Girls and the Hard Sciences
My grandfather never started a carpentry project around the house without a grandkid in tow. He knew it would take twice the time and the corners would be less than square, but for him it was worth the imperfections to have the company of his grandchildren and to teach them "something useful."
What I would later appreciate was that this enthusiasm was gender blind. Boy or girl mattered less than "learning how not to make a fool of yourself around tools." My cousin was especially fond of the "measure twice, cut once" maxim because she loved measuring and counting games. She and her father did math puzzles and word problems for fun, and now she teaches physics.
Girls, Math and Science
Girls remain as underrepresented among math prizewinners as their mothers in the ranks of tenured college professors of math and sciences. This inequity is not a healthy model for girls. While glacial improvement is being made, moms and dads need to take on this issue more seriously at home and at school, if their daughters are to feel welcome and competent in the worlds of math and science.
The groundbreaking work of Harvard's Carol Gilligan shows us that this interest is especially important to support in elementary school. Bob Ballard, who discovered the sunken ocean liner Titanic and founded the Jason Project for budding scientists, agrees, saying, "Grab them in the fourth grade when they all love it—and they'll still be loving it in the 10th grade."
The Father-Daughter Connection
University of Michigan's Norma Radin found a positive connection between fathers' involvement in their preschool daughters' lives and the daughters' eventual competence in mathematics. Lora Tessman, a Boston psychiatrist, observed this connection when she interviewed the first women undergraduates to attend M.I.T in the early 1970s. She found a high rate of involvement of fathers in their daughters' lives. More importantly, the women attributed some of their success to their fathers' positive feelings about their competence, their native curiosity and their ability to succeed.
The Connection to Math Competence
Research shows that girls with involved fathers tend to stay competent in math and science at higher rates than those with less involved or absent dads. This holds true even if the father is just involved with his daughter's life, and not necessarily in ways that specifically promote math or science competence.
That men's traditional interest is more analytical and less linguistic may be what supports their daughters' innate math interests and abilities. Though moms are equally capable of supporting their daughters' mathematical leanings, there seems to be added value when her father is meaningfully involved in her life.
Support Your Daughters
These suggestions are important to the development of your daughters' healthy curiosity, regardless of the presence of a father in her life:
- Start early supporting your daughter's innate curiosity about how the world works. As toddlers, boys and girls are born naturalists and collectors. Be aware of the tendency to discourage girls while supporting boys: Girls don't play with yucky bugs! Boys like spiders and snakes.
- Be attentive to your daughter’s media habits and appetites. There is superb math and science programming for the young. Watch such programs with your girls, and enliven it for them with questions and comments.
- Video games can also support a girl's eye-hand coordination, as well as math problem-solving skills.
- Visit her math and science classes, workshops and fairs, and be alert to teachers and curricula that are not attuned to your daughter’s interests in math and science.
Dr. Kyle Pruett is Clinical Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale Child Study Center and School of Medicine. He is also past president of Zero to Three, the nation's largest think tank, research and policy center for the first three years of life. His most recent book is Fatherneed: Why Father Care is as Essential as Mother Care for Your Child.
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