The ordinary girl

I’m going to say it: Jessica Watson isn’t so extraordinary.

Okay, so maybe a little. The whole globe-circumnavigation-solo thing is completely amazing, but as someone to whom a trip to the Western suburbs counts as exploring, I can’t even really fathom that. Let alone comment on it.

What I would like to comment on is Watson’s tender age. She’s not yet 17. That a teenager was able to execute such a sailing feat is exciting news not because it proves that she’s an exceptional teenager but rather that she has exceptional adults in her life.

I used to spend a lot of my time around a lot of teenagers. Some of the teens I taught were incredibly clever and sensitive, some were boisterous and impulsive, some were irritating and self-centred. All were capable of understanding complex ideas and of taking on responsibilities — with varying degrees of success. In other words, they were, um, people.

I recall that one of the more difficult aspects of teacher-training for me (and I think, my peers) was learning to approach the young people in my classroom as their superior. Traditional education (that is, the school system), demands that there is “classroom discipline”, requiring that teachers command respect and maintain a certain professional distance from their students. That’s the way to do it in a regular classroom and that’s the way I did it. But wow, those early weeks of learning to say “sit at your desk and listen quietly now please” with authority to people who were at times only five years younger than me, were very difficult. Because I didn’t believe – don’t believe – that I was inherently different to or superior to them. What was between them and me was some education, a few years of life experience, and the authority bestowed on me by largely arbitrary school rules.  (I did get used to it, though, and learned that sometimes professional distance is vitally important as well as convenient, and that when students actually do sit down and listen quietly in an environment where learning is set up to depend upon that kind of formal behaviour, things work much better. And yeah, teenagers are quite capable of learning to sit down and listen without being told but there are most certainly times when it is far more efficient to just tell them already and get to the questions on page 33.)

But the efficiency of educational processes notwithstanding, the reality remains that the stereotype of the surly, irresponsible teenager may say a lot more about adults and our prevailing power structures than it does about young people themselves. So, what is extraordinary about the Jessica Watson story is not so much that a person of that age has displayed great skill, physical endurance, intelligence and courage, but that her parents and presumably other important adults in her life supported her in what certainly seemed like a completely outrageous dream.

When we talk of young people “growing up too fast these days”, we don’t really mean growing into maturity. We mean that they are being exposed to narrow and damaging expectations of gendered behaviour at very young ages. (Behaviours – hyper-sexualised or violent – that we rightfully attribute to the adult realm.) But being exposed to pornified culture isn’t really growing up – or if it is, it is only one facet of growing. Because working in tandem with this increasingly early exposure to certain types of adult content is a decrease in the amount of autonomy and independence that children and teenagers are allowed to enjoy and learn from. In the name of ‘safety’ – and for other social, economic and ideological reasons – we are loathe to trust young people to do almost anything unsupervised. (For more commentary on that phenomenon, Free Range Kids is a good place to start.)

This certainly isn’t all down to parents — I think it’s very clear that parents are actually struggling to deal with the intense expectations placed on our parenting. Certainly, before Jessica Watson set off on her ground-breaking trip, a lot of media commentary slammed her parents as everything from delusional about their daughter’s capabilities to blatantly uncaring for allowing her to risk her life.

She was risking her life (though not recklessly or flippantly). But she was also clear about her reasons for doing so and displayed great determination and courage. That she was two years off voting age didn’t – doesn’t – seem entirely relevant. And I think that’s refreshing.

In today’s Age I read an interesting article about blogging by Steph Bowe, a teenager who is soon to have her first novel published. Melina Marchetta famously wrote the teen novel well-remembered by most in my generation, Looking for Alibrandi, at 16. In fact, very young authors, song writers and activists are at work all of the time.

Even so, it is very difficult for a young person to be taken seriously. This wonderful post by Chally about ‘coming out’ as a teenager says it all really.

I don’t advocate that we stop parenting teens, as if they don’t still have something to learn from their parents (they almost certainly do: most adults could learn a thing or two from more experienced adults too!) And I’m not suggesting that a grand gesture of independence like that made by Jessica Watson is what every young person needs to make. But I do hope that once images of her safe arrival at Sydney Harbour are no longer monopolising the Australian media, that Jessica’s own assertion that she is ‘ordinary’ is remembered. Because ordinary young people deserve the right to try extraordinary things; and sometimes just asking to be judged only on one’s own merits as a human being, is extraordinary.


Filed under Motherhood and Parenting, Musings, Reflections and Rantings

9 responses to “The ordinary girl

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  2. Your side point on voting age is something I’d like to draw attention to. While Australians who are able to make incredible contributions are forbidden by law to vote, the political system will continue to pass laws that discriminate against them.

    While someone can be considered responsible enough to embark on a solo round-the-world sailing voyage but not responsible enough to have a drivers licence or take out a loan, is beyond me. (And that’s just the start of it.)

    • I think there is a good argument for at least having a meaningful conversation about the voting age. What I see is tricky about that is compulsory voting… it’s one thing to allow a fifteen year old to vote if zie wants to (there are definitely many convincing arguments to be made in favour of that), but quite another to force young people to take responsibility in that way if they deem themselves not to be ready to. (Although, frankly, many more of them are ready to than most would think, I’d wager.) And it also raises the issue… when should one be able to vote? What about engaged and thoughtful ten year olds, would they still be excluded? Definitely something to think about. You’re right about young people being literally disenfranchised. They are the only people in our community who can be legally assaulted – I can slap my child with impunity but if I slapped you I could be arrested.

      I wonder if there is an inherent, necessary tension between allowing ‘kids to be kids’ and encouraging and enjoyment of childhood and adolescence as a time of learning without oppressive adult responsibilities and allow young people’s abilities to be respected? Or is that also constructed? I mean, certainly, the idea that childhood is innocent and free is romantic, but not true — most children face hardships or responsibilities we’d rather they didn’t have. Most of them are remarkably capable and resilient.

    • When Aboriginal people got the vote in 1962, it was under voluntary enrollment. Only in 1984 was it made compulsory. So, there’s some precedent supporting children getting the right (but not the obligation) to vote.

      However, to get back to the gist of the post, there’s clearly no set point in time where everyone goes from being a child to an adult. We happen to set it at the age of 18, from a legal point of view, but this is merely the current definition adopted by our culture. In other cultures, and in other times, different criteria are used.

      By having a single, simple rule across the whole country, it makes the test easy for society (and judges and politicians), but at a cost to certain individuals who ought to be considered adult while treated as children, and visa versa. And raises the question of whether treating individuals incorrectly is good for society anyway, as what is easy is not necessarily good.

  3. This is a wonderful post.

    Personally, I believe a lot of who we are or who we might become is already in our genes. That can then be nurtured by our environment (which includes, but is not defined by, parenting) or …hmmm…what’s the opposite of nurtured? (anyways…you get my point).

    I aspire to be able to give my children the space and the freedom to become the type of person they want to become. I want to encourage them, but not do things for them. I want to teach them common sense, rather than forbidding or commanding things. I want to do all of that. But it is hard…

    • Oh yes, it’s hard!
      At the park yesterday a woman yelled at her son who was attempting to scale some play equipment. I thought to myself… why not let him try? There’s softfall there if he slips!
      But then I realised that I am not perfect either. The temptation to stop that kind of exploration, out of fear, is so strong, especially when if a child is injured there are now always questions about ‘adequate supervision’ or ‘safety of equipment’.

  4. I think the issue here is that as a society we expect children to grow up but never let them actually do it.

    We give them adult privileges but never make them live up to adult responsibilities. We have extended adolescence into the mid 20’s and seem to be ok with it, all the while the suckle off of societies teat without a care in the world.

    Jessica is an anomaly in today’s world only because she took on an adult task and was successful without mommy and daddy there to prop her up and help her along. If she screwed up the cost would have been her life and there was nothing anyone could have done about it.

    We seem to forget that 100+ years ago a 16 year old would be considered an adult and they acted as such. Now parents are lucky if their 26 year olds are adult enough to take on the world.

  5. This is very interesting. My daughter teaches in an inner city high school, and the problems she faces with her students are nothing like anything she has ever encountered. There is never complete silence in the classroom. She constantly has to confiscate cell phones and Ipods. The kids don’t really know how to listen. They have trouble with reading. She is exhausted every day. She loves her job, and her students. Teachers are saviors. molly

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