Girls Under Pressure

Anyone who compares his own childhood with his son's or daughter's probably remembers less homework and many fewer scheduled events. Don't worry: You are not rewriting history. Today's kids -- especially girls, argues Roni Cohen-Sandler in Stressed-Out Girls: Helping Them Thrive in the Age of Pressure (Viking, $24.95) -- are being crowded from every direction. "The second I get home from school I start my homework and I work nonstop until dinnertime. I get headaches so much and I feel sick," complains one child whose parents sent her to Cohen-Sandler, a clinical psychologist. The girl is 10 years old.

Far too many other girls from middle school through high school are overstressed, Cohen-Sandler argues, the result of skyrocketing expectations on the part of parents and American culture as a whole. Her research finds that girls are much more conscious of those expectations than boys are, and much harder on themselves when they believe that they fall short. Even women's progress in the workplace has had the unintended side effect of adding to this pressure to succeed, writes the author. Many girls have as their role models mothers who struggle to manage a career while still being expected to manage traditional homemaker duties. Add to this the pressure to dress right and land a boyfriend, and you have a generation of girls who are often sleep-deprived, under-exercised, low on self-esteem and frustrated by the time they get to college.

Cohen-Sandler offers action plans for fostering resilience and decreasing the root causes of stress. This advice generally boils down to 1) encouraging parents to monitor the degree to which they are foisting their desires onto their daughters, and 2) giving girls a more realistic idea of how much schoolwork, extracurricular activity and socializing they should take on.

Boy Energy

Lest you think school-age boys have it easier than girls, Michael Gurian and Kathy Stevens argue that schools are exactly where boys are being most ill-served. The Minds of Boys: Saving Our Sons from Falling Behind in School and Life (Jossey-Bass, $24.95) comes on the heels of a number of recent books that look at how "boy energy" (a strangely ubiquitous term in parenting books) is being squandered and discouraged when it should be harnessed as the driving force of boys' desire to learn.

The authors -- Gurian is a social philosopher, family therapist and founder of the Gurian Institute, a teacher training organization, and Stevens is its training director -- blame educational practices rooted in 19th-century philosophies of education that assumed boys and girls learned in the same way. They advocate a return to a pre-Industrial Revolution system of male education, mostly in trade and farming classes, that encouraged mentorship and learning through doing.

Gurian and Stevens provide a tour of the innate differences of the male and female brains, shedding light on, among other things, boys' greater difficulty in learning when they're sedentary -- exactly the classroom posture we ask of our children. With more than 4 million young males diagnosed with attention-deficit disorders, Gurian advocates the use of cutting-edge brain scans to corroborate any finding of a learning disability. Many of his assertions depend on such recent technological innovations. For those with only a layman's grasp of the science, it's hard to tell if Gurian's conclusions are as final as he presents. If they are, however, his call for a reassessment of how we educate our sons is long overdue.

No Good Divorce

In Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce (Crown, $24.95), Elizabeth Marquardt's concern is the long-term effect of divorce on children, no matter how good the parents' intentions or how civilized the aftermath of their parting. Marquardt is an affiliate scholar at the Institute for American Values, "a private, nonpartisan organization devoted to contributing intellectually to the renewal of marriage and family life." She's also the child of a "good divorce" who, far from adopting the tone of a disinterested social scientist, puts her own sense of dislocation and loss at the center of her findings. Since the divorce survivors she writes about are alternately referred to as "they" and "we," it's difficult for the reader to tell if the author is a researcher or a subject. And yet her survey of 1,500 grown children of divorce yields compelling fodder for her argument that we believe children are not harmed by divorce because we need to believe it, not because it's true.

Marquardt also draws on 71 face-to-face interviews she had with children of divorce, many of which are described in needless detail ("She had a plateful of freshly baked brownies ready when I arrived at her apartment"). She believes that divorce passes onto the child the job of resolving the parents' essential differences, whereas parents who are together and at times disagree demonstrate to their children how to work through conflict and how differing points of view can coexist. Divorce leaves children unnaturally focused on their parents' moods and priorities at a time when they should be focused on their own.

Given the personal pain that Marquardt spreads through the pages of this book, it's hard to take at face value her claim that she does not intend to write a book against divorce or blame any parents who have subjected their children to it. She certainly makes exceptions for "high-conflict" marriages and circumstances in which a spouse or a child is endangered. But when she quotes a couple who have "an incredibly functional marriage" but divorce because one spouse is "troubled by their 'lack of connection,' " she makes a persuasive case against the culture of casual divorce.

Life without Dad

Marquardt doubtless would take issue with Peggy Drexler's conclusion in Raising Boys Without Men: How Maverick Moms are Creating the Next Generation of Exceptional Men (Rodale, $23.95). Drexler (writing with Linden Gross) claims that at least one group of children of divorce -- boys raised without fathers in the house -- not only turn out as well as their actively fathered peers, they turn out far better.

Welcome to the world of maverick moms, Drexler's rah-rah term for women raising boys on their own. In a culture too quick to say what family set-ups are and are not acceptable, Drexler's desire to defend female-led alternative arrangements is admirable. But her research as such -- investigating lesbian couples and their sons in their own homes -- is based on her own interviews with these mothers and sons, and a reader could be forgiven for asking if she isn't overselling her sense of their wellness. She has a maddening tendency to assume that a father-mother-child arrangement can exist only within the context of so-called traditional values. The scrutiny she gives to the many potential ills of such an arrangement seems out of kilter with the unsupported approbation she heaps on a maverick mom who "is there for her son Ian at every step, making sure he is becoming the person that he is meant to become -- not the person she wants him to be."

Really? At every step? Drexler blithely tells us that "boys who find substitute fathers in the sports world often profit from not having someone who insists that they tough something out." Sure, assuming every father fulfills masculine stereotypes and that Michael Jordan is available to help with math homework. Maybe our society does fail to give "credence to the fact that actual fathers can be destructive and a boy may be better off without his father." But an equal blindness is at work when we fail to recognize that the same could be said of mothers, sisters or, for that matter, pets. So forcefully does Drexler assert the benefit of a fatherless childhood that a father initially sympathetic to her position is likely to feel queasy and besieged by book's end.

Teens Hook Up

Sabrina Weill, a former editor of Seventeen magazine, surveyed more than a thousand youngsters between the ages of 12 and 17 for The Real Truth About Teens & Sex (Perigee, $23.95). And boy, do her subjects use a lot of exclamation marks! The book teases you with the promise of the truth about such parental hair-raisers as "friends with [sexual] benefits," "chicken [or oral sex] parties" and the spookily vague term "hooking up."

Although it delivers on this promise in varying degrees, the book puts the emphasis less on shocking detail than on how parents can decrease the odds that their teen will hook up with an FWB at a chicken party. In spite of the annoyingly frequent interruptions of "Exclusive National Survey Results -- Teens: Tell the Truth!," most of what these teens think about sex won't shock many readers. Weill's strength is her lack of condescension to her subjects and her ability to get them to tell her which, of all the things their parents say to them about sex, actually sticks with them. (From one teen: "I listened when my parents said, 'Do not let anyone push you into something you're not ready for.' ") Weill's association with Seventeen may explain the quick-cut, short-attention-span style of the book, but somewhere in the cacophony of teen voices is likely to be one that sounds just like your kid's. *

Mark Trainer teaches creative writing at Goucher College.