Childrearing

You Probably Aren’t Talking To Your Daughter About Math

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Mothers may swear up and down that they encourage their sons and daughters to engage in the same activities. We all might not describe our tactics as necessarily gender neutral or gender permissive, but most contemporary parents would find nothing wrong with seeing their little girl excel in mathematics. Yet, when it comes to a girls and math, a recent study purports that American mothers aren’t talking to their young daughters about numbers at all. But they are certainly chatting about those concepts with their little boys.

Miller-McCune recently reported on a study which hoped to examine the confidence boys felt for mathematics versus that of girls by elementary school age. After studying the natural conversations of mothers speaking to their children (ranging in age from 20 months to 27 months) both at home and in “laboratory free0play settings,” researchers found an alarming pattern. These American mommies were far more likely to introduce mathematical concepts to their sons than to their daughters, getting them familiar with numbers and counting at a very young age:

“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.”

The researchers tried to look towards other factors, besides sexism, to understand these findings. But even after looking into the possibility of mothers perhaps talking to daughters longer than sons, the likelihood for mathematical talk in boys versus girls remained the same. They explained that given this formative time in a child’s life, using this type of language or presenting them with basic mathematical concepts does have an impact on their familiarity and curiously:

“The specific words you use with your young children – especially in that crucial period between 18 and 22 months, when you’re in a vocabulary-learning boom – those are the words that they learn and understand and are most familiar with. Familiarity breeds liking. So even [when they’re] at  that young age, if you talk about numbers a lot, they’re going to get more interested, because that’s what they’re exposed to.”

And what surprised researchers about these findings is that the majority of the participants were upper-class or middle-class college graduates — or, in their words: ” a group that would be pretty aware of this type of issue and would like to avoid it.” But gender-stereotyping permeates in even the most progressive of households, as researchers noted that a lot of parents are engaging in this type of sexism without even being aware of it:

“It’s probably not something a parent is consciously doing. For whatever reason, you’re talking to your children differently without even realizing it. Our message to parents is: be aware that you might be unconsciously reinforcing stereotypes.”

Clearly, this message applies to not just behaviors but also what girls and boys are conditioned to value via toys, what words you choose when you discipline them (young boys generally aren’t told that they’re being too “bossy”), and what opportunities are presented to them because of their gender. We are all constantly at the receiving end of hyper-gendered messages through our media and entertainment, but — as the authors suggest — just being aware of these patterns makes all the difference.

(photo: Shutterstock)

5 Comments

  1. Eileen

    February 27, 2012 at 12:21 pm

    But does talking about numbers specifically really make much of a difference? My mother teaches middle school math; as kids my sisters and I definitely got a lot of math – but it wasn’t necessarily numbers. We did puzzles, played logic games, and other games that included a lot of the skills that helped us to excel in math (which we all did).

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