Finding the spark that keeps girls alive, happy and healthy

The deep-down secret no one body tells kids is that we aren't measured by external success.
The deep-down secret no one body tells kids is that we aren't measured by external success. Photo: Jacob Ammentorp Lund

We live in a culture that worships success. What we see on the covers of magazines, on endless TV shows, and acclaimed in school assemblies and stories on the news, are people who are the best and the most – rich, famous, talented or just eye candy – qualified to have everyone know their name.

As barely one in 10,000 people can meet these criteria, it's a rather odd goal, because it means we are almost all failures. We adults take this with a grain of salt, but our kids, especially girls, can be terribly set up for feeling they are of no use.

The consensus among mental-health experts is that a combination of social media, the busyness and distractedness of parents, increased academic pressure at school, and a fairly horrific competitiveness among many girls themselves has lead to intense anxiety that they don't fit in and don't measure up. They wake at 3am to check their screen for a word of affirmation. If no one "likes" you, then no one likes you.

The deep-down secret no one tells kids is we aren't measured by external success.

In fact, success requires abandoning most of the things that are of value in life: time for friendship, looking after others, peace and reflection, family, love, or being truly creative or free. There just isn't time.

For some it's creativity, for some it's caring – for animals, children or the environment – for some it's a hobby or sport.

Researcher Peter Benson discovered a remarkable thing that helps protect the well-being of young people. Researching for my book Ten Things Girls Need Most, I was blown away by how true, and how important, this finding was.

According to Benson, every young person has a spark – an interest, passion or love – that, if encouraged, gives them a reason to be alive. For some it's creativity, for some it's caring – for animals, children or the environment – for some it's a hobby or sport. But none of it is about pleasing or impressing others. (If that element of evaluation is introduced, it spoils the benefit.)

What if education was based that way – that kids were encouraged to follow what they really wanted to learn and do?

For now, it's up to us at home and in the community to provide this life-saving help. Kids with a spark do better at school – but as a side effect. They meet more interesting and different adults through their pursuit. They don't worry about their looks or if they are hot or cool. They don't desperately mind what their peers are doing or think of them.

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But, most importantly, they have a reason to be alive. They don't self-harm or have eating disorders or depression. They can't wait to get back to doing whatever it is they love.

Benson said a spark needs three things: a parent who helps it to happen, an adult at school or elsewhere who encourages them, and the simple opportunity to do it. From ukelele playing to wombat rescue, ballroom dancing to rock climbing, your daughter has something that she is in the world to do. It matters, it goes somewhere and your job is to find it. Or just give her the time to find it herself.

This is the road to real success. Balanced and happy, whether any one notices or not.

Steve Biddulph is a psychologist and the author of Ten Things Girls Need Most. This is part of his weekly series for Fairfax Media.