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Math is for boys? Children absorb stereotypes by second grade

By the time she hits second grade, your daughter has picked up plenty of subliminal messages. Just count the number of pink items she owns or how many of her movie and book choices focus on princesses.

A little less obvious are messages that detail what girls can and cannot do. A worrisome new study shows that second grade girls and boys have already absorbed stereotypes about math and reading -- and the girls have come to believe that math is not for them.

“We still don’t know from where the children are getting this,” says Dario Cvencek, the study’s lead author and researcher at the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington. “I don’t think anybody is explicitly telling them that. I think it’s a very subtle message.”

Cvencek and his colleagues did two experiments. In the first, they showed second-graders two pictures, one of a girl doing math and one of a boy doing math. The children were told that the kids in the pictures liked doing math. Then the boys and girls were asked to rate how much the child in each picture enjoyed math. The children consistently scored the boy’s enjoyment higher.

The researchers’ second experiment was run as a computer game. A series of names and words flashed up on the screen. The children were to sort the names as either boy or girl names and the words as having to do with math or reading by hitting the left or right mouse button.

In the first run through, the left button was for boy names and math words, while the right button was for girl names and reading-related words. The next run through, the left button was for girl names and math words, while the right was for boy names and reading related words.

The researchers discovered that the children, boys and girls alike, were quicker when math words were paired with boy names and reading-related words were paired with girl names.

What that means, Cvencek says, is that girls and boys have already linked math skills with male gender. And in a world that is becoming ever more dependent on computers and math skills, this means that girls may end up missing out on high-paying career opportunities.

Cvencek says parents need to make a conscious effort to counter these subliminal messages. Find movies and cartoons that show women and girls doing math and science, he suggests. And talk to your kids about stereotypes, emphasizing that they don’t apply to everyone.

Beyond that, the best thing you can do for your daughter is to support her when she’s doing her math homework and tell her that math is like anything else – if she works at it, she CAN be good at it.

How do you encourage your daughter's interest in math?