Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Give the gift of quality time this Christmas

Here's a radical idea this Christmas. Don't buy just more stuff for your loved ones. Give them your time. Time is the ultimate non-renewable resource. The irony of giving your time to others, mindfully, involves being less time-obsessed.

Each of doesn't really have more or less time. We have the same amount. You may have heard the one about the bloke who was asked, "If you had only 48 hours left to live, how would you spend them?" One hour at a time, he replied.

We live in an intriguing period of human history, in which we are more connected around the clock. I can be in touch with my teenage children by phone all day. Texts offer discrete bits of information. But e-communication is limited for understanding and learning from each other. Instead, it can fracture communication and make us more impatient, more disengaged.

In her 2014 snapshot of Australian children, social capital and communities, Australian National University Professor Sharon Bessell found that a majority of surveyed children aged 8-12 had been treated in a rude, dismissive or hostile manner by adults. She found that a majority did not feel that they were listened to. Kids' concerns echo other studies that point to adults being preoccupied, distracted and forgetful, not just some of the time but nearly 75 per cent of the time.

There are a number of factors at play but we are increasingly distracted by technology to the point where we feel time pressured (with a fear of missing out) and unable to listen. It can rob children, young people and adults of time to just be, enjoy each other's company without time pressures and judgments, and rob us of stillness to resolve and recover from life's inevitable stresses.

Carol (not her real name) is a seasoned teacher I met this year. After teaching in primary schools around Australia for decades, she has begun to see, for the first time, children from middle class homes arrive for big school without an ability to hold a basic conversation.

Conversations have an ebb and flow of questions and answers, observations and reactions. "In recent years I have taught children in kindy and year one who have obviously not been talked to or listened to. They are children that don't have the language to express themselves," she tells me. How alarming.

"I usually ask children to write about their weekend. One boy only wrote the letters P-S-T and a number. While awake all he did was be on his PlayStation. It became apparent that was no family culture of talking and being listened to. When I was a child we sat around the table every evening, talking. Talking goes with writing. If you can't talk, you'll struggle to write."

Carol describes a culture increasingly summed up as "alone together". Just a few generations ago a child may have written the name of a mesmeric television show in a classroom journal, but the difference was the TV was in a common room and the show was usually watched and talked about with others.

We've all seen it, perhaps been there: a family at a restaurant, a couple with kids not saying a word to each other, each on their screens over a meal.

If parents and carers are constantly checking their smartphones and messaging on social media then their children feel less important. If a partner is on his or he phone all day, in their private world, then adult relationships suffer too.

Tom (not his real name) has a parent who is always checking his phone. Tom's dad travels interstate a lot for work. Tom was visiting when he leaned on the kitchen bench and said, "When I am a father, I'll want to spend lots of time with him [my child]."

Children and young people know what's good for them. A family that thrives is a small network that forms to care for one another and spend time together. There are more tensions when it's hard to make ends meet and paid jobs consume many extra hours. But when tethered to technology the little time we have to give of ourselves (intentional parenting and caring beyond serving meals, being a taxi), is whittled away.

Something big is going on when studies tell us kids have more stuff and screens than ever before but mental health issues among young people have skyrocketed. It's bad everywhere, but Mission Australia's latest National Youth Survey found teenagers in Canberra are unhappier, more stressed and less optimistic about their futures than other young people around Australia.

Time together is time for sharing, communicating, setting goals, making decisions, establishing traditions and having fun. Technology can be part of that time together but best used in a focused way with focal points for genuine connection.

Quality time turns the 'I' into 'we'. Conversation with active listening could the easiest and hardest present you could give these holidays. And a tip: if you're planning a holiday down the south coast, find a spot without WiFi.

First published in The Canberra Times/Fairfax Media, December 15, 2017

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

ABC anti-charter changes that shrink specialist radio shows

As we head into the festive season, one of the most religious times of the calendar year, ABC management has axed an important program that seriously explores the meaning of the season.

Axing the religion and ethics program Sunday Nights with John Cleary makes little sense from either an ABC charter or a ratings perspective. It's heard on the local radio network. Still going strong after three decades with a number of hosts, it rates its socks off, especially in Canberra. Its nationwide audience is between 300,000 and 400,000 - quite something for a program on between 10 at night and 2 in the morning.

Whereas most local radio programs deal with news, sport and lifestyle topics, this one deals with faith and the challenge of what I call 'living life together'. It is increasingly relevant in a culture that is becoming more narcissistic, gadget-oriented and anxiety-riddled. Rather than preach – anything, it provides a canvas for thoughtful conversations that go deeper than simple discussions about brands of religions.

Radio staff at the ABC passed a motion of no confidence last week citing "systemic failure" in senior radio management. Among areas of concern was the "continuing erosion of specialist programming in music, features and religion". They said it was "serious breach of the ABC Charter and a disservice to the Australian audiences that the ABC is funded to serve."

Sunday Nights wasn't axed because it was expensive. It's been run on a shoestring. I think the reason is ideological. For years, especially since the savage cuts to the ABC's religion unit in 2014, management have adopted a passive-aggressive approach to religious programs and a thinly veiled contempt for people interested in spirituality.

In the most recently published census, 61 per cent of us identified as being Christian and another 7 per cent as practicing another religion. That's a substantial audience to spurn.

Nightlife will now be broadcast seven nights a week, in an effort to smooth the weekend out. Expect even more breezy magazine content or party politics, because it's easy.

Complaints from senior clerics across all faiths have fallen on deaf ears. ABC Radio's new head of spoken content Judith Whelan has offered to meet with them, although it isn't clear what she could do. She arrived at the ABC after the decision had been made and came from the Sydney Morning Herald where she had run newspapers not radio stations.

Soon the only specialist broadcasts left on local radio will be those that deal with sport. They're regarded as so important that they displace PM when the cricket's on.

The ABC is increasingly confining whatever specialist programs it has to Radio National (RN), and even there it says they will soon (in the history of RN) be online only. RN has an informed but tiny audience. It's to get a panel-based hour long program to compensate for the loss of Sunday Nights called God Forbid. Management wants it to be, at times, comic. Let's see how long it lasts without being patronising.

Our world is becoming more complex and more perplexing. We need tools to understand the forces driving it. And there's no doubt religion is one of them. We need specialists and sophistication. Instead, the new breed of ABC managers seem to believe that everyone can do anything. Except for, most notably sport. It means religion gets ignored on mainstream outlets and sport gets given as many hours and as many specialists as needed. Newspapers have also axed their religion reporters. Whenever they do report on religion, it's about the failure of institutions.

Sunday Nights examines what underpins us. Amid the rise of nationalism built around crude stereotypes the program squares with the world while exploring powerful alternatives. Defence and security experts will be shaking their heads at the loss of a platform for exploration and respectful debate on topics including extremism and social alienation. Cleary has literally brought senior leaders of different faiths together, in the studio. Afterwards, they've kept talking.

In taking religion out of the mainstream the ABC is walking away from one of its central mandates, which is to talk about important things that others won't. Please ABC management, by all means review Sunday Nights, but don't throw out one of the few really worthwhile things local radio does.

A version of this was first published in The Canberra Times, 1 December, 2016