Patricia Sheridan's Breakfast With ... Dr. Leonard Sax


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Author of several books on gender issues, including "Boys Adrift" and "Girls on the Edge," Dr. Leonard Sax has explored hard-wired differences between the sexes and how parenting, education and social media have influenced children. He will be at the Ellis School at 6:30 p.m. today to discuss social media and girls. He and his wife have a daughter. The event is free, but the school requests registering at www.theEllisSchool.org/grow.

Has social media turned girls, in particular, into little PR agents for their own images?

Facebook has different outcomes for different young people, certainly. I will be talking about some newer research showing that on average the more time a girl spends on Facebook and the more Facebook friends she has, the more likely she is to become depressed. I will explore why that is so and why that appears not to be true for boys.

Do you think social media exaggerates the effects of peer pressure?

I'm not sure I'm comfortable with the term peer pressure because when I meet these teenage girls, as I did last week at Mother Teresa High School in Ottawa, the greatest pressure is not coming from their peers. It's coming from themselves. To the extent that boys are experiencing pressure, it is very common today to find that the daughter is very stressed and anxious and her brother is a goofball who is more concerned about getting to the next level in "Call of Duty" than about getting straight A's. That is particularly true for white, black and Latino boys in the United States. That is the focus of my book "Boys Adrift." I am reluctant to make any generalizations about girls in general or boys in general.

Don't you think your books do generalize to some extent?

Oh, I vigorously dispute that assertion. In "Boys Adrift," the phenomena I am describing certainly applies to a minority, less than half of boys. In the book I explore why some boys are affected and others are not. I talk about how in a single family you will find how this son is working hard and is engaged and motivated and his brother is not. His brother is a goofball who is staying in his bedroom playing video games. Same home, same parents, same resources, but very different outcomes for these two boys.

One of the main emphases in my book "Boys Adrift" is to help you understand why that is so. It's not random. It is usually very logical why this one boy is motivated and hard-working, and his brother is not.

What does motivate one child and not another?

That is indeed the focus of "Boys Adrift." My understanding is we don't have 90 minutes for this conversation. ... My topic in Pittsburgh will be "Facebook Ate My Daughter." We will only have time to focus on social media. I won't touch on the other issues at all. The secret to being a good presenter is to focus on one topic and deal with it well.

In "Girls," you talk about girls being sexualized far too young. How much of that is on the parents, and how much is related to exposure to social media?

Neither the parents nor social media have anything to do with the sexualization of girlhood. You know, 30 years ago if you wanted to buy a costume for your daughter for Halloween, you could choose between a bunch of grapes and a witch in a long black dress. Today when you go to Walmart you will find, yes, those outfits are still there, but you can also choose the Pussycats Doll outfit with the brassiere top, hot pants, fishnet panty hose and stiletto heels all suitable for an 8-year-old girl to wear. Why is Walmart doing this? It's not because of social media, and it's not because of parents.

When you say to your 8-year-old daughter who wants to buy this, "Well, how about the bunch of grapes outfit?" she'll say, "Daddy, only the fat girls are wearing those. All the cool girls are wearing this one."

I find a lot of parents think, "Oh, it's just pretend. It's just play. I don't see any problem with that. I don't want to be a prude or a Puritan" -- very derogatory terms in contemporary United States -- "and I certainly don't want people to think I'm a Republican, for goodness sake!"

So for many people who are to the left of the political center, the notion that telling their daughter that they can't dress up in the costume they prefer seems like, you know, Rush Limbaugh.

So is part of it parents wanting to be friends with their children rather than parenting?

Indeed. One issue I will address is the cell phone. The fact is that so many girls today are going to bed with their cell phone and that at 1 in the morning she is texting her friend. The parents don't know this is happening, and as a result the daughter is sleep-deprived. I say to the parents you need to take the phone from your son or your daughter at 9 o'clock at night and put it in the charger. The charger stays in the parents' bedroom. She can have it back the next morning. Your daughter won't like this.

A lot of parents are uncertain or unwilling to exercise their authority without seeming like a Republican or an idiot. I will say to parents: "This is your child. You must do this." This is not the era of Doris Day or Audrey Hepburn. This is the era of Lady Gaga and Rhianna. You have to allow your daughter to say, "My evil parents take my phone every night, and they won't let me have it back until the next morning." You have to be the evil parent. You can't be your child's friend in the sense of being a peer.

So where was the turning point? What happened that had parents not being the disciplinarians?

Well, 50 years ago was not the good old days. They were not. They were racist and sexist. Parenting styles of 40 years ago were not ideal. Parents 40 years ago would spank their kids. They would use corporal punishment. I don't endorse that. Every era has its challenges. I don't think we are facing up to ours.

What happened to single-sex schools in the United States?

Between 1967 and 1992, 85 percent of single-sex schools in the United States ceased to operate as single-sex schools. It's very much related to the abandonment of parental authority. Fifty years ago if parents said, "Son, you are going to the boys school," he was going to the boys school. His consent was not required.

Today, I find many parents, particularly middle-income and affluent parents, will ask their son or daughter: "Which school would you like to go to?" A 12- or 13-year-old is not competent to choose a high school. It is very unreasonable to expect most 13-year-olds in this country to say to their friends: "I'm not going with you to that high school. I am going to a different school, with kids I don't know because I think it's in my best long-term interest as a scholar."

breakfast

Patricia Sheridan can be reached at psheridan@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2613 or follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/pasheridan. First Published October 8, 2012 4:00 AM


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