Education

The Parent Factor

By Sean Cavanagh — October 25, 2007 7 min read
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This story was originally published in Education Week.

For Pieter Noordam, good mathematics is a part of good parenting.

Math is crucial to the work of the Northern California father, who owns a business that specializes in radio-frequency technology. But when he talks with his two children about math, he tries to make it fun—by encouraging them to take part in independent math projects and clubs and by taking them to museums with math-related exhibits.

There’s no telling whether Mr. Noordam’s son and daughter, ages 13 and 11, will choose a career in a math or science field. But studies suggest that subtle prodding and more direct encouragement from parents go a long way to determining whether boys—and especially girls—take an interest in math and science as they get older, and whether they thrive academically in those subjects.

The connection between parental influence and children’s motivation and achievement in math and science has received increasing attention among researchers, as educators and policymakers search for ways to urge more students to pursue advanced studies and careers in those subjects.

A recent study by researchers at Pennsylvania State University, in University Park, and the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, for instance, found that fathers in particular have a major influence on whether their daughters develop an interest in math.

It also found that parents tend to do more to encourage their sons than their daughters to develop that interest, through such actions as buying them math- and science-related toys and voicing stereotypes about girls’ supposed shortcomings in those subjects.

Although Mr. Noordam acknowledges that his background makes it easier for him to promote math at home, he believes any parent can do so, by asking their children to make sense of what they see—in a museum, on the street, or in a garage.

“It’s not just math at school, it’s life,” said Mr. Noordam, of Cupertino, Calif. “They see things in a museum. How does it work? Try to get the meaning behind it. There’s more to what you see than just a piece of equipment. Keep them alert.”

Fathers and Sons

The Michigan and Penn State study, originally published in 2005 and presented at a conference in Ann Arbor this past May, expanded on past research showing that parents’ opinions and behaviors are factors in determining boys’ and girls’ interest and confidence in math and science.

The study, “I Can, But I Don’t Want To: The Impact of Parents, Interests, and Activities on Gender Differences in Math,”was based on information collected from several hundred elementary students, who were tracked as they got older, and their parents, from 1987 to 2000. It was published by Cambridge University Press as part of a book, Gender Differences in Mathematics: An Integrative Approach.

Parents, according to the study, tend to provide more “math supportive” environments for their sons than for their daughters by buying them more math- and science-related toys, books, and games and spending more time around the home on those subjects with boys than with girls.

Parents also hold gender stereotypes and convey them to their children, such as that boys are more talented than girls in math and more suited to careers in that field, the study found.

“The point was to look at how parents’ attitudes might be [directed] to their children,” said Martha M. Bleeker, one of the study’s five authors. “We’re trying to look at behavior and attitudes.”

The researchers found that fathers’ gender stereotypes are especially strong predictors of children’s interest in math. The more entrenched the father’s gender stereotype, the less likely his daughter is to take an interest in the subject. Boys’ interest in math, perhaps not surprisingly, tends to be stronger, the researchers found, if the father’s traditional gender biases are stronger.

Mothers’ gender stereotypes about boys’ having more math talent, by contrast, tend to affect sons and daughters almost equally, Ms. Bleeker said. The stronger the mother’s stereotype, the study found, the less enthusiasm both sons and daughters had for math.

One explanation for that finding is that mothers with stereotypical views about math have less personal interest in that subject overall, and as a result, neither their sons nor daughters develop a fondness for it, suggested Ms. Bleeker, formerly a graduate student at Penn State, and now a survey researcher at Mathematica Policy Research Inc., in Princeton, N.J.

Parents can similarly sway children’s opinions of science, researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz, discovered. A 2003 study published in the journal Developmental Psychology showed that parents of 11- to 13-year-olds were more likely to believe that science was more difficult and less appealing for their daughters than it was for their sons.

Authors Harriet Tenenbaum and Campbell Leaper also found that fathers, when teaching their children about science-related subjects, used more probing, sophisticated scientific language and questions with their sons than they did with their daughters. Those fathers could be “encouraging intellectual engagement” in science among their sons more than with their daughters, the authors concluded.

Research has shown that fathers are more likely than mothers to encourage gender stereotypes among children, and their tendency to use more demanding scientific language with boys, assuming they can handle it, may reflect that habit, Mr. Leaper said.

Teachers and school peers also convey gender stereotypes about math and science ability, often unintentionally, Mr. Leaper said. On the other hand, many stereotypes about males’ and females’ strengths have lessened, as professional opportunities for women have increased, he said.

Female students have more role models in math and science than they once did, the UC-Santa Cruz psychology professor noted. He often asks his students how many of them had a female math teacher in school. Twenty years ago, few had. Today, it’s much more common, he said.

A key to building girls’ involvement in math and science is “increasing teachers’ and parents’ awareness of what [prevalent] biases are, and their awareness that boys and girls are capable of doing equally well in these subjects,” Mr. Leaper said.

Selling the Subjects

Research on gender differences in students’ math and science achievement and motivation received considerable attention in the 1980s, and recent years have seen a resurgence in interest, possibly because of increasing concerns about the shortage of students, especially women, entering technical, engineering, and other such fields.

Research on gender differences in students’ math and science achievement and motivation received considerable attention in the 1980s, and recent years have seen a resurgence in interest, possibly because of increasing concerns about the shortage of students, especially women, entering technical, engineering, and other such fields.

While both boys and girls tend to lose interest in math and science as they move from elementary to high school, females’ interest and confidence falls off more sharply, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, an arm of the U.S. Department of Education.

Boys outperform girls in math and science across grades on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and on several of the math- and science-related Advanced Placement exams. And relatively few women pursue postsecondary studies in fields such as engineering and computer science. That overall trend robs the United States of skilled workers and entrepreneurs, business leaders and others say.

Many parents want to encourage their children in math and science, but don’t know how, said Yul Inn, the founder of the Fun Math Club, a Cupertino-based company through which he offers specialized math lessons and emphasizes hands-on projects and activities to schools and individual students of all ability levels. Mr. Noordam’s family attended his programs.

At “family math nights” he stages, where children and parents work on math activities together, Mr. Inn says he’s detected no real pattern in terms of which parents are more involved, though he thinks mothers are slightly more active than fathers. He urges parents to discuss math in less formal ways than their children are likely to encounter in school, an approach he tried with his own son and daughter, who are now 14 and 11.

“I try to do what the schools tend not to do,” Mr. Inn said, “make it interesting and fun.”

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