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I Almost Passed My Math Hang-Ups on to My Daughter

When moms have math hang-upsMy daughter June turned four last week and among the cache of gifts I bought her was Goldieblox, a building toy which has garnered a lot of press in recent months for introducing engineering concepts to little girls.

Like any parent, I want my daughter to excel in math and science. Not only are those the fields where the jobs are in the 21st century, but I don’t want a repeat of my own sorry math experience in middle school in which the boys were always challenged to solve problems in front of the class while the beta humans – the girls – were usually sidelined and ignored.

I’ve been very careful about the types of toys, games, and TV shows June is exposed to in attempt to nullify the message that her appearance is her most valuable asset. My hope is to help her become fluent in the language of math and science so she doesn’t wind up with the same math hang-ups I had in middle school, and apparently still carry today.

Unfortunately, my hang-ups may not be so far behind me. This was brought to my attention the other night, thanks to a comment I made over drinks with my husband and a friend.  We were talking about the game and I casually mentioned that Jake will have to be the one to play Goldieblox with June because I’m just not any good at that stuff.

My friend, who is a doctor, just looked at me and shook her head while Jake murmured, “Nice one, hon,” from his easy chair.

“Jessie,” my friend said. “It’s a game designed for five-year-olds.  You can probably handle it.”

I felt like such an idiot. I was so embarrassed in front of Jake and my friend. The comment illustrated the extent to which I – a person who strives so hard to be Miss Gender Blind Progressive Mom U.S.A. — internalized the message that women really aren’t any good at that pesky building stuff, and now excuse me while I sit here brushing out my glossy mane and applying more eye shadow.

If this was the drumbeat I automatically listened to – despite any progressive posturing to the contrary — what hope was there for my daughter? She would likely grow up with the same played-out gender narratives I did.

In other words, there was no way in hell I was going to let Jake be the only one to play Goldieblox with June now. This was a terrific “teachable moment,” an opportunity to demonstrate that dads (even if you’re married to one of the craftiest, handiest, most get-it-done dudes on the planet who makes it easy for you to sit back and let him do the manual labor) aren’t the only ones who can build stuff.

It was settled. June and I tore open Goldieblox and the Spinning Machine and sat out on the front porch together, carefully following directions for how to build a simple belt drive.

I’m not going to lie: I was a little bit anxious before we began, clouded by my old doubts and hang ups (“I’m going to feel like such an idiot if I can’t do this! Come on, brain, work!”).  But the game comes with a storybook that outlines easy-to-follow directions – they are geared toward children, in fact – and in no time we had constructed something called Flavio’s Whirli-gig.  (It’s very advanced.)

I was absolutely delighted to see how much June loved this game. She loved following the directions, loved organizing all the parts into the appropriate sequences, and loved watching all the fun little characters spin round and round. My anxiety – as minor as it was – was gone in no time. I’d been worried over nothing, residual anxiety from middle school math class. Since then, we’ve played the game together almost every day and our inventions have become increasingly daring and complex (though no atom bomb as of yet).

Yes, I learned how to build a simple belt drive but more importantly, I was reminded that  gender bias in STEM doesn’t simply happen in some nebulous “out there” – the classroom, the toy aisle, the media. It starts at home, with the messages girls absorb from their own mothers. I won’t be making that mistake again.

 Photo credit: Jessie Knadler

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