Friday, December 9, 2011

Words matter

This week on NPR, I heard a story about t-shirts sold at either Forever 21 or Penney’s (I forget which and am too lazy to go look it up) that have slogans like Allergic to Algebra on them. The story described how a mother was disturbed enough by the message on those shirts that she started a tweet campaign against them, and enough people joined in that the shirts were removed from the stores.

What really caught my attention was the sound clip from another woman, also a mother, who basically said she didn’t see what difference a shirt like that made, they’re just kids and it’s just words or something to that effect.

I couldn’t disagree with her more. Words do matter, they matter a lot. What we tell our children has a lot to do with how they see themselves including what they think they can and cannot do. We all have those childhood tapes in our heads—some are positive and sadly, many are not.

If we tell them they are clever and good at something, I think that can influence their behavior. I remember overhearing my mother and first grade teacher talking about me right before Christmas break that year. My mother asked how I was doing and my teacher, Miss Floyd, gave her an update on me. She said that I was in the second reading group but there was no reason I couldn’t be in the top reading group if I wanted to be. That idea was new to me, that I could be in the top reading group and it was almost like I was given permission to get there. So I did. I’m not sure that would have happened without her saying that and me overhearing it.

I wish I’d gotten that message about math too. I didn’t do well in math until I got to college. Partly that’s because I went to five different elementary schools so math was very disjointed for me. I didn’t get the continuity or practice that’s necessary to master basic math skills. I also wasn’t told I could be good at math. Based on how difficult math was for me, I decided I was awful at it and that I hated it.

Flash forward to college. That was the first time I had to do a lot of math, over and over until I mastered the concepts. I realized I was actually quite good at it once I’d had enough practice. I still didn’t particularly love it, well not all of it, although I absolutely adored statistics and computer science math.

My experience with math is why I tell every little girl I see that she will be really good at math and science. Sometimes I get puzzled looks from the adults nearby but I don’t care. I want that message to get out and I want girls to realize they can be cute and also kick ass at algebra.

Edited to add a link to the article Jeanne mentioned in the comments. Go read it!


Jeanne said...

Oh, I was going to leave you a link to the Scalzi discussion of this, because he identifies the stores and there are other links and I thought he summed it up well. Then I remembered you don't like links in your comments. The post is called "Athena tells it like it is" and it's at his site Whatever.

kittiesx3 said...

I don't mind links from real people. You might remember I had a lot of porn spam, almost certainly because of the name of my blog. So people were leaving those kinds of links in the comments. No thanks! Off to read the article!

Harriet said...

I'm not holding my breath for a t-shirt that says "Words matter" in a chain store. But I'd like to see one.

FreshHell said...

They do matter. Particularly when confronted by the same negative words over and over.

I'm not particularly skilled in math though I could have been had I been taught better. I'm constantly amazed at how well both J and M do in math. J claims it's her favorite subject (!) and M is good at it but doesn't like it. "It's boring," she says. She'd rather be sewing. maybe I can get her a t-shirt with that phrase on it: I'd Rather Be Sewing. :)

Ronald said...

In college I read The Lonely Crowd by David Reisman, an historical view of personal types. He argued that people were either "tradition-directed," "inner-directed," or "other-directed." Inner-directed people live and act not according to norms, but based on their own inner sense of right and wrong. They would rather be right than be admired. They like to be in control and can be inflexible. They define themselves by their principles. Other-directed people take their cues from society would rather be loved than esteemed. They are flexible and willing to accommodate others. They define themselves by their relationships to others.

Reisman argues that modern society is completely dominated by the other-directed personality type, which is crucial to the smooth functioning of large organizations. There's a lot more to say, but my point (and I do have one) is that word matter more to other-directed personalities. Therefore, at least in our society, words matter more than they ever have before.

Jolo said...

Heh, I was reading about this last week on Freethought as well.

Beth Mauk said...

I feel the exact same way about how so many parents talk about their teenagers, and often within earshot of them. I can't tell you how many women have told me(when we are talking about Valentine), "Oh, enjoy her now, because when she's a teenager...ugh" or "Just wait 'till she's a teenager...then she'll be a real pill!" etc etc...I feel so angry every time I hear something like that, and sad for the daughter(or son). I think kids understand what adults are talking about way before they even start talking, and I'm glad that my Mom never made me feel like she was dreading me turning 13 because of what a "hassle" and "pill" I would be with all my emotions.