Math Avoidance and Gender

Girl doing mathAn interesting study was done on gender and how it affects the way we talk with our children about math.

I suspect this effect is not limited to math. The study discovered that often when a girl brought home a good grade on a math assignment, parents were very likely to praise her “hard work and effort” in doing so well and say, “Good job!” Conversely, when a boy brought home that same good grade, they would praise his “natural or innate ability” or say, “You are really good at that!”

Are these terrible things to say to a child? Of course not: Until you examine the subtext, which of course, these researchers did.

They found that the parents had unwittingly given daughters praise for their work and sons praise for their talent

This often led to future decisions by girls to avoid advanced math courses that were challenging because they perceived them as difficult and just “more hard work and an opportunity for failure,” while boys often regarded them as something they were “good at” and would “naturally do well in.” I extrapolate that the same thing could happen for boys in the verbal and written skills.

Innate confidence levels could be adversely affected in both sexes based on the seemingly positive things their parents and teachers had said with the very best intentions.

Did the parents and teachers mean to do this? Of course not! It just happened as easily and naturally as it has for decades with a few exceptions where parents (fathers in particular) have broken that mold and expected their daughters to do exceptional work in math and science because they too, “were good at it.”

How do parents stop giving subliminal messages to our kids that limit their options, and instead open them up to try everything without judgment from us or themselves as to whether they are “good at it” or not? 

In traditional parenting roles, it will take fathers doing math with their daughters because they “enjoy how their math minds work,” and mothers writing and reading with sons because they “treasure the poetry or stories that come from their creative guys.” Then we must switch those roles around so the opposite parent helps with math, etc. It will take breaking the stereotypes and finding different ways to connect with our kids for the purpose of learning.

As my daughters progressed through elementary school, I had already fallen into the “Oh, you did such good work” routine I am warning you about. They were already getting the “Boys are naturally good at math” message at school and other places!

In order to help them with math, (you see, I assumed they would need it because I had needed it) I enrolled in the local community college and took math courses from Pre-Algebra all the way through College Algebra. I let them see me studying and taking tests and doing well. Unfortunately, I did not dispel their basic distaste for math – (I think I was too late, but it might not be too late for you!) but I did role model a few good things.

  • It is never too late to learn.
  • Girls are not bad at math – I had a 4.0 GPA
  • In order to succeed in anything you must be organized and study – it doesn’t just happen! 

It turned out that both of the girls are exquisite writers. Daughter One was an award winner as early as fifth grade.  She is now exercising that eloquence in her future career as a lawyer.  Daughter Two’s essay writing was probably a large part of why she was accepted to a selective university and now she is representing her graduate nursing program at a national level, based on her essay about excellence in nursing.

However, they discovered that logic was a large part of preparing for law school and nursing is all about measurements! They both needed far more mathematical thinking skills than they expected they would.

Encourage your children to experiment with math, science,  writing and reading, and if you are able, support local programs which provide outlets for tutoring to lower socioeconomic children in your area.

It is a worthy investment!

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