When My Daughter Said Math Was Her Brother's 'Thing'
My seventh-grade advanced algebra teacher was a woman. I remember well the familiar overwhelm that took hold at the beginning of each new school year in math. They kept putting me in advanced classes, and I kept panicking that I was in over my head, in the wrong place. I always thought this would be the year I proved to everyone I wasn’t as good at math as anyone thought. I was good at drawing, reading, and writing. It didn’t make sense to me that I’d also be good at math.
But my seventh-grade math teacher changed the way I thought about my ability to do math. First of all, she was female herself. Second, she reminded the class that math is a subject that builds on previous learning. “You’re never going to suddenly jump to some new concept that is way beyond what you’re capable of,” she told us. She gave me and other girls in the class extra encouragement. The boys in my class already believed they would excel at math. The girls needed to be taught to believe it.
Nearly three decades have passed since my seventh-grade algebra class, and it seems not much has changed. At least not for my 10-year-old daughter Mari. While we were practicing multiplication flashcards before bed the other night, she kept stumbling on the eights and nines. I wasn’t worried about it, since I know learning the times tables by heart is merely a question of repetition. But Mari released a frustrated sigh and said, “I’m just not good at math. I’m better at artistic stuff.” She said that though she’s good at art and writing, math is not “her” thing—it’s her brother’s thing.
Mari has always seen her big brother Lucas, four years her senior, as “better at math.” She neglects to consider the fact that the four years he has on her in age equates to four more years of math practice. And, yes, Lucas does happen to have a knack for math. Still, I think part of the reason Lucas “has a knack” is because he always believed he could. And though I recognize that much of Mari’s lack of math confidence is situational—she looks up to her brother and sees him as too far ahead to catch up to—I know that much of her insecurity is also due to gender stereotypes.
The long-held assumption is that boys are better at math and science, and girls are better at reading, writing, and art. But numerous studies have been done to test gender differences across subjects, and though very small differences are often noted, when analysts control for variables like age, socioeconomic status, general performance, type of test, or type of skill, the differences are muddied enough to become almost negligible.
The stereotype may not hold up, but that doesn’t erase it—the supposed differences in capability and interests between boys and girls colors just about every aspect of our lives, from advertising to the clothes sold to kids to the implicit biases teachers and parents subconsciously harbor about gender. Hell, I’ve even had to catch myself when talking about potential careers for my kids. I have found myself encouraging an engineering path for my son and a creative writing path for my daughter. Their interests do lean that way, but that could be simply because their father is an engineer and their mother is a writer, and we’ve all inadvertently played into their mimicry of the same-gender parent. Their skillsets don’t clearly suggest either path, so I need to do better about being clear that their career options are wide open.
The night my daughter concluded she wasn’t good at math, I gave her a firm but loving lecture about how she can be good at anything she works hard at and to never tell herself she “can’t.” I talked about gender stereotypes and reminded her once again that her brother has four years on her in the math department, so naturally it will seem he’s much better at math. But the truth is, I told her, her big bro also struggled with memorizing his times tables, and at the same age as her, too. She’s not behind, and she’s certainly not deficient in any way.
Incredibly, mere minutes after that lecture, Mari’s memorization with the multiplication flashcards improved. Her confidence restored, she blew through the rest of the stack. The talk reminded me how important it is that I not become complacent about the harm that seemingly innocuous gender stereotypes can do. When it comes to mastering a skill, inner monologue is important—the belief that you’re capable is so, so important.
Somewhere along the way (let’s be honest: at many points along the way) Mari got the idea that since she’s good at “girly” things, she must not also be able to be good at math. Not only did she fall into the gender stereotype trap, she also fell into another erroneous assumption that you can’t be good at many subjects. That’s hogwash too, and my telling her as much noticeably improved not only her confidence, but her performance.
Our kids don’t have to fit into a box. Not a gender box and not a performance box. They are not limited. Their brains are amazing and flexible and capable of so much more than stereotypes and our subconscious biases give them credit for. I’ll keep reminding my kids that they are limited only by their own beliefs about what they’re capable of, so that hopefully, once another three decades have passed, neither of them is writing an article similar to this one.
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