In the early 90s, Mattel released a talking Barbie that could say four different phrases. One of the possibilities was “Math class is tough” (often misquoted as “Math is hard”). After quite a few public protests, Mattel stopped recording this phrase to the dolls.
The reason for the protest is obvious. Girls shouldn’t get confronted with a (stereotypical) phrase that sets them up to approach a subject with hesitation, fear, and an understanding that they are a) not expected to be good at a certain subject and b) therefore don’t really need to try.
Stereotypes aside, as parents and teachers to our children we are at risk of sending messages that sound like Barbie… and the problem is that we are probably to 99percent not aware of it.
My daughter loves the ABC. She loves to trace letters, copy them, build them out of sticks, you name it. While working hard on a flower picture, she asked me to write “flower” on top of the page. When I came back to check out her painting I noticed that she had also traced and copied the title – without the letter “R”.
I asked her why she had left out that letter and she told me that ”Rs are hard. I don’t know how to do an R.” – Wow. That was almost exactly what I had said a couple of days earlier. While practicing letters I had pointed out to her which letters are easier and which are harder to write. My intention, however, was of course never to discourage her from writing certain letters but to make sure she wouldn’t feel bad if some shapes looked better than others. Well, that completely backfired. I can just hear the computer sounding Barbie voice saying “Rs are hard” – and my daughter thinking: “Well, if that’s the case I might not be able to write an R.”
Words are powerful. Parents’ words are even more powerful. Everything we say carries a message – sometimes between the lines. Everything we repeat enforces the message.
Let’s reprogram our voice and recall the discouraging messages. “Math is beautiful because numbers help you to build houses and to understand how much things cost”. “The letter R is awesome because it has a big belly and it kicks out one leg.”