Girls on the Edge: The Four Factors Driving the New Crisis For Girls by Leonard Sax

Jul 5, 2013

One of the reasons I loved Boys Adrift so much (yes, I'm talking about that book again) is because I have three boys of my own, so it felt very applicable as well as necessary (because, honestly, who wants their sons to turn into 26-year-old men who still live with their parents and sit around playing video games all day? Not me.).

I read Leonard Sax's book about girls for different reasons. (Obviously. In case you haven't noticed, I am in the extreme minority in our house.) First, it was selected as June's reading for my education group. Second, I noticed how Boys Adrift helped me understand all boys better, not just my sons. I was hoping for the same result with girls. Third, I may (or may not) have a daughter one day. In that unlikely event, it's best to be prepared.

But the one reason that never entered my mind, but that now seems the most glaringly obvious, is that, hello, I'm a girl. Most days, I don't consider myself "on the edge," and I think that's why I didn't think about the book applying to me personally. But it did. I could see my past self (that 14-year-old Amy) reflected in several of the girls' stories. And I could also see how there was a lot of wisdom that I could still apply to my life today, right now.

"The four factors driving the new crisis for girls" (which I was too lazy to include in the title above) are: sexual identity, the cyberbubble, obsessions, and environmental toxins.

The chapter about sexual identity was difficult to listen to. I was shocked, shocked I tell you, to hear about all the shallow, meaningless ways that teenage girls today are using their bodies. This is not one of the parts of the book I related to. As a teenager, I lived a very sheltered and naive life (in many ways, I still do), and if this type of behavior was going on with my peers, I honestly knew very little about it. It makes me sick and sad to know that so many girls feel uncomfortable with who they are and feel the need to present an image or persona of someone they're not.

I definitely would not say I felt comfortable in my own skin when I was 14. I felt awkward and insecure and ugly and stupid, but at the same time, I think I realized that my problems would only get worse, far worse, if I tried to be someone I wasn't or tried to get attention in an unhealthy way. One thing I can say for myself during those years is that I was, for the most part, very genuine.

That said, the chapter that my 14-19 year-old self related most to was the one about obsessions. He talked about eating disorders, sports, and academics as all being things that girls obsess over. For me, I didn't care one whit about what food I ate (or how much) or how athletic I was (that was a lost cause), but I did care A LOT about academics--about being the one who could play anything on the piano, answer questions intelligently, and make good choices. In the end, I think I came through okay (and avoided so many of the joint problems Dr. Sax mentions), but looking back, I can see there were many times when that desire for perfection translated into a physical need that I had to appease.

In another section of the book, Dr. Sax talked extensively about the benefits of single-sex education. This was a topic he also spent a great deal of time on in Boys Adrift. He related a lot of research in both books about why boys learning with other boys and girls learning with other girls is so beneficial--and the reasons are totally different. For boys, they're able to focus more on competition and kinesthetic learning. Girls are able to focus more on the emotional aspects of their subjects and also not worry so much about what others are thinking about them.

Of course one of the natural questions that arise from single-sex education is, "How can we possibly prepare kids for the real world if we separate them? The real world is made up of men and women working together." Dr. Sax addressed this issue over and over again. I found this subject particularly interesting when he was talking about sports and how much more dangerous it is for girls to coached in the same way as boys.

He said: "In the gym, as in the classroom, we teach girls pretty much the same way we teach boys, simply because there hasn't been much serious consideration that maybe what works best for boys might not always be the best way for girls. I still encounter suspicion when I suggest that girls should be taught differently, either in the classroom or on the playing field. Any such suggestion may elicit the response, 'Are you suggesting that girls can't do what the boys can do?' But ignoring differences between girls and boys doesn't provide a level playing field. As we will see, it often puts girls at a disadvantage and at risk."

This is what I find so interesting: here we are, trying to make everything fair and equal, and in reality, in many cases, we're putting both boys and girls at a disadvantage because it is so difficult to find satisfactory middle ground.

I have to say that the more I read about single-sex education, the more I like it. I don't think it's necessarily the best option for all children, but as Dr. Sax points out, if you have at least three classrooms per grade, why not make one of them all girls, one all boys, and the third one co-ed? Each child learns so differently anyway, why don't we make it a little easier on ourselves (and on teachers) by focusing teaching methods so they are more gender specific? And as far as making sure girls and boys know how to work together, he gives several examples where the actual subject is taught to boys and girls separately but then they come together for all sorts of other activities where they can just have fun and socialize and work together.

Since I don't have any children in school yet, I really can't speak to any of this, but I do know that if, in the future, one of my boys is struggling in school, I would definitely consider finding a single-sex classroom or school (which will be mighty difficult in Utah) or organizing a group of like-minded parents to request that some changes be made (or, I might just homeschool...).

Moving on...

One of my favorite chapters in the book was the one about spirituality and finding good role models among all generations of women. He made a similar point in Boys Adrift, but it didn't mean as much personally to me then.

This time, I easily recognized how my life has been so blessed by the amazing women I've had the privilege of learning from and befriending during my life. Dr. Sax said that every girl should have a few really good friends (at most, five), and that these should be made up of one or two girls her own age, her mom, an aunt or cousin, and/or another unrelated woman in the neighborhood or community.

This advice struck a personal chord with me because this is exactly what I had as a teenager: I had a couple of really good friends that were my same age; my mom was probably my closest confidant; but I also had several other women (my sewing teacher, my organ teacher, and a teacher from church) who I easily related to and loved spending time with.

When I mentioned at the beginning of this review that there was a lot of wisdom in this book that I felt like I could still apply to my life today, this was the part of the book I was referring to. My life is still richly blessed every day by the wide variety of women I count in my group of closest friends.

Dr. Sax mentioned that it is easiest to find and cultivate these diverse friendships if you belong to some type of group or organization which includes women from all ages and walks of life. I can certainly see that the women's organization in my church (the Relief Society) has facilitated and encouraged many of my friendships as I have learned from and served with many other women. I have always loved being a part of Relief Society, but reading this book cast it in a whole new light, and I appreciated it even more.

Before I wrap up this once-again-far-too-lengthy review, I just want to say one word (give or take, haha) about the audio. This was my first attempt at listening to something at double speed. I have to admit, I was afraid to do it. I've played audiobooks on double speed before, but it always sounded so fast that I literally turned it back to regular speed after no more than three seconds.

But then last week, Janssen wrote a post about how to listen to books on double speed, and she said that after you listen for a bit, your brain will adjust to the new speed. I decided to give it another try. I committed myself to listen to at least five minutes of this book at double speed, and if it still sounded like a train wreck, I would give up.

But wonder of wonders, after less than a minute, I totally didn't even notice how fast the narrator was speaking. In fact, she sounded almost normal. I could still hear her inflections and emphases and accents just as if I were listening to it at a normal speed. It was incredible. And I literally flew through the book (or as Janssen so aptly put it, I zipped through it like a book-reading ninja). (And now, of course, I'm kicking myself for not figuring this out when I was listening to Gone With the Wind last summer. Double speed would have made that narrator sound normal.)

Even though there was some repetition between Boys Adrift and Girls on the Edge, I found it very enlightening to read both of them. Hey, if I read Dr. Sax's third book, Why Gender Matters, can I count those three books as the trilogy I need to complete one of my goals?


  1. SO saving this one for future reference.

  2. This book sounds fascinating! I've never even considered single-sex classrooms, but it totally makes sense. I think I would have learned better with other girls and not been so self-conscious in class around the guys.

  3. This sounds like a fascinating (and informative) read. I have to say, having a daughter sort of terrifies me sometimes. (Ok, a lot of times!)

  4. I've read "Why Gender Matters" and from what you've said about the other two books I think it might feel a little repetitious to you. I'm guessing he wrote that and then decided to elaborate in a book for each sex. If memory serves he mainly spoke about the physiological reasons behind the different ways in which girls and boys learn. I'm sure there was more to it than that but that makes up the bulk of my memory of it. It wasn't too long though, so if you read/listen to it I'll be interested in your thoughts as always:)

    1. I'm sure it would feel repetitious (this one did, too, to a certain extent), but I usually need the repetition! :-) If I end up reading it, it probably won't be for awhile.

  5. I'm definitely going to read this one! And I'm so happy you tried out double speed :)


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