Best-selling author and cartoonist Kaz Cooke’s new book is a ‘real’ guide for girls 8-12 on navigating the pre-teen years. She also has some good advice for parents, writes Shane Green.
Go back to the playground. It’s a lunchtime, and on a patch of bitumen, two kids are working the ends of a skipping rope, making whirring, giant loops.
You are waiting, waiting to jump in. ‘I don’t know when to go in,’ you think, your hands moving in time with the rhythm of the rope. ‘I don’t know where I can get in.’
For author Kaz Cooke, this is a pretty neat analogy for the position parents find themselves in as they raise their children. It’s a hesitation that comes from thinking that their children may know it all already.
So what should parents do? ‘You have to jump in,’ says Cooke, who has just released Girl Stuff, for girls aged 8-12, Your real guide to the pre-teen years.
‘Parents have got to be in there, and say, “you can’t have social media yet, you might need a phone for this reason, but you can’t be on Instagram”.
‘I think it’s really important for parents to be involved and be parents.
‘I think sometimes they feel like a lot of it is done for them, like a self-saucing pudding.’
That involvement has become a little easier with Cooke’s latest book, following on from the hugely successful and award-winning Girls Stuff, which was aimed at teens.
The new book is a resource for both girls and their parents, a user-friendly, bright text, replete with Cooke’s trademark cartoons – some of which are featured here.
One of the big differences with the first, big sister book is the absence of chapters on drinking, drugs and alcohol. That can come later, at a more relevant age.
Cooke brings together easy accessible advice on subjects such as body changes, with reassurance about what to expect and what’s normal.
There’s a chapter on staying healthy – eating and exercise, being confident about body changes and image. ‘We all need body fat’, ‘Being thin is okay too’, ‘You are you-shaped’ and ‘Why “diets” suck’ are some of the issues explored.
There are sections on how to navigate friendships and deal with bullies, why it’s good to delay getting on social media, and how to get on better with your family.
Cooke also provides curated lists of heroines, women leaders in science, technology, maths and engineering, and great books and movies for girls.
When Girls Stuff came out in 2011, Cooke opened up an online survey, to which more than 4000 girls responded.
What emerged was that girls want to be told how to be a girl, and how to grow.
‘In our culture, we’ve forgotten that,’ says Cooke. ‘We’ve forgotten that kids are hungry for information and that it’s our job as parents – and other adults around the joint – to help them with that.’
There’s a tendency to think they can work it out themselves, making their own choices.
But Cooke points to the information girls 8 to 12 are being bombarded with: advertising and commercial messages, what they hear at school and in the playground, what’s coming into ‘this giant funnel from the world down into their phone’.
Are things harder for girls growing up now?
Cooke, a mother and ‘former girl’, says some things are harder: more body image pressure, much more sexualisation of girls.
Social media has made some things worse, but has allowed older girls to connect with different communities.
She has seen the impact of human rights and feminist legislation, and a lot of girls have grown up knowing there has been a female Prime Minister and female Governor-General.
‘I know that can swing back again. But those sort of things, those sort of fights, it’s really important to acknowledge that we have made gains,’ says Cooke. ‘People will call out things that they think are sexist or unfair to girls.’
Over the last 20 years, she has also witnessed the growth of better fathers.
She has great admiration for men who were not close to their fathers and were not encouraged to be sensitive, but are forging their own way with closer relationships with their children.
‘That’s one of main reasons for optimism. I think that’s been a huge and lovely change in our society,’ says Cooke.
‘Young men don’t have to play football to hug,’ she says. ‘Which saves a lot of time.’
Girl Stuff for girls aged 8-12 is published by Penguin/Viking, RRP $24.99.
You can find out more about Kaz Cooke on her website.
Main image: David Johns Photography.
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