Leonard Sax and the Girl Problem

Back in the 1990s, Leonard Sax began to notice in more and  more familiies “from every economic condition where the daughter is hardworking and motivated while her brother is a goofball: he’s more concerned about getting to the next level in his video game than he is about getting a good grade on his Spanish final.” His observations led to a widely-cited book Boys Adrift (see here for info).  It joins works by Richard Whitmire, Peg Tyre, and others in establishing general acceptance of a ”boy problem” among American teens today, particularly as measured by their academic achievement relative to girls.

Now, Sax has a new book out entitled Girls on the Edge: The Four Factors Driving the New Crisis for Girls (see here for details). In it, he draws a far-reaching distinction between the troubles with girls and the troubles with boys.

“Both the girls and the boys are disadvantaged, but they’re disadvantaged in different ways.  More and more boys are developing an epicurean ability to enjoy themselves—to enjoy video games, pornography, food, and sleep—but they often don’t have the drive and motivation to succeed in the real world outside their bedroom. More and  more of their sisters have that drive and motivation in abundance—but they don’t know how to relax, how to have fun and enjoy life. For many of these girls, each accomplishment is only a stepping-stone to the next goal.”

Their ambition produces an “obsessive drive,” Sax maintains. And their obsession with achievement spills over into destructive concerns and behaviors.

For one thing, they “are getting sexier earlier.” For girls, sexual personae, clothing, language, and media that would have been characteristic of 16-year-olds a few decades ago have reached down to the tween years.

Two, they occupy a “cyberbubble.” Social media take up loads of their time, and they’ve got to look good in them. For instance, Sax writes, “Girls know that if they want their social networking site to be popular, then that site needs to include lots of photos. Funny photos are good; sexy photos are better, as long as the photos aren’t skanky.” Unfortunately, too, their parents don’t mind. Sax quotes one father: “But kids need to be comfortable in the digital world. This is the 21st century.  This is the technology they will use at college and the workplace. Why shouldn’t she develop her proficiency.”

And then there are the known pathologies: eating disorders, exercising to the point of bodily injury, self-destructive perfectionism, “cutting” (estimated now at or above 20 percent), and, perhaps surprisingly, drunkenness.

Finally, Sax notes a disturbing phenomenon: For a girl to start puberty at age eight is now considered “within the range of normal.” He examines research indicating that environmental toxins have induced it, including plastics used in food containers such as baby bottles. Sax takes one example to indicate the emotional consequence of the trend:

“By the time she was 11, Olivia could easily pass for a girl of 15 or even 17 years of age.  She was attracting whistles and comments and other unwanted attention from boys at the mall. Her body might have looked like the body of a 15-year-old, but she had the emotional maturity of an 11-year-old, because she was an 11-year-old. Most 11-year-old girls who look 15 are not ready to handle the attention they may attract when they go to the mall or the beach.”

What happens is a loss of “middle childhood,” a period of growing self-awareness best managed without the complications of sexuality.

Sax has one suggestion that I think is crucial. Girls need to have contact with responsible women, not just their mothers. He notes the number of such meeting places in the past—”quilting circles, sewing circles, all-female Bible study groups, all-female book groups, Girl Scout troops.” They put 13-year-olds in touch with 33-year-olds, effectively drawing them away from peer fixations and peer pressure. As Sax says, “Girls teaching same-age girls what it means to be a woman is a new phenomenon in human history.” The old passages in which elders guide juniors into adulthood have largely broken down (and digital tools are the main culprit in recent years). Parents of tween and teen girls, whom I’ve heard bemoaning their impotence, would do well to check this book.

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