all stages of plant growth but they rapidly increase as the plant flowers and is one of the main ways that growers know when to harvest their crop. At full maturity these trichomes increase in size and instead of appearing clear, they start to change to a light amber or a cloudy white colour, looking very much like ice crystals. This is not a new phenomenon, trichomes have always existed (which could explain why authorities in the past have believed that products like PCP or ketamine - both available in crystalline forms - could have been added to cannabis) but at a time when we've become so 'ice aware', if you were to see buds like the one shown above it might leave you wondering ...

As far as I am aware there are no documented cases of this practice (if anyone knows of any and can provide me the data, please do - I will be happy to let others know about it). As already said, stories of cannabis laced with other substances, whether it be PCP, ketamine or ice, have been around for a long time and I doubt whether they'll go away anytime soon. Considering the community interest around ice at the moment it's not surprising that people believe this to be true but we have to be extremely careful about passing these stories onto others without having really good evidence to support what we're saying ...

Saturday, 7 November 2015

What makes a good school great? How do you choose a school that's right for your child?

As most of you know I do not have children (as I always say in my talks, if I did, they'd live in a cellar, be chained to a wall and never be let out - I say that in jest but to be honest I'm not really sure what I would do!), but I am frequently asked by parents (and particularly friends who are parents), if I did have children, what schools would I send them to and why?

I come into contact with almost 200 schools each year, across all sectors - public, Catholic and Independent - and I continue to be impressed by the amazing things I see across the country. I don't want to get into the whole 'public or private' debate - parents make a choice about whether they're going to put extra money into their child's education based on a whole pile of things. Certainly faith can play a role for some people (although it would appear this group of parents is getting much smaller) but for many, it's simply they want to ensure that their child has the 'best education' that they can afford. Whether a private school education provides that depends very much on what you mean by 'best education'.

At this point I need to say that when I taught (many years ago now!), I chose to teach in the public system. I try to think back now to whether I considered entering the private system and I honestly don't think it even crossed my mind! I can't tell you why I made that choice and I don't know whether I would make the same choice today but there it is ...

So back to 'where would I send my children and why?'

Over the past 20 or so years that I have been visiting schools across the country I have seen a tremendous change in how schools 'sell' themselves. Years ago it was all about results (e.g., how many Year 12 students got into university?) and I'm certainly not saying that has completely gone, of course ATARs are important. For some, particularly some of the elite boys' schools, it was about sporting achievements or what famous people had been students in the past. Increasingly, however, I'm seeing schools that are promoting their pastoral care (as they are referred to in the Catholic and Independent systems) or well-being (public schools) programs as a 'selling point' to parents trying to work out where they should send their kids and, for me, these programs and how they are rolled-out are really what makes a good school great!

Pastoral care means different things to different people, but my definition is simple - it is 'the way in which a school demonstrates it cares for the student as an individual'. It is the procedures and practices that schools put into place to ensure that no child 'falls through the cracks'. Primary schools do this incredibly well due to the nature and style of teaching at that age (one teacher across one year, interactive learning and relatively small class sizes) but at high school it is so much more difficult. Teachers don't just teach one class of 25-30 students across a year, they may teach hundreds across many classes and it is a struggle for some to even get to learn all their students first names, let alone anything about what is going on in their lives - in that sort of environment it is incredibly easy for a student to just get lost in the crowd ...

Quality pastoral care builds 'resilience'. Those with greater resilience are less fazed by setbacks than others and clearly show a greater ability to 'bounce back', no matter what life throws at them. It is important, therefore, to try to make our young people as resilient as possible, hopefully protecting them against the stresses and adverse situations that they will encounter as they go through life. One of the best ways for schools to build resilience is to ensure that young people develop 'connectedness' or a 'sense of belonging'. Teens are at a stage of their life when they are pulling away from their parents and trying to establish their own identity. Their once strong connectedness to the family can often be tested. A positive relationship with the school and a 'sense of belonging' to something they view as important at this time can play a powerful role in keeping a teen as safe as possible.

When I visit a school these are the kind of things I look for from a pastoral care perspective:
  • what does the front office look like and who is behind the desk? Some of the ladies I have met across the country who have these front office roles are incredible human beings! They have been at the school forever and when I hear them talking to students, often knowing each of them by name, it just blows me away ... you can tell so much about a school from the front office staff ...
  • do students freely approach teachers to talk to them as they're walking through the school? What are the interactions like? I often sit outside during lunchtime and simply count the number of interactions I see, how long they last and how the student looks as they leave the conversation - this tells you so much about the quality of the teacher-student relationships at the school
  • how often do teachers address students using their first name? Most probably the most important thing that I look for when I visit a school and such a simple test ... Whenever possible I note down the names of students who come up and talk to me after a presentation and when I visit the following year I do my best to approach them and talk to them using their name. You have no idea how special that makes that young person feel! Sometimes they are literally left speechless that I remembered them and it takes such a small amount of effort and has such a huge impact ...
  • what does the staff room look like and how do staff interact? When I taught the staff room was abuzz at recess and lunchtime, that is not always the case today. So often teachers are so busy that they never ever get to the staff room, instead staying in their faculty areas. Smart principals are now realizing that it is so important that staff across faculties interact and talk - when you go to a school where staff rooms are busy and social, teachers are happier, they're communicating across faculties and this positive energy flows onto the students
I'd like to make it very clear that if I do not feel that the school is not doing a good job in this area and that doesn't look like changing anytime soon, I usually don't go back! The work I do in a school hangs very much on what is done pastorally, if it isn't followed-up by teachers and if there aren't quality conversations about what I raised during my presentations, there really isn't much point in me going back. In those situations the school is simply 'ticking a box' and we know that doesn't work - it's a waste of the school's money and my time!

Of course, some of the things I discussed above are not easily assessed by parents when visiting a school to work out whether it is appropriate for their child. That said, I believe there are some simple questions a parent should ask a school that are able to give you a good idea about their pastoral care programs and whether what is happening at school will help ensure that your child does not fall through the cracks and at the same time, help build their resilience ...
  • what pastoral care (or well-being) programs are run across the school?
  • are there specific pastoral care sessions allocated across the years or is it integrated across the curriculum? What you want to hear here is that there are a mixture of both - a school that knows what they're doing will tell you that pastoral care is embedded across all that they do ... if they do, ask them for an example 
  • who is responsible for pastoral care? (if you don't get the answer - "All teachers are pastoral care teachers at this school?" there's an issue!)
  • will there be a specific teacher responsible for my child's pastoral care? This will either be a Year Co-ordinator or a homeroom teacher or the like and a good follow-up question would be "How many students is that teacher responsible for?" As much as smaller numbers are better in many ways (the larger the group, the greater the risk of them slipping under the radar), the quality of the teacher and their commitment to the concept of pastoral care is so much more important
If you've elected to put your child through the state system you do not usually have the choice of what school you child attends. This does not mean, however, that you don't have the right to ask the same questions. In fact, I think it is vital that you do ... this year I have attended amazing state schools that have incredible well-being programs but that is not always the case (just as it is across the other sectors), asking the right questions (in an appropriate and respectful way) may make those schools more likely to assess their programs and try to improve what they are doing.

As already said, parents choose the school (and/or the system) they want their child to attend based on a whole range of things. For me, the most important thing a school should provide is a place where the students feel valued and important - once they have that, they have the best chance of learning and reaching their full potential. Secondary school can be a tough place (I know it was for me!) and when you add all the trials and tribulations of adolescence to the mix, it is important that we try to ensure that the experience, although not always pleasant for many, is as safe as possible.

Sure, look at their results. If your son or daughter is sporty, take a look at the sports programs the school offers and of course the same goes for music and drama and the like. But isn't the most important thing that your child feels safe and valued? Without that, it doesn't matter what their ATAR score is or whether or not they make the school football or rowing team - it's all becomes a little bit pointless!

I can think of two schools that I visited this year (one in the state system and the other an elite Independent school) that simply 'oozed' quality pastoral care. From the moment you stepped onto the school grounds you could almost feel positive energy ... the front office staff were amazing (one of the women walked around her desk and warmly shook my hand when she greeted me - unbelievable!), the teachers were buzzing and the quality of their interactions with students were a joy to see, both staff rooms were packed (both had functions on the day I visited and there was such a positive atmosphere) and the kids were amazing. But in both schools it was the principal that made the greatest impact ... When you get dropped off at a school in the morning and the principal is standing at the front gate greeting students (often by name!), and they then take time out of their extremely busy days to make an appearance at least one of my sessions and say hello, you certainly know that that school is being led by someone who genuinely cares about the students and what is going on in the school and in their lives. Good pastoral care often seeps down from the top ... when you have a principal who's committed to it, you can pretty well guarantee you're going to see it throughout the whole school.