Aunty Zuska's Impeccable Advice For Worried Dads

Everyone says "encourage your daughters to stick with math and science". And you want to do it. You're proud of your daughter, you want her to have every option in the world open to her. But what do you do when she resists?

A worried dad recently wrote with just such a dilemma:

Slightly off-thread but my daughter is determined, against the evidence, that she's no good at maths. She mentions this from time to time, for example when she's doing her maths homework.

"I'm no good at maths"
"Your teachers seem to think you're doing rather well. Your last report was excellent"
"[changes subject]"


"I really don't understand surds*. "

*now sorted.


"I find maths really hard. Everyone else finds it so easy"
"Haven't you been getting some of the top marks? They can't be finding it that easy."
"[changes subject]"

There's some kind of game going on here but I don't know what the rules are. She says she wants to study law eventually with the view to making lots of money. But it seems beside the point that she probably has more maths right now than she'll ever need as a lawyer. Her brother will also ask for advice on specific questions but has always seemed quite comfortable with being seen to be able to "do" maths in general. What does Aunty Zuska suggest?

Yes, Dad, there is indeed some sort of game going on here. And you need to know the rules so you can outsmart the other team, which has Gender Stereotyping, Gender Role Expectations, Desire To Fit In With My Peer Group, and Stereotype Threat playing for it.

What you are dealing with here are a set of beliefs that are acting to create a reality for your daughter that overrules any data that comes in to the contrary. You have to find ways to challenge those beliefs. Here are some of the beliefs.

  • No one else in my class is struggling with math. Only me.
  • Because I am struggling with math, the good grades I get are lucky.
  • My luck cannot hold out forever.
  • Sooner or later, when my luck runs out, I will fail.
  • Then everyone will see I am a failure and a fraud, not really a success like they think I am now.

Some version of this script may run through her head for the rest of her life. But you can begin to challenge it now. There is a lot of data that shows young girls believe that their success in school is due to luck, but their failures are their own fault, while boys believe the opposite - their success is due to their own ability and hard work, while failures are the fault of unfair tests, a teacher who doesn't like them, or any factor outside themselves that they can blame.

So you want to begin help her understand that her success belongs to her just as much as her failures do. And you want her to learn to not be afraid of failure. If you can achieve these two things, you will have given her two life skills that will carry her a long way.

Her success belongs to her as much as her failure does
You can reinforce this with statements like, "If you work hard I know you can succeed." Or, "You did really well on that test. All those long hours you put in studying really paid off. You worked hard and earned your grade." Or, "People who are good at math are people who work hard and practice it." What you want to avoid suggesting is that there is anything like math ability. You don't want to tell her that you know she will succeed because she's good at math. She doesn't feel like she's good at math. You want her to think that if she works hard she will do well at math. You want her to make a connection between hard work and success. Just like lack of hard work leads to failure. If she thinks there is some mystical math ability that some people have and some people don't, and she thinks she doesn't have it, then she will think that all the hard work in the world will not help her and her good grades are just due to luck. And sooner or later the truth will out. But hard work - anybody can work hard. Anybody can apply themselves to the subject matter diligently and become adequately proficient at it. She doesn't need to be a math genius. She just needs to work hard and earn her success. As, you can point out, she has been doing all along - she just hasn't realized it. You know, related to all this is Stereotype Threat. You might ask her if she believes or has been told that girls are not as good at math as boys are. And if she does, or has been told that, then you can tell her that is a bunch of hooey. Buy her a book like Women in Mathematics by Lynn Osen.

You want her to learn to not be afraid of failure.
Along with teaching her to claim her success, you want her to learn to explore new things and not be afraid of not succeeding on the first try. She thinks she has to get it right on the first try or else she's no good at all, she'll never be good at it, it's not worth doing, she must be perfect at all times. Phooey! Encourage her to work outside her comfort zone. Buy her something that she can take apart and try to put back together and see if it works again. If it does, great, if it doesn't, take it apart again and tinker with it some more. Do you work on your car or equipment around the house? Drag her along with you and show her what you do. Teach her how to use tools. Let her use them and screw up using them the first time. Let her learn how to use tools, to see that it takes practice to learn how to handle a tool. Does she bake or sew? Ask her if she was good at it the first time she tried. Of course not! She had to learn! Find activities that you can do with her that require learning to handle objects and tools. Build a small robot. Launch a rocket. Make her use her hands to do things and learn motor skills that take practice. Do things where she can screw up in a safe environment, and then get better. If she's a perfectionist you are really going to have to push her on this. You may have to talk explicitly with her about how it is important to try doing new things and not worrying about doing them well the first time.

These are just a few of the things you can do for her. The most important thing you can do is spend time with her and show her how much you value her and reinforce for her the idea that you believe she can do anything she wants to, that all options are open to her. Tell her it's great she wants to be a lawyer, but you want her to keep working hard on math because she may change her mind and so many careers require math - you want her to keep all her doors open for as long as possible.

Visit websites like the Center for Women and Information Technology's Girl-Related Resources. Girls Go Tech might be interesting. The Kansas State University GROW Project has a list of resources for parents to encourage their girls in science and math.

That's all for today's installment of Aunty Zuska's Impeccable Advice For Worried Dads.

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I think the advice that you gave here, Zuska, is great. I would add one more thing to the list: meet with the math teacher. The teacher may or may not be aware of your daughter's feelings about her math abilities. If she/he is not aware, cluing him/her into your daughters feelings may give you another ally to helping her see her way through what she is experiencing. You may, on the other hand, find that the teacher may unconciously be fueling your daughter's feelings of inadaequacy. Speaking as a former math teacher, sometimes teachers aren't aware of how gender is playing out in their classrooms. Having an alert parent point out gender issues in the classroom, while hard to hear, can only make for a more positive environment for all students.

Also, make sure that you are looking over the assignments she is given in math- look at the worksheets, the textbook, etc. You would be surprised how many "hidden" gender messages are imbedded in materials that teachers routinely use in the classroom.

Good luck, Worried Dad!

By transgressinge… (not verified) on 18 Jan 2007 #permalink

Awesome post. That she's actually getting good grades but thinks she's no good at it is heartbreaking.

Absolutely agree with the "your hard work is getting you those grades, not luck, not some mystical connection to the math dimension". I myself was so surprised that when I attended some extramural math classes my math grades shot straight up and I found myself 2nd in the class. I was astounded, having always thought that math was not compatible with my female brain. I just needed to work harder on it - though having a second opinion via another teacher's view of math really helped me see that my own prospective view of math was also viable and improvable and valid.

Part of the problem is cultural. In America, for some reason the notion is out there that only some people have the talent to "get" math, while in many Asian cultures the attitude is that if you don't understand some mathematical concept, then you just need to work a little harder. Here is a recent essay about this.

The noxious American cultural attitude that math requires some mystical talent lets many people give up too soon.

@Kristin: agreed that a lot of the problem seems to be the attitude you mention, although the father appears to be writing from Britain unless I'm mistaken (He refers to "maths" and "surds". . .surds????).

It's important for teachers and parents to convey to the students that learning mathematics is a result of effort.

Sometimes what makes students think the subject is "easy for the others" is that the others are not asking questions or are sitting and nodding sagely. I've taught more than one course in which the male students would have happily taken over all the question-answering duties if I had allowed it to happen, even those whose answers were usually wrong. But the women in the class would defer to them and consult them when we worked on problems in class. Amazing.

There is also a tendency to conceal the work that has gone into learning or into solving a problem. I have heard (male) tutors say that something was "obvious" or "simple" when allegedly trying to help a student learn it. This is not always just lack of empathy on the part of one who may not have had to work as hard to learn it: in some cases I knew, because I had taught those tutors myself, that they had not had quite such an easy time as all that! So I'm guessing it is a way of saying "I'm a master of this material." ["Just leave it up to me, little lady."] But it certainly has a bad effect on the tutee's learning.

Maybe it would help to inform young women (and men, for that matter) that such things are not always as they seem.

"Sooner or later...everyone will see I am a failure and a fraud, not really a success like they think I am now."

That cuts to the core of the problem for many females, even those who reach towards the higher echelons of academia.

I lived with that thought-demon my entire academic life. No matter what award I received, or what outstanding research goal I achieved, I always felt pressed by the system around me that it just wasn't enough, and sooner or later I felt would be seen as a fraud and a failure despite everything I had achieved. I felt like I was on a treadmill that for me was always going faster and faster and faster, but it seemed that my male peers didn't feel the same pressure, and it also seemed that they were not required to be on an increasingly speedy treadmill.

In the latter part of my academic life (which ended after a five year stint as a postdoc based at Fermilab) I knew that I had an exceptional research record, but I still felt an underlying fear that it was all "yesterday's news" to the males around me. "What have you got for us today, sweetheart?".

It turns out I was not alone as a female with these fears, and my suspicions that my male peers didn't share these same fears were, on average, correct; in 2004, with the help of friends in high places at Fermilab, I posted a career satisfaction survey to the researchers based at Fermilab. There were 300 responses from physicists of both genders, and at all stages of the academic career ladder, from graduate student to full professor. As part of the survey, I asked people to pick from a wide variety of choices their primary dislikes about particle physics.

Of the graduate students and postdocs who responded, 5% of the males said they felt inadequate. 16% of their female peers said they felt inadequate (p-value=0.05).

Female postdocs and graduate students worked, on average, an almost identical number of hours per week compared to their male peers (with a statistically indistinguishable distribution of hours-worked-per-week), yet 31% of the males said they worked harder on average than their peers, while only 18% of the females said this.

Female graduate students and postdocs were also more likely to say that they felt that their supervisor did not foster their career success.

So, not only are these women putting themselves down in their minds more often than the males, it appears they are also less likely to receive mentoring to counteract the thought-demons.

Or maybe the thought-demons are fostered by advisors who truly don't give a damn.

Whichever, it's a pathetic situation

I like most of your advice and I'll keep it in mind as my daughter grows older (she's now in the stacking blocks and licking things stage of scientific development). Making clear that success and failure are both linked to work and not luck is a very powerful message.

Still, I think there's one part I do disagree with, "What you want to avoid suggesting is that there is anything like math ability. You don't want to tell her that you know she will succeed because she's good at math"
Perhaps it's all nuture and things taught to people before school, but there really is math ability. Some people really can grasp mathematical concepts much faster than others. I barely had to crack a math textbook straight through high school and I did very well (incidently, that was probably a bad thing for me in that I never learned how to study math that didn't come naturally to me and that has hurt me when I hit the limit of my natural understanding of math).

What I don't like about your sentiment in the above sentence is that anything that defies empirical evidence is bad for self esteem. If someone tells a child that there is no such thing as natural math ability and they see some fellow students grasping concepts much faster than others they will know you are wrong and that devalues all your encouragement. The real lessen is that there is nothing through college math that anyone cannot learn if they take their work seriously. I might have understood intregrals after one lesson and some other person might require hours of practicing examples and reading books, but the end result is that we both understand integrals. If you can understand a concept through work, you are not bad at math.

Like I said, my daughter isn't at the point of needing pep talks yet (although she's added quite a few seminars) so I'm curious if my thoughts match others experiences.

Great advice, Zuska! Thanks for the post.

bsci: I agree that there really is math ability, but you have to be careful. Your daughter seems to think that math ability is innate and cannot be learned. I know I did when I was in high school. Then I started struggling in college and everything turned sour. My line of reasoning went something like this:

- I succeeded in high school because I have this innate math ability
- I'm not doing well in my college math courses
- My math ability got me through high school but failed me in college
- My math ability must be limited
- No amount of hard work will make up for my lack of math ability
- Therefore, I am not good at math

It took a while, but I did very well after I got over this way of thinking. Your daughter needs to understand that the real key to success in math is hard work, not innate ability.

Good luck!

By mangoboba (not verified) on 19 Jan 2007 #permalink


Just to be clear, I'm not the original poster with the question. My daughter is too young to be talking about her math ability or talking about anything. What's interesting is your personal math story sounds very similar to mine. I suspect that the radical drop in confidence in college math is a problem for both men and women. Perhaps the gender bias and societal contrusts become a factor in the response to this radical drop in confidence rather than being the cause of the drop.

I'm reminded about something from my first day as an undergrad. I had taken AP Calculus and placed directly into multivariable calculus during my first semester. On my first day as a college student, the professor introduced himself and asked how many people in the class were first year students. About 8 of the 80 students raised their hands. He said "Do not expect to do well in this class." It wasn't the nicest thing to say, but he was right. It was my lowest grade in all of undergrad.

It also think this is great advice, with the slight modification mentioned by bsci. I don't see what is wrong with her thinking she does have some innate intelligence which makes her grasp mathematical concepts faster than other students. She clearly does. But I do think that a 1-d version of some mystical math ability is harmful, there are different styles of learning, and different mathematical concepts, and some people will pick up certain ones more easily, while others take longer, but in the end often have a deeper understanding of it. So in a person's life some concepts are grasped quickly, and others take more time. That is why the advice about learning not to be afraid of failure is so important.

What's important in the end is the understanding, and the daughter in question probably has the innate ability to learn anything she wants to given a reasonable amount of work.

Late night
Any tutor who says "this is obvious" to a student they are helped should recieve a swift kick to the head regardless. IT does not surprise me that self-assuredness (or arrogance) follows more commonly in males then females in mathematics and related disciplines. The objective in tutoring is to help your student better understand the material, and making the individual feel two inches tall is a heavy retardent to achieving that goal.

My experience in math and physics follows very closely to what you have described. Little spots of brilliance sprinkled among a lack-luster performance. I can imagine some of my professors wondering why the hell I kept with it. I just couldn't let go; physics was just too fascinating. And I graduated at the bottom of my department's class. I cannot imagine individuals with clear talent, who are female, go through in departments that are obviously old boys clubs. Though I have spoken to a few female classmates who have directly experienced it at their undergraduate universities.

What can myself and other graduate students do to better train ourselves to NOT follow in the blind footsteps of academic ancestors?

Thanks Zuska for the links and for the advice. The "just got lucky" idea had not occurred to me and I'll need to give it some thought.

The aptitude vs application question is a difficult one. In the early stages of learning any skill it's good to stress as you do that appliction is the key and those really annoying people who seems to sail through effortlessly are putting the hours in, in the background. If there are a few exceptions, well that's lucky for them!

I think your advice is spot on. It can be harder for people with some "ability" to cope with difficulty. Whatever innate talent most people have is meaningless. In all fields, the people who work most at the endeavor are the people who do best. Tiger Woods' "ability" is located in relentless golfing from a very early age. Children who are gifted in some way in the early grades often fail to develop the study skills and the effort to achieve well in other areas.

My daughter is seven. I make it a point to admire her work as work.