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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.”

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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.”


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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.

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