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Editorial: What are we teaching our kids?

By Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 2004. Editorial: What are we teaching our kids? the Exchange 11(1):2, 5.

When my son was born nearly 14 years ago, I resolved to be a modern, liberal man of the nineties and do my best to avoid imposing various odious cultural stereotypes on him. Thus, over the first few years of Matt’s life, my wife and I furnished him with an ample supply of doe-eyed stuffed animals in addition to all the usual appurtenances of the modern male child, such as action figures and clanky metal cars and trucks. When my daughter arrived a couple years later, we reversed the process and made sure she had plenty of access to things that weren’t soft and cuddly. In addition to all the new toys provided by doting grandparents, Alison got her very own monster trucks and Princess Leia action figure (compete with “blaster”), and had free access to all her brother’s bricabrac, as Matt was eager to share with his new sister.

As a reader of things scientific, you’ve probably read enough about elegant theories demolished by inconvenient facts that you can imagine the results. Matt pretty much ignored anything soft and cuddly, whereas Alison played with cars and Star Wars stuff mostly to be social with Matt; left to her own devices, she gravitated naturally to the soft and cuddly, and only rarely persuaded Matt to abandon his interests in things that go clank and boom to play with her toys instead. I still retain enough of my scientific training to recognize this for the anecdotal evidence that it is, but the experience did convince me that there’s a significant biological component that determines how our biological sex expresses itself in overt behaviors. On the other hand, both kids absolutely adored Lego, and spent hours happily building houses, spaceships, and the occasional rectilinear and extremely pointillistic animal. Apparently one mustn’t read too much into the notion of biology as destiny either.

Over the years, it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that social factors play a huge role in how our children express their underlying biology. Matt, for example, has fallen in with the computer gaming crowd, and spends far too much of his time blasting anything that moves on a variety of computer screens. Alison, on the other hand, has arrived at that awkward age when body image becomes a significant and very troubling fact. None of my family has ever wasted much time bewailing the issue of weight, so the message that she’s fat must apparently have come from elsewhere.

From her peer group? Most probably. Much though we parents try to provide a safe, nurturing, supportive, accepting, uncritical home environment, we all eventually face the fact that what our children learn at home only provides the foundation for what they’ll become. Most children now spend at least as much time outside the home, under someone else’s influence, as they spend at home; many spend far more time away from home than with their parents.

Disturbingly, many of the messages they receive and many of the forces that shape them are outside our control. We can burn our television and cancel our subscription to People magazine, but the notion of anorexia as being the desired social norm for female bodies will slip past such crude attempts to filter the messages our children receive. There’s not much we can do about this either, since the mass media have long since escaped our control and exert an increasingly pernicious influence on our minds. But we can at least pay close attention to those our children interact with on a daily basis—including ourselves—and make sure we’re happy with the messages our children are receiving.

Take, for example, the notion of education in the sciences. It’s now broadly known that science teachers tend to provide stronger encouragement to boys than to girls who might otherwise pursue an interest in the sciences. We can’t always influence those teachers, but we can take other steps, such as talking to our children to discover whether their teachers have been afflicted by this attitude, and by encouraging female mentors (scientists or women interested in and educated in science) to volunteer their time within the educational environment.

Equally importantly, we can find out whether we’re sending the wrong signals ourselves without being aware of it. This potential problem became apparent to me when I read of a study published in the January 2003 issue of Developmental Psychology, which reported that parents used more technical and precise language when doing science experiments with their sons than with their daughters. (At least they were doing such experiments with their daughters, though this finding is biased by the fact that children were selected for the study based on a demonstrated interest in science. How many young girls never even had this opportunity presented to them?) This suggests that the parents, whether consciously or not, were assuming that the technical jargon of science would communicate more effectively with their sons than with their daughters.

It’s not possible to objectively assess our own communication style, but with a little help from someone else (a partner or spouse, perhaps) who has been asked to pay attention to what we’re doing, we can at least identify whether we’re passing on our own socially conditioned biases to yet another generation. And we can take overt measures to correct the problem; for example, when my daughter briefly expressed an interest in nursing, I asked her why she wouldn’t consider becoming a doctor instead. I made it clear that although nursing is fine choice of profession, she shouldn’t narrow her options unduly at this point. When we read books together, I quiz her on the tough words to make sure she understands them, and shamelessly indulge in my own evangelical love of etymology if she doesn’t. I encourage you to make similar efforts with your own children (and in the context of this editorial, particularly with your daughters). Children are far too important for us to leave their intellectual development to someone else. After all, scientific communication is about more than just preparing that next journal article; sometimes it’s about preparing that next generation of writers (or editors) of journal articles.

My essays on scientific communication have now been collected in the following book:

Hart, G. 2011. Exchanges: 10 years of essays on scientific communication. Diaskeuasis Publishing, Pointe-Claire, Que. Printed version, 242 p.; eBook in PDF format, 327 p.

©2004–2017 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved