Moms Don’t Frazzle Their Daughters with Fancy Math-Speak

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It turns out there's a perfectly reasonable explanation behind the glaring under-representation of women in science- and math-related fields and, despite what Larry Summers would have you believe, it has absolutely nothing to do with aptitude — it's all about conditioning, specifically, the manner and frequency with which mothers talk to their daughters about math.


Tom Jacobs of Miller-McCune Magazine recently interviewed Alicia Chang, a postdoctoral student in child development at the University of Deleware's School of Education, about a 2011 study in which she and two colleagues examined whether American mothers gave their sons and daughters different messages about math. "By grade school," explain Chang and her colleagues,

boys are very confident at math, and girls are saying boys are better at math. The issue isn't actual performance but perception of competence. We hypothesized that by the time you're in grade school, you might like math because your mother was more likely to talk to you about it when you were very, very young.

Wait, if parents avoid math homework like it's a notoriously unvaccinated, nose-picking child on the playground, their kids might be that much more discouraged from long division? Enjoying — or at the bare minimum, being proficient at — math seems to require a Herculean effort of parental diligence on behalf all kids, not just the ones with Y-chromosomes, so it's a shame that young girls, according to Chang and her colleague's research, aren't benefiting from that kind of attention and are, as a consequence, falling behind their penis-toting counterparts.

Even [when their children are] as young as 22 months, American parents draw boys' attention to numerical concepts far more often than girls'. Indeed, parents speak to boys about number concepts twice as often as they do girls. For cardinal-numbers speech, in which a number is attached to an obvious noun reference - "Here are five raisins" or "Look at those two beds" - the difference was even larger. Mothers were three times more likely to use such formulations while talking to boys.

Mothers, moreover, don't set out to purposely keep the wonderful world of fractions and integers from their daughters — it just sort of happens, an unconscious avoidance that negatively affects girls' math confidence in later years until, much later on, they in turn dash the hopes of the next generation of lady mathematicians by being so self-conscious about their own math skills that they can't even draw a long division symbol let alone touch a pre-calculus textbook for fear that the awesome Newtonian knowledge will singe their delicate fingertips. The low number of women in math-intensive fields has nothing to do with aptitude — it's a vicious cycle of warped perception fed to generation after generation of girls who'd make fine mathematicians, astrophysicists, biochemists, or bookies if their parents would just suck it up and sit down over an algebra workbook for a fun evening of equation parsing. Yay, math for all the genders!

Study: Mother-Daughter Talk Needs More Math [Miller-McCune]

Mothers Talk Less To Young Daughters About Math [NY Times]

Image via Cheryl Casey/Shutterstock.



You know, this makes a lot of sense on an anecdotal level. My cousin is something of a math genius (she got into a very exclusive summer camp for math and science), and her parents have always encouraged her to ask questions relating to real-world math. For instance, my uncle told a great story at her Bat Mitzvah about that. They were driving on the highway one day, and she turned to my uncle out of nowhere and asked, "How far apart are those electric posts and who gets to decide?" My uncle's response was, "I don't know, let's look it up," and it turned into an adventure.

I really wish more parents would answer kids' questions with, "let's look it up" instead of, "I don't know and stop asking." It's not just about math, it's about getting kids used to researching early on and learning that it's OKAY not to know all the answers.