Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Book Review: Girls on the Edge: The Four Factors Driving the New Crisis for Girls, by Leonard Sax

Girls on the Edge: The Four Factors Driving the New Crisis for Girls: Sexual Identity, The Cyberbubble, Obsessions, Environmental Toxins
by Leonard Sax, M.D., Ph.D.
Basic Books (a member of the Perseus Book Group)
258 pages 

There were parts of this book that had me feeling like I was on the edge of a parental cliff, ready to topple over.  I mean, this parenting gig ... there's just so much to think about and to consider, you know? 

As my mother is fond of saying, "I'm so glad you're almost 42."  Meaning that she is glad that she isn't raising me in this day and age, in the era of cyberbullying (because I definitely would have been a cyberbullied kid, no doubt about it) or with the prevalence of chemicals in our sippy cups and juice boxes, and a host of other issues to worry about that weren't on our radar in the 1970s and 1980s. 

But, as Leonard Sax says in Girls on the Edge, this is the world in which we live and the world in which we are raising our daughters.  (The same risks are also there for our sons, of course; it's just that they are different in several significant ways for our girls.)

Sax identifies sexual identity, the cyberbubble, obsessions, and environmental toxins as four factors that are causing more girls than ever before to become depressed and to turn toward self-destructive behaviors.  He presents each issue in detail, with supporting case stories from his psychology practice as well as visits to schools throughout the United States and all over the world.  While these issues are familiar ones, the insights Sax provides were surprising to me and are ones that make this a must-read for anyone raising a girl or working with girls in any capacity. 

The most striking issue to me was the chapter on environmental toxins and how the prevalence of such chemicals, such as bisphenol A (BPA) may be responsible for causing early onset of puberty in some girls.  I've read about this, but never had this issue explained in such a way as Dr. Sax does in Girls on the Edge. 

"BPA is used to make just about every kind of hard plastic, such as a typical baby's bottle. It's also the main ingredient in the resin that lines the inside of the can in most canned foods, such as soup, ravioli, tuna, and vegetables.  It's produced in staggering quantities: more than six billion pounds are manufactured every year. Many studies suggest that humans are exposed to BPA in doses that can mimic the action of female hormones. 

[An] expert panel convened by the NIH agreed that BPA acts like a female hormone in the human body at the kind of exposures that normal people encounter in everyday life, such as eating half a small can of tuna fish, or eating half a small can of pasta.  They agreed that BPA acts like a female hormone in the human body in concentrations of one part per trillion. They concluded that at least 90 percent of people in developed countries have BPA in their tissues at concentration s at or above the threshold that BPA acts like a female hormone .... The expert panel concluded that there is a 'great cause for concern' that exposure to BPA is contributing to 'the early onset of puberty in girls.'" (pg. 107)

That's some downright frightening shit. We don't eat much canned foods (with the exception of canned beans, which will likely now change).  But this hit me in even more of a significant way when Sax went on to write that, in 2009, Minnesota was the first state to implement a similar ban as Canada's, which states that all baby products (such as plastic bottles and sippy cups) made with BPA are banned.  

My kids drink from their plastic cups (without the lids) at every meal. 

The unlidded sippy cups have been somewhat nostalgic, I think, for them (and frankly, for us too). But I had no clue that they were akin to a cup of poison. 

(This is about the time when I stepped onto the edge of the parental cliff while reading Girls on the Edge.)

The sippy cups are now in the recycling bin, where they should have been long ago.  I'm kicking myself for this and feeling incredible parental guilt, but all we can do is move forward and become education.  You can bet that, just like William Daniels talking to Dustin Hoffman's character in "The Graduate," plastics will be my new word for 2011. 

Sax understand that much of this is news to parents, and he doesn't present these issues and findings in an accusatory way.  Instead, he gives specific strategies for dealing with each of these factors, which were helpful ones.  (I was expecting generic platitudes like, "monitor your daughter's Internet and social media use."  Indeed, that's part of it ... but Sax suggests one way to do this is for your daughter to hand over her cell phone every night at 10 p.m. to be charged in the parents' bedroom.  That way, you know if there are texts coming through at all hours of the night and your daughter knows that you have to capability to monitor such goings-on.) 

In addition to the findings on the environmental toxins, I was also struck by the chapter that discussed sports and how a girl's body is different than that of a boy's.  (I mean, obviously I knew that ... but the differences go way beyond the obvious.)  We are not a sports family, and Betty doesn't show much inclination towards participating in team sports or activities like cheerleading (which is completely fine with me), but if she does, I'll be revisiting this section in Girls on the Edge because of the food for thought that Sax presents.

A few final thoughts that resonated with me:   

"In matters of the spirit, as in education, and in athletics, simply lifting the strategies that have been used for boys and applying them to girls, in gender-blind fashion, doesn't work reliably or well for many girls.  We have to recognize that girls need girl-specific interventions .... If girls are not healthy spiritually, they may find themselves not so much living as performing .... [t]he technology of social networking sites, instant messaging, and texting makes it easy for girls to think they are living their own lives when in fact they are really putting on a show for their peers." (pg. 209)

Living authentically and with a sense of spirit is a recurring theme in Girls on the Edge. 

"Parenting is an art, not a science. Sometimes you have to push your daughter into unfamiliar territory when she would rather be sheltered at home.  Sometimes you have to shelter her at home when she would rather spend spring break with the cool kids getting drunk at the beach. And the right decision this year may be not-quite-right next year.

When she is young, you may need to challenge her, gently pushing her out of her comfort zone so that she can explore her world. That may be the only way that she can discover her strengths and her weaknesses.  Help her to develop that sense of agency, of being able to create, to imagine, to take the initiative.

The onset of puberty is likely to change her.  Don't back away even when she tells you to get lost.  Speak to her the words of the poet:

Dig into yourself...
Go into yourself and find out how deep is the place from which your life springs;
at its source you will find the answer to your question." (pg. 211-212)  

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Peppermint Ph.D. said...

My oldest daughter has been in therapy for almost a year now for diagnosed OCD...not the handwashing kind, but the perfectionist kind. Many of the things this author is talking about are things we've discussed with both her doctor and therapist. Our brains were never meant to be stimulated 24/7 but that's the world our children are growing up in. If you haven't read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, that's another good place to really open your eyes about what we are putting into our bodies each and every day. There is even a discussion of a certain chemical (whose name I can't even pronounce) which is used as a common preservative in the foods we eat and has been linked to higher instances of anxiety disorders etc. (I'm sure I'm saying that wrong so hopefully you understand me) I read it this summer and immediately started trying to change some of our eating habits as much as possible and like you felt guilty about all this poison I'd been unknowingly feeding my children. Kingsolver also doesn't preach or tell you what you should do; she just presents the evidence and tells her family's story. I want to read Girls on the Edge as well...sounds fascinating.

Elizabeth said...

I will pass this along to my friends who have girls.

Although I'm familiar with the plastics disaster, I'm wondering what I might do for my daughter Sophie (who is severely disabled due to epilepsy). Although fifteen, she can only drink from a sippee cup which she has done, now, her entire life. Oy. What would I replace it with?

Amy said...

This book sounds really fascinating. I am not a parent and hope to never be a parent, but I still find the books about girls and raising them to be really interesting. Thanks for putting this on my radar.

Also, Slow Death by Rubber Duck which I recently read and reviewed had a chapter on BPA. It also talked about other chemicals kids have issues with. You might enjoy it :)

K A B L O O E Y said...

Oh. boy. I would like to put my head in the sand, but I think I'm going to have to read this book.