It starts with parents fretting about and comparing early developmental milestones. When our babies roll, sleep, talk and walk. Then it morphs into discussions about school readiness.
Before you know it, you’re being bombarded with NAPLAN results, school reports and tertiary entrance scores. It happens in the blink of an eye .
It’s easy to get caught up in the parental anxiety about our kids’ achievements and their education, but these aren’t the things that keep me awake.
As a father of two daughters I’m more concerned about their future choices in partners than I am their results. That sounds awfully paternalistic, I know, but hear me out.
If one of my daughters doesn’t achieve the result she wants on some test or assessment, she can find another pathway. If she chooses a partner who is controlling? She might not forge another pathway.
Every week in Australia a woman is murdered, most often by a current or former partner. Countless more women are abused, injured, controlled, stalked and impoverished by their partner.
These figures should be a national emergency. They’re certainly a national disgrace.
It’s not just overt physical violence that I fear when I think about the partners my daughters might choose.
The slow, systematic destruction of self-worth by a psychologically manipulative partner terrifies me. The manipulative partner who sows seeds of self doubt and gaslights girls and women.
Despite our progress towards equality, we still celebrate women as wives: girls and women are still bombarded with messages about their role as selfless nurturers. So many of the stories in our culture revolve around girls and women being less powerful than their romantic partners.
Even if the heroine of the story starts off the most capable and powerful, she all too often falls for a love interest who is richer, older, wiser, better connected, higher status or has better magic powers.
And that’s the good ones. Other romantic heroes are downright psychopaths.
Take Beauty and the Beast for example. Belle’s strong, independent and speaks her mind – exactly the kind of girl we encourage our girls to be. And then she ends up in an abusive relationship with a man who holds her captive against her will and physically threatens her. And what does our strong independent heroine do? She puts up the abuse and falls in love with her abuser.
That ain’t romance. The Beast is not the kind of man I want my girls to choose.
Young adult fantasy novels are particularly concerning when it comes to portraying love interests who should have restraining orders.
For example, the hugely successful YA novel Frostblood is a study in the glorifying of domestic violence.
“He had threatened to thrash me, called me weak, and shamed me for my lack of skill,” says Ruby. “But I kept seeing something beneath the surface, a part of him I wanted to connect with if only he would stop freezing me out.”.
And then there’s the book that arguably started the whole modern fixation with abusive mythical love interests, the Twilight series.
The love interest Edward Cullen’s behaviour — turning up in Bella’s room in the middle of the night and talking openly about having to restrain himself from killing her — is so extreme that one US academic has argued he has all the hallmarks of a “compensated psychopath”.
A compensated psychopath has all the traits of a full blown psychopath, but is able to pass in normal society. In fact, a compensated psychopath might even come across as an overachiever, and, in that regard, ideal.
US academic Debra Merskin, argues, Edward Cullen fits the criteria of a psychopath, including an inability to love, a deficient sense of morality, arrested psychological development, nihilistic depression and harbours a distrust of the world.
Looked at from this point of view, the presentation of Edward as boyfriend material is disturbing. As Merskin writes, “the characterization of Edward as a desirable male poses a danger to real girls-as-eventual-women’s sense of self and development and the idea of the power dynamics in real relationships with boys-as-eventual-men.”
One response to this is, of course, that it’s all a bit of fantasy and that kids are smart enough to work this out themselves and that’s true — but only up to a point.
Stories have more subliminal power than we give them credit for. One of the reasons that stories have endured for so long is that they slip under our critical radars. We get caught up in them and they inform how we make sense of the world — it’s one reason the Bible is filled with stories.
Repeated again and again, presenting abusive men as the ideal partner shapes how girls and young women view men and what they expect from them.
Undoing the celebration of abusive males as desirable boyfriends is one of the most important tasks as a father. That’s why I have co-written a YA fantasy series with my wife Kasey Edwards that presents a different model for romantic love.
In the Chess Raven Chronicles, published under the pen name Violet Grace, we set out to directly challenge the stereotypical abusive romantic hero, while leaving in the complications of relationships.
We wanted to show that not only is it possible to show respect and emotional intelligence in boys and men, but it is also desirable.
The message which we hope our own girls will learn from our series, and indeed all girls who read it, is that real love doesn’t clip your wings, it encourages you to fly.
Visit http://www.christopherscanlon.com.au for more from Christopher Scanlon.