My 13-year-old daughter rocks at math and science. She is at the top of her 8th-grade class, and is one of the only girls in a robotics elective. My husband and I have always told her she’ll make a great engineer or doctor someday, and she used to LOVE that. But she also likes choir a lot, and lately, I’m alarmed because she has begun to think of herself as a creative person more than a math person. In the last few months, when I say ‘You have an engineering brain’ she pushes back and irritably says ‘No, Mom, I have a music brain!’ I do NOT want her to fall into the category of girls who take themselves out of the running of math and science just because it’s not as popular a route for girls! What can we do?
Dear Math Mom,
This question is personal for me because something very similar happened in our house two years ago – and I was just as alarmed!
Here’s what may be going on, and it probably has only a little to do with seeing fewer girls in those courses. As much as it might look like it, your daughter is not rejecting math and science as a direction: she’s rejecting the idea of you telling her that she’s going to choose math and science as a direction! Your child has clicked into a new phase of development. She wants to be her own person separate from you. And that includes feeling very strongly that she wants to decide who she is and what choice she will make.
I saw this pattern over and over in our research with teens and pre-teens for For Parents Only: Getting Inside the Head of Your Kid. Realizing what was probably happening under the surface was one of the only things that kept me sane once I saw the pattern in my own daughter! You and your husband have praised her for this math-and-science wiring for years, but once she clicked over into wanting her own identity, suddenly she felt an urgent need to separate herself from what you think her identity is.
Once she’s in this new phase of development, saying things that used to please her (“You have such a great engineering brain”) will only frustrate and even alarm her. What I heard in our interviews was that the more parents “push,” the more the kids start thinking (consciously or subconsciously) that they have to get greater and greater distance from their parent’s beliefs and expectations about them, in order to figure out their own beliefs and expectations for themselves!
So your daughter might be thinking, But do I want to have an engineering brain? What if I like musical theater more? After all, I like hanging out with Jenni and Casey in choir, and they think I sing really well… and they don’t do robotics… Maybe I’m a creative person, not a math person?
So she throws out comments that sound final but are actually testing the waters (“No, I’m a music person”) because she’s urgently trying to get some distance from what you think about her.
What do you do? In addition to some technical steps like ensuring she has other opportunities to be with girlfriends, it is critical to back off anything she will see as you pushing an identity on her. This is when you become a leader instead – knowing that she will need to decide to follow where you lead. Because all too soon, she truly will be able to make these choices for herself. This applies not just to subjects in school, but beliefs about faith, opinions about right and wrong, and what character traits are important.
Above all, you do not want her to reject something you feel is important simply because you never let her decide it for herself and she felt that rejecting it was the only way to get her own sense of identity.
What does leading, not pushing, look like? In this phase of development (which lasts for years), the kids told me they respected parents who would calmly make their own opinions clear, but also acknowledge that their kids might feel differently and that they (the parents) were available to help them think it through. Ironically, that freed the teens up to, in most cases, come right back around to accepting that opinion for themselves.
It was scary for me to back off of my daughter when I could so clearly see that, yes, she was extremely good at art, but that she was truly gifted at math in a special way. But I forced myself to help her pursue both pursuits as a way to let her explore. We told her that we would require her to choose STEM courses in high school since that was important for college admission. But we also went to great trouble to arrange for art courses “because you are so gifted at art,” and have committed we will do that every year if she wanted.
And just recently she offhandedly mentioned that her favorite TV character – a beautiful computer whiz – had gone to MIT. “So,” my daughter casually added, “I was thinking I would love to try to get into MIT.”