My oldest daughter is in the 8th grade, which means that she’ll be going to high school next year. The kids in her class are all signing up for which courses they’ll take next year, and choosing different ‘pathways’ of career interests that they want to focus on.
My daughter has chosen to go to our local science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) magnet high school and focus on computer science. As a math, tech, and science loving girl, she’s gotten her fair share of teasing from her peers who don’t understand her interests. But, for the most part, her friends have been supportive and let her be herself. My daughter was surprised this week when a teacher saw the school that she wanted to go to and her track of choice and said, “Really? You don’t seem the type to do either of those things.” With a puzzled expression, she asked me, “Mom, do you think she doesn’t think I’m smart enough? Does she think I’m too social? What does she mean?”
Now, I don’t know what the teacher meant, exactly, and I encouraged Rylan to ask her politely if that comes up again. But what I do know is that very often in our culture, STEM fields are considered masculine, especially computer technology. There is a cultural meme about who works in tech and computers, and my daughter doesn’t fit it. This article in the New York Times sums up both the cultural messages and how they impact kids. It says,
“Messages about gender and technology tend to start in earliest childhood, when boys are encouraged to play computer games and think about how things work, while girls get toy makeup and fashion sets, Ms. Parmar said.
Catherine Ashcraft, senior research scientist at the Colorado center, said:
“It appears on the surface that women aren’t choosing” technology, but “there are a lot of factors that are influencing that choice.” She continued: “Girls talk about how even when there’s a computer in the house, they don’t get access to it as much, because the boys are pushing them away.”
Subtle, even unconscious bias can prompt parents, teachers and guidance counselors to give the sexes different study and career advice, she said.”
So how do we encourage the children in our lives, girls or boys, to pursue their interests, even when they’re counter to those cultural expectations? Here are some ideas:
- Pay attention to what the child is interested in, not what you think they should be interested in. The girliest of my three daughters fell in love with Bob the Builder when she was about three. She’s very creative and likes to make things, so she adored the creative and problem-solving parts of that show. If you notice your child’s interest is caught by something unexpected, encourage them to explore it. You never know what they might learn!
- Avoid labeling activities and interests as “for” one gender or the other. Let go of the idea that there are only certain narrow ‘types’ who have a specific interest. For almost every gender stereotype someone gives me, I can think of an adult who breaks it. Let go of those labels and just enjoy exploring different areas with your child.
- Provide exposure to a variety of activities and interests. Your child may find something they love in an area that they might not know about without your prompting. Seek out opportunities to read books about different topics (animals, space, agriculture, technology, dance, art, whatever you can think of), watch films or TV shows about them, go to local performances or museums. My oldest daughter became interested in technology through a love of film making. That interest began after she decided on a whim to make a film for a school arts project.
- Let them explore.When it comes to technology, many of us have the tools in our homes to allow our children to explore and learn. If you have access to a home computer and mobile technology, your child can learn how to make their own media, from photos to sound remixes, to movies. My 13 year old has now surpassed my knowledge in these areas, simply by going through online tutorials. It hasn’t cost me a penny beyond the original purchase of the computer, but she’s learned a lot.
- Look for role models. Ask yourself who in your community is doing something that interests your child, and seek to introduce your child to them or give your child an opportunity to see the professional in action. My 11-year-old loves hair and make-up, so I took her with me to my favorite salon when I was getting my haircut. She got to meet and visit with my stylist, who also manages the salon. Even in that brief meeting, she talked with my daughter about the importance of learning how to manage money and market your business, along with the creativity involved in her job. I called ahead to make sure that it wouldn’t be an imposition, and my stylist was thrilled to get to talk with someone who was interested in her profession. Through calling around and talking with people, I found a local university professor who specializes in the type of physics my oldest wants to learn more about and was able to introduce them. My youngest loves animals, so she’s going to zoo camp this summer. All of their interests are varied, but I’ve been able to find something that they can connect with in order to learn more about their area of interest, and I live in a small town in the middle of West Texas!
People often ask my husband and me what we did to get our oldest daughter interested in math, science, and technology. The truth is, we just opened the door and got out of her way. I think the key is looking at your child with an open heart and mind and letting them share their interests with you.
For parents who don’t have many financial resources, there are many free activities at local universities, school districts, and libraries. State or local scholarships may be available for children from families who have a low income to allow them to attend summer or week-end camps at free or reduced prices.
As you provide children with a variety of opportunities to learn about different fields and interests, they will let you know what they’re passionate about. Kids are amazing people, ready to make a difference in the world. Let’s find a way to help them do that.