Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Study: Mother-Daughter Talks Need More Math

• February 23, 2012 • 4:00 AM

Why do young girls lack confidence in math? One study shows American parents are far more likely to talk numbers with young sons than daughters.

In 2005, then-Harvard University President Lawrence Summers wondered aloud whether the lack of women in science- and math-related careers reflected a difference in aptitude between the genders. His comments spawned outrage, debate, and, thanks to Alicia Chang, an interesting new line of research. A postdoctoral student focusing on early childhood development at the University of Delaware’s School of Education, Chang had been comparing the ways American and Chinese parents speak to their children. Summers’s statement inspired Chang and two colleagues to also examine whether American mothers gave their sons and daughters different messages when it came to math. She discussed their troubling results, first published in the December 2011 issue of the Journal of Language and Social Psychology, with Miller-McCune’s Tom Jacobs.

The issue
“By grade school, 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.”

[class name="dont_print_this"]

The March-April 2012
Miller-McCune

March-April 2012 Miller-McCuneThis article appears in our March-April 2012 issue under the title “Why Janie Can’t Count” To see a schedule of when more articles from this issue will appear on Miller-McCune.com, please visit the
March-April magazine page.[/class]

The data
“We had a rich data set of lots of naturalistic conversations from the Child Language Data Exchange System. They are either home observations or laboratory free-play settings featuring mothers and their children, who ranged in age from 20 to 27 months. Mothers were told to talk to their child in a natural way. The conversations were either video or audio recorded and then transcribed.”

The key findings
“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 interpretation
“I thought if we found a difference, we could probably explain it in some way. Perhaps the mothers just talked to their girls more [than to their boys]. But we looked at the overall length of the transcripts, and [conversations] didn’t differ [between] genders. Because these effect sizes are so strong, I don’t think they can be explained by any other factor. We don’t think this is due to some cultural factors. The majority of mothers were upper-middle-class college graduates. That’s a group that would be pretty aware of this type of issue and would like to avoid it.”

The importance of these findings

“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.”

The need to catch yourself

“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.”


Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 1 • 2:00 PM

Most People With Addiction Simply Grow Out of It. Why Is This Widely Denied?

The idea that addiction is typically a chronic, progressive disease that requires treatment is false, the evidence shows. Yet the “aging out” experience of the majority is ignored by treatment providers and journalists.


October 1 • 1:00 PM

Midlife Neuroticism Linked to Alzheimer’s Disease in Old Age

New research from Sweden suggests that the personality dimension is connected to who ultimately suffers from late-in-life dementia.



October 1 • 11:11 AM

The Creative Class Boondoggle in Downtown Las Vegas

On Tony Hsieh and the pseudoscience of “collisions.”


October 1 • 9:14 AM

Mysterious Resting State Networks Might Be What Allow Different Brain Therapies to Work

Deep brain stimulation and similar treatments target the hubs of larger resting-state networks in the brain, researchers find.


October 1 • 6:00 AM

Would You Like a Subscription With Your Coffee?

A new app hopes to unite local coffee shops while helping you find a cheap cup of good coffee.


October 1 • 4:00 AM

How to Plant a Library

Somewhere outside of Oslo, there are 1,000 newly planted spruce trees. One hundred years from now, if everything goes to plan, they’ll be published together as 100 pieces of art.



September 30 • 10:09 AM

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.


September 30 • 8:00 AM

The Psychology of Penmanship

Graphology: It’s all (probably) bunk.



September 30 • 6:00 AM

The Medium Is the Message, 50 Years Later

Five decades on, what can Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media tell us about today?


September 30 • 4:00 AM

Grad School’s Mental Health Problem

Navigating the emotional stress of doctoral programs in a down market.


September 29 • 1:21 PM

Conference Call: Free Will Conference


September 29 • 12:00 PM

How Copyright Law Protects Art From Criticism

A case for allowing the copyright on Gone With the Wind to expire.


September 29 • 10:00 AM

Should We Be Told Who Funds Political Attack Ads?

On the value of campaign finance disclosure.


September 29 • 8:00 AM

Searching for a Man Named Penis

A quest to track down a real Penis proves difficult.


September 29 • 6:00 AM

Why Do So Many People Watch HGTV?

The same reason so many people watch NCIS or Law and Order: It’s all a procedural.


September 29 • 4:00 AM

The Link Between Depression and Terrorism

A new study from the United Kingdom finds a connection between depression and radicalization.


September 26 • 4:00 PM

Fast Track to a Spill?

Oil pipeline projects across America are speeding forward without environmental review.


September 26 • 2:00 PM

Why Liberals Love the Disease Theory of Addiction, by a Liberal Who Hates It

The disease model is convenient to liberals because it spares them having to say negative things about poor communities. But this conception of addiction harms the very people we wish to help.


September 26 • 1:21 PM

Race, Trust, and Split-Second Judgments


September 26 • 9:47 AM

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what’s new and different more attractive.


September 26 • 8:00 AM

A Letter Becomes a Book Becomes a Play

Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters From Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again takes 900 pages of correspondence between the two poets and turns them into an on-stage performance.


September 26 • 7:00 AM

Sonic Hedgehog, DICER, and the Problem With Naming Genes

Wait, why is there a Pokemon gene?


Follow us


Mysterious Resting State Networks Might Be What Allow Different Brain Therapies to Work

Deep brain stimulation and similar treatments target the hubs of larger resting-state networks in the brain, researchers find.

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what's new and different more attractive.

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.

How a Second Language Trains Your Brain for Math

Second languages strengthen the brain's executive control circuits, with benefits beyond words.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.