Why Are Girls Nervous About Math? Maybe Because Moms Are, Too.

What Women Really Think
Feb. 28 2014 10:23 AM

Why Are Girls Nervous About Math? Maybe Because Moms Are, Too.

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Photo by Hasan Shaheed/Shutterstock

We parents pass on all kinds of traits to our kids, from our hair and eye color to our love of slapstick comedy or chocolate ice cream. One characteristic we surely don’t want to hand down to our children, however, is our own anxiety about a particular school subject. And yet that’s often just what happens, according to Elizabeth Gunderson, a researcher at the University of Chicago. Earlier this year, Gunderson and her colleagues published an article in the journal Sex Roles that examined the “adult-to-child transmission” of attitudes about learning—in particular, how mothers’ unease with mathematics may be passed down to their daughters. Parents’ “own personal feelings about math are likely to influence the messages they convey about math to their children,” Gunderson notes—and kids will readily recognize if these feelings are negative. Becoming aware of our anxiety is the first step toward stopping such transmission in its tracks.

Previous studies have looked at how parents’ stereotypes (“boys are better at math, and girls are better at reading”) and expectations (for example, holding sons’ academic performance to a higher standard than daughters’) affect their children’s orientation toward learning. Gunderson takes a different tack, suggesting that parents may influence their offspring’s attitudes in two more subtle ways: through their own anxiety and through their own belief that abilities are fixed and can’t be improved (expressed in commonly-heard comments like “I’ve never been good at science,” and “I can’t do math to save my life”). Research shows that school-aged children are especially apt to emulate the attitudes and behaviors of the same-sex parent—a source of concern if we want to improve girls’ still-lagging performance in traditionally male-dominated fields like science and mathematics. If mom hates math, a young girl may reason that it’s OK for her to dislike it, too.

Teachers aren’t immune to negative feelings about learning, either. In fact, studies show that undergraduates who study elementary education have the highest math anxiety of any college major. Instructors who are uncomfortable with mathematics feel less capable teaching the subject, research indicates, and are less motivated to try new and innovative teaching strategies. A study by cognitive psychologist Sian Beilock, published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science in 2010, demonstrates how female teachers’ unease with math can influence the students in their classrooms. Beilock and her co-authors evaluated 52 boys and 65 girls enrolled in first and second grade and taught by 17 different teachers. At the beginning of the school year, there was no connection between the students’ math ability and their teachers’ math anxiety. By the end of the year, however, a dismaying relationship had emerged: The more anxious teachers were about math, the more likely the girls in their classes were to endorse negative stereotypes about females’ math ability, and the more poorly these girls did on a test of math achievement.

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Adults who want to avoid passing on pessimistic attitudes about learning can do more than simply watch their language (no more “I’m hopeless at math” when the dinner check arrives at the table). They can jump into the subject they once feared with both feet, using their children’s education as an opportunity to brush up on their own basic skills. Learn along with your kids, and you may find that math and science, or writing and spelling, are not so scary. And let kids know that it’s always possible to change and improve our abilities—you being a prime example.

This post originally appeared on the Brilliant Blog.

Annie Murphy Paul is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of the forthcoming book Brilliant: The Science of How We Get Smarter.