You may be practicing ABC’s and 123’s, keep your pantry stock with broccoli and other brain foods, and have the complete works of Dr. Seuss on deck, but a recent study reveals that you may be sending your daughter mixed messages about her intelligence.

The research of psychologists Andrei Cimpian and Sarah-Jane Leslie was recently featured in the NY Times and reveals that by the age of six girls begin to believe that certain activities are not for them because they aren’t “smart enough”:

“Our research suggests that American children are picking up on cultural stereotypes about brilliance at an early age. Unfortunately, these stereotypes suggest that girls aren’t as smart as boys.”

The findings reveal that parents may subconsciously reinforce this mindset although they may not actively express it.  A 2014 report found that parents were more likely to Google questions about their son’s intelligence like, “Is my son a genius?” and questions about their daughter’s appearance such as, “ Is my daughter overweight?”

The recent study points out that problem occurs when kids begin to pick up on these beliefs no matter how subtle they seem to be. The researchers studied 400 children ages 5 to 7, recruited over the last several years from a middle-class community near the University of Illinois and observed something interesting:

“For one study, each of 96 children (half boys, half girls) was told two stories about a person whose gender was not specified. They were told that one was about a “really, really smart” person, and the other was about a “really, really nice” person. Next, the children were shown four pictures (two males and two females) and were asked to guess which one might be the person in the story.

At age 5, boys and girls were equally likely to associate intelligence with their own gender, but that changed quickly. At age 6, girls were significantly less likely to associate brilliance with their own gender. Many of them picked a male character to identify as the really smart person in the story, much as the boys did.”

“When we asked children to guess which of four children, two boys and two girls, would get the best grades in school, girls picked mostly other girls. In other words, the girls we tested were aware that girls do better in school than boys, but that didn’t change their ideas about who’s “smart.”

As someone who gave up on being good at math around 7th grade, admittedly this makes me question if my disinterest is more about lack of belief than actual ability.

So how can we start to put an end to this cycle of stereotypes that has our girls internalizing the idea of “boy do it better” as early as the first grade? Psychologist Carolyn Dweck thinks the answer may lie in “emphasizing the importance of learning and effort — rather than just innate ability”. In other words, stop telling your kids they’re naturally better at one activity than the other based on their anatomy and start spreading the message that achieving our goals is more about effort and learning which everyone has equal access to regardless of gender. Dweck also says it’s important to surround your kids with role models of all genders and professional paths. For every singer there should be a scientist and for every supermodel there should be a mechanic.

Now that we’ve gotten pretend play down, I think it’s time to start adding some STEM activities to my toddler’s schedule.

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