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Over the weekend my daughter attended her first children's gardening club activity at a nearby park. She learned alot about different seeds and planting and had a great time. While the girls were planting, the volunteer group leader asked my daughter what she was studying in her first grade class. My daughter answered geometry and the leader, impressed, said to her, "Don't ever buy into the girls can't do math thing." Ugh! I'm pretty sure my daughter never heard that "girls can't do math thing" until that very moment. She looked baffled and was silent and I could see her mulling it over. I thought to myself, "thanks lady."
There is no doubt the volunteer was well meaning and so was her comment. It is likely that her comment was borne out of a desire to build up a little girl against potential future gender stereotyping and resulting low self esteem. It is also probable that the volunteer, being an older women, experienced this first hand in her life. Still, in her well meaning comment, a seed had been planted in my daughter's head, thereby unintentionally perpetuating that gender stereotype. In that second it took to speak the comment, my daughter was told that people generally believe that girls can't do math and she will have to work hard to prove them wrong. She didn't need to hear that.
When I was in college, I volunteered as a literacy tutor for adults who came from challenging backgrounds and were trying to make their lives better by earning their GEDs. Due to a lack of tutors, I ended up teaching other courses as well. I had a 48 year old woman who worked at a day care center and had no health insurance. She had high blood pressure problems and was trying to care for her elderly mother who lived in another state. She was under alot of stress and desperately wanted to improve her life, but when I tried to teach her anything in math, I could see her withdraw. The comments she made suggested to me that she did not believe she could learn the math she needed to get her GED. She believed it was too hard for her and nothing I could do or say could change the way she thought about it and it was as if she gave up before trying. That is how powerful thoughts are. Eventually her responsibilities got the best of her and she dropped out.
Those thoughts start as a little seed planted, a little seed such as an innocent comment. If my daughter came to me one day and said that little Johnny told her girls can't do math and laughed and made fun of her, I would address that issue at that time with a comment similar to the one above and back it up with examples like Sophie Germain, Ada Lovelace, Mary Fairfax Somerville, and in recent times, The Wonder Years' Danica McKellar. Until that day comes, I choose to let her fly, unencumbered by negative thoughts and stereotypes.