Inspire Their Minds

Verizon has a great new commercial, “Inspire Her Mind,” that reminds parents to consider how their commonplaces discourage girls from studying the science.

Verizon commercial warns parents about the impact of their words.

Verizon commercial warns parents about the impact of their words.

We see a girl at various moments exploring the natural world and hear parental voices stifling that exploration. The commercial concludes with Sam looking at a science fair poster, putting on lipgloss, and turning away with her two friends.[1] A voiceover reminds us:

Our words can have a huge impact. Isn’t it time we told her she’s pretty brilliant too? Encourage her love of science and technology, and inspire her to change the world.

Constant diligence is required to root out the many ways we discourage women from pursuing sciences.

But why do we only worry about inspiring girls (and children more broadly) to study science? Why don’t we also try to inspire them to study literature or philosophy or history? There is nothing special about “science” or the “huge impact” our words have in steering girls away from or toward certain subjects. We should expend equal effort to guard against the ways we track girls into or out of all pursuits.

Let’s stop trying to inspire girls to study science and try, instead, to encourage and embolden girls to study anything and everything that inspires them.

  1. A quick nitpick: Why does the commercial end by contrasting lipgloss with science? Is there something that prevents women from applying lipgloss and studying science? What stereotype of science and scientist is reinforced here? Why should people who care about their appearance not also care about science? And, as My Brighter Career points out, there’s lots of science in lipgloss.  ↩

Inspired by Literature, or Philosophy, or History

Snippet of a recent conversation between two mothers over coffee:

Mother 1: We’ve got this great new tutor who does projects with Tobias to keep him inspired by science.
Mother 2: Oh, I need to get his name from you.
Mother 1: Ok. Send me an email to remind me to send it to you.

You never hear parents yearning to keep their kids “inspired by” literature. They don’t care if their kids enjoy philosophy. And history? It’s just an ossified, boring list of useless names and dates.[1] Imagine the strange looks parents would get if they said:

We’ve got this great new tutor who thinks through moral problems with Tobias to keep him inspired by ethics.

Child Protective Services would probably investigate these parents.

There are compelling reasons for kids to learn “science.”[2] But they must also learn about science. And about scientists. And about how science is funded. And to whom scientists should be answerable given the nature of that funding. And the uses to which scientific developments are put and should be put. And about the relationship between scientists and the sciences, on the one hand, and the broader society on the other, including government, law, education, business, etc. To understand those issues, to learn about science, you must know something about literature, philosophy, history, economics, language, and all those other “why are you studying that?” subjects.

So let’s inspire our kids to study history and languages and literature and philosophy and science and ….

  1. Unless you’re in Texas, in which case history becomes a battleground for political and cultural ideologies. They still don’t want kids to be inspired by history. But they sure as hell don’t want them learning the wrong history.  ↩

  2. The scare quotes highlight the way we typically banter around the term science without having any real idea what it is or without specifying which of the many scientific activities we mean. There are, to be sure, benefits from learning any one of the sciences, e.g., astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology, physics. The details of those benefits vary. What they share, i.e., our trite claim about why study science — learning to think logically or whatever the reason du jour — is not, however, unique to the sciences.  ↩

Chaperoning A School Field Trip—A Few Thoughts

Twelve parents arrived this morning to help shepherd students on today’s middle school field trip. Predictably, only three of those parents were fathers. While some disparity might be explained by the fact that mothers still out number fathers as the stay-at-home parent, I wonder why fathers remain so clearly underrepresented at school functions:

  • Do fathers exclude themselves from involvement in school activities or do mothers exclude fathers? Perhaps fathers feel out of place in these functions, knowing (or fearing) that they will be in the minority. Perhaps mothers think this is their domain.
  • Do society’s gender stereotypes influence who attends? Perhaps fathers and mothers assume that child-rearing is somehow more domestic and, therefore, primarily the mother’s responsibility. Perhaps education remains cordoned off as the mother’s domain.
  • Do assumptions about the value of the parents’ different careers influence which parents attends? Perhaps fathers and mothers assume that fathers’ jobs are inflexible or somehow more essential than mothers’. Most of the mothers and fathers I spoke with today talked about having to make up today’s work. Some of us were planning a couple late nights. Others had scheduled the weekend to make up the missed time.
  • Are fathers just not that interested in this aspect their children’s lives? Maybe fathers generally care less about their children’s day-in and day-out education or less about extracurricular activities.

Whatever the reasons (excuses ?), children and parents would benefit from greater father involvement. Judging from the comments I overheard today, kids want their fathers there. A number of students said to their three friends whose dads were there: “It’s cool your dad came.” Or “I wish my dad could have come.” Or “My dad would have liked this.” Driving home this afternoon, #1 leaned over, hugged my arm, and said, “Thanks for coming today. It was fun having you there.” Trust me, kids notice when their fathers are present.

And think about the other beneficiaries: I would guess that most mothers would appreciate knowing they have a partner in this chaos we call childrearing. Teachers are always asking for more parental involvement. They would appreciate not only knowing both parents but also knowing that both parents are involved in raising the child. Most selfishly, perhaps, you fathers will benefit from spending time with your kids, watching your them interact with colleagues and peers, in their native environment.

Risk it! Risk feeling out of place surrounded by mostly mothers. Risk experiencing a bit more of your child’s education. Risk asking your boss for a day off to spend with your kid. Risk being more involved or differently involved in your child’s life. You’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain.

When is Reading to Them not enough?

A recent article in Slate raises all sorts of questions about childhood language and cognitive development: Children’s language development: Talk and listen to them from birth.

Few people question the positive effects that reading to children has on their reading and language skills, cognitive development, and academic success. The amount parents read to a child has usually been quantified as the number of words a child hears by a certain age. The differences between groups of children boggles the mind: middle- and upper-middle-class kids have heard tens of millions more words by the time the enter school than lower-income kids. Tens of millions.

I am not surprised that reading to children is not enough—simply reading to them is too passive. It doesn’t give children a chance to participate, to use and perhaps misuse the words they are hearing, to use language to formulate their ideas. Just as children don’t learn to write well by reading. Certainly reading, and reading a lot, is important in developing writing skills, but it is not enough. Similarly, hearing words read aloud is important in developing language and cognitive skills, but it is not enough.

While I don’t think I shortchange either #1 or #2 in the conversation department, the essay in Slate has prompted me to be more aware of how I can give them more opportunities to participate in conversations and give them more chances to ask questions about what I am reading to them.

The Dreaded “Playdate”

#2’s “playdate” today has prompted me to wonder about this odd social encounter between parents with little in common beyond having had successfully reproductive sex at some similar time in the past. I did not grow up with the “playdate” and still have an uneasy relationship with it.[1]

Apparently, “playdate” is a relatively recent term describing yet another way parents schedule their children’s free time.[2] We justify the “playdate” by invoking “safety.” The world is, we fear, too dangerous to leave children unattended. Unattended children are targets for abduction. Unattended children injure themselves and others. This anxiety has pruned childhood of its autonomy and adventure.[3]

There might be other contributing reasons for the rise of the “playdate.” On the one hand we parents no longer wander cities. If we are unlucky enough to arrive somewhere without a pre-arranged ride from the airport or train station to our destination, we hail a taxi. When we travel further afield, we increasingly prefer the full-serve tour packages, which often include organized transfers from airport to hotel. Tour buses filled with other tourists conduct us around the city while we listen to some expert describe the scene passing by our windows. We have acquired a taste for the sanitized, timetabled, air-conditioned door-to-door service, so our children must too prefer the same service. We schedule their “playdates,” load them into the car parked in the attached garage, drive them to their “playdate” in climate-controlled comfort and a DVD playing on the in-dash or in-seat screen. Whether that drive is just a few block or across town.

On the other hand, children’s quotidian experiences have changed. When I was young all the kids on the block as well as the next four blocks down attended the same school. We all walked to school the same way. We all walked home the same way. We cut through the same grumpy old woman’s yard who threatened us each afternoon. Childhood was defined by neighborhoods which were linked to our school by trails of kids walking to school each morning and home each afternoon. Today, as I see more and more parents sending their kids to charter schools or private schools or home schooling their kids, that sense of neighborhood as shared social and academic experience is fading. By necessity and by design kids are bused around incredibly complex networks of bus routes or driven to school by their parents. Today, for example, #2 and I were in the city for a “playdate” with a classmate.[4] While #2 and her friend spend much of their day together, they have no shared sense of neighborhood or social experience. They don’t ride the same bus. They don’t walk the same routes.[5] The kids our street attend more than a half dozen different schools—only two families send their children to the same local school. Even those kids who attend the closest of the schools, a private school roughly at the end of the block, are driven there by parents.

We parents have changed childhood’s topography.[6] In the process, we have also thrust ourselves into strange, sometimes awkward social situations. For me, because I am the more visible parent, other mothers typically arrange the “playdate” with me. I find myself at homes with very nice mothers with whom I have little in common other than, as mentioned, having been guilty of procreation about the same time. The whole experience reminds me of some double date arranged by a friend whose boy/girlfriend had a friend who needed a date. Once again I am fumbling for topics of shared interest, grasping for threads of the conversation when one unravels, trying to be interesting while not revealing so much that might look like a lunatic. Maybe mother-mother “playdates” are less awkward. Perhaps mothers can more naturally find common interests and topics of conversation.

Despite the latent discomfort, I am generally happy to have the chance to get to know these mothers. I have found most of them to be nice, smart people with interesting lives and experiences. In some cases, we the parents have become friends, which is more than I can say for any of the blind dates I endured.[7] I will never be comfortable with the “playdate” and I look forward to when I can stop “playdating,” but I have come to appreciate what it can offer.

  1. For example, I find it hard to say. I prefer convoluted circumlocutions like “I’ve agreed to take #2 to play with a friend today.” or “#1 has arranged to spend a couple hours with so-and-so this afternoon. I’ll take him. Do you want to pick him up or shall I?” I find it equally difficult to write without surrounding it with scare quotes. Just this evening, when responding to an email about my day, I couldn’t bring myself to write the efficient but viscerally off-putting “We were at a ‘playdate’” and wrote, instead, “#2 and I were at her friend’s house in the city.” My discomfort was aggravated recently when I heard two couples arranging another “playdate” for their parrots.  ↩

  2. The OED traces it back to ’70s U.S. parenting (according to Wikipedia, the playdate remains primarily a U.S. term). Like so many compound words, early orthography favored the hyphenated pair. Today, perhaps out of some primal need to fill empty spaces, orthographic convention seems to favor a single word.  ↩

  3. Michael Chabon offers a wonderful reflection on how we have curtailed childhood in “The Wilderness of Childhood.” For anybody over 40, Chabon’s essay evokes memories of an unsupervised childhood. Alone or in small bands children marauded around, played, or just loitered in parks and empty lots for hours day after day. After dinner, streets became once again a cacophony of shouts, skidding bicycle tires, and the “whumpf” of somebody kicking an under-inflated ball. Tonight was beautiful and yet none of the more than 20 kids who live on our block were playing in the street or in each other’s front yards. Now and then you catch a glimpse of siblings playing in a side yard. Now and then I can coax some of the kids out when I’m out playing ball or frisbee with #1 and #2. My presence, apparently, allays neighbors’ anxieties and somehow makes the street a safe place to play.  ↩

  4. For the record: we took the local regional train line into the city and walked from the station to the “playdate.”  ↩

  5. Again, for the record: #2 could perhaps ride her bike to school but it is too far to walk. Her friend lives too far to ride a bike or to walk. Tellingly, however, the school discourages students from riding bikes by providing no place to park and lock bikes. By contrast, my grammar school had racks and racks for bikes, which racks were filled most days.  ↩

  6. Or, we middle and upper middle class parents have changed our progeny’s childhood topography. I would be interested to know if “playdates” are as common in lower income neighborhoods.  ↩

  7. Yet again, for the record: whatever I endured almost surely paled in comparison to what the unfortunate woman suffered. My aversion to “playdates” is merely the latest manifestation of my aversion to dating. I was not only awkward, I rarely hid my indifference and made little or no effort to participate in the social conventions that structure a date, blind or otherwise.  ↩

Getting into College w/o the SAT

Getting into college has always required more than intelligence and good grades. For the last 50 or so years, it has also required performing well on a test—usually the feared SAT. Far from leveling the playing field, the SAT and colleges’ reliance on the SAT[1] have created yet another mechanism for affluent families to reassert their status and ensure their own privilege. Families that can afford it hire test-preparation tutors to coach Little Johnny or Little Jane—here on the Main Line, rates start at the unimaginable $150/hour and extend beyond $400/hour if you want your tutor to be called “Dr. So-and-So.”[2]

I applaud Bard College’s effort to upend the admissions process by offering applicants an alternative route to admission. Bard hasn’t rejected the SAT and GPA, but now allows students who worry that their scores or grades are not high enough to write research essays. Bard provides a choice of questions and all the material necessary to write a good essay. These essays are then evaluated according to Bard’s standards and all students performing well enough will be admitted. Or so Bard promises.

Bard hasn’t solved all the problems with college admissions, but as a parent I welcome Bard’s effort to undermine the hegemony of the SAT. I would like to see other “liberal arts” colleges combat the SAT’s dominance in the admissions process.[3] As a parent who wants to believe in education but who cannot afford to spend $5,000 or more on subject tutors, academic coaches, test-preparation tutors or test-preparation camp,[4] or college-admissions coaching, I hope Bard sets a trend.

  1. Even colleges that claim to look for markers of a well rounded student or that claim to use the SAT along with other criteria continue to reinforce the test’s importance by highlighting the scores on publicly available documents that go by names such as ‘Characteristics of Entering Class’ or ‘Facts about Incoming Freshmen’. Any parent guiding their progeny toward these schools will find tables and tables of SAT and ACT scores. And students in high school already recognize the importance of those tests.  ↩

  2. It takes little thought to see why people with advanced degrees start tutoring businesses. In at least one case a person with a law degree from a nationally recognized school has recognized that tutoring is more lucrative. Since few parents will issue IRS 1099 forms to tutors, that $150-$400/hour translates into a considerably higher real-world wage. Assuming full-time work, which most tutors probably don’t enjoy, some back-of-the-envelop calculations suggest that those hourly rates put a person in the 33–39% federal tax bracket. Ignoring state, social security, and other taxes, that increases the real-world wage to $200-$550/hour. Sure, test preparation/tutoring centers will, we hope, report all revenue and have to pay their tutors, no doubt at a lower rate and they probably treat them as contract labor so they don’t withhold taxes. An energetic and purportedly qualified (whatever qualified means in this context) tutor could hustle up a healthy $100,000+ annually working part-time. This number would nearly triple if those “qualifications” include “Dr.”
    Along with the test-preparation industry is the college-admissions coaching industry that plays on parental fears and traffics in platitudes and publicly available knowledge typically redescribed as “expert” or “private and privileged” knowledge. Rates for these coaching sessions, while not yet as high as test-preparation tutoring are stratospheric for the services offered.  ↩

  3. I use scare quotes around “liberal arts” because that term no longer accurately describes many of the colleges we think provide a liberal arts education. Increasingly, the small, elite “liberal arts” colleges have given up on the ideal, broad-based educational program we typically associate with that term. Ever diminishing distribution requirements no longer ensure that students take classes outside their chosen major. Now students can and do track their academic career from the first semester, even at colleges where they cannot officially declare a major until their second year. Increasingly, students graduate having focused the vast majority of their coursework in whatever subject they chose as 18-year-olds. Graduating seniors are well educated but only in a single, narrow field.  ↩

  4. Yes, there are test-preparation camps, which run ca. $1,000/week. No, that price doesn’t include room and board. I assume everybody gets a T-shirt.  ↩

Trail Markers and My Museum of Parenting Failures

#1, #2, and I spent a fabulous weekend camping in Hickory Run State Park (the Mother has no interest in camping, ever, anywhere, so the three of us got to spend the weekend together—yay for us). We headed out directly from school Friday afternoon so we could make the most of the weekend. We scrambled across the boulder field Saturday and hiked a few of the trails. Regrettably, on one of our hikes I displayed petulantly bad parenting.

#1 was excited about the trail and, like most young boys, was eager to lead the way and whenever it looked possible to ford the stream. But it was clear, to me, that the trail did not cross the stream. The first time and the second time, I simply said the trail didn’t go that way. The third time, when I must confess it did look plausible that the trail could cross the stream—the rocks were well placed for crossing and were well worn and there seemed to be a trail-looking path on the other side—I snapped: “I told you, the trail doesn’t cross the stream. Do you see a trail marker over there? No, you don’t because I see it over here.”

In hindsight I feel like an ass, a bully, and a bad parent.

Not only has #1 not spent as much time as I have hiking, he also doesn’t know what a trail marker might look like, I didn’t tell him to look for trail markers, I didn’t show him the map. No, I just barked at him for showing enthusiasm and held him accountable for knowledge and know-how he couldn’t possibly have. I missed a perfect opportunity to teach #1 and #2 something. I should have stopped and asked #1 to explain why he thought the trail crossed the stream. I could have told him about trail markers and pointed out that if the trail crossed the stream, we might expect a trail marker to indicate it. We could have looked for one on the far side. When we didn’t find one, we could have looked for a marker on our side of the stream. But instead, I took the lazy way and just barked at him.

Alas, I have yet another exhibit to cram into my Museum of Failed Parenting.