I just read an excerpt about confidence from Mindy Kaling’s book, and I wanted to say something longer-than-a-tweet about it. I agree with what she’s saying about how you go about getting confidence. You do the work. You earn the right to be confident. I’ve always been told I seem very confident. The truth is I have a lot of areas of my life I have little confidence in. But they are without exception areas of my life that I don’t put much effort into. I work hard to be a good mom, to be a good wife and a good friend, to learn Haskell, to write the best book I can write, to understand theoretical syntax and Nietzsche. I have a fair bit of confidence in my abilities in those areas. Not perfect, because I always want to work that little bit harder at those things, but enough.
Anyway, Mindy Kaling says this, which really resonated with me:
We just assume boys will be confident, like how your parents assume you will brush your teeth every morning without checking in on you in the bathroom. With girls, that assumption flies out the window. Suddenly, your parents are standing in the bathroom with you, watching you brush your teeth with encouraging, worried expressions on their faces. Sweetheart, you can do it! We know it’s hard to brush your teeth! We love you!Which must make girls think, Yikes. Is brushing your teeth a really hard and scary thing to do? I thought it was just putting toothpaste on a toothbrush. I get worried that telling girls how difficult it is to be confident implies a tacit expectation that girls won’t be able to do it.
Because I’ve been thinking about the teaching of math to children today, the first thing that jumped to my mind is that this is the number one thing that bothers me about the way we go about trying to get girls interested in math and technology. On the one hand, there really are still men around in society — and some women too — who truly believe that girls can’t do math or tech as well as boys, no matter what. On the other side, you have the well-meaning folks who explicitly want to make math and tech seem less scary and masculine. Nobody, though, seems to be making basic competency in these fields the default assumption for all, regardless of sex/gender. Instead, we adults preface introducing mathematical concepts (not only for girls — people do this in mixed-sex groups as well, but for some reason, we’ve gone nuts trying to cover math and tech events “for women” in pink cupcakes so that it will look as not-scary as possible, I guess, which has always seemed incredibly infantilizing to me, which is Reason #351 I often feel like Not a Real Woman /tangent) by telling kids not to be scared by it, that they absolutely can learn to brush their teeth and we will cheer them on the whole way yayyyy.
But why would we do that? Because we adults are scared of math and computers. So we are really trying to reassure ourselves, and in doing so, we pass along the implicit message to kids that these things are scary and hard. We send the message that basic competency in these areas can’t be assumed for all humans of more or less normal intelligence. We suggest, however tacitly, that some of them will fail because this is too hard.
This is bullshit, though, and we need to stop it. Basic mathematical and technological competence should be the default assumption for the majority of human beings. And if we never suggest to kids that there is any alternative to learning these things, they won’t be primed to think of them as scary (or, in the case of girls, inherently masculine).
Some of these things are difficult, and they will have to work hard to understand them, and we do need to convey the message that some things in life will require hard work, and learning is one of them. We also need to convey that doing the work is worth it. But, and here again Kaling is correct, that most adults convey to their children that hard work is terrible and that learning is something we only do when we’re at school.
And it’s also good to convey that sometimes you will work your butt off at something and still not be the best. I worked really hard at basketball back in middle and high school; I am still not very good. That’s fine, because I know I did my best, and part of confidence is ultimately knowing what your limitations are, as well as your talents.
In our house and homeschool, we have default assumptions that we never make a fuss over, and our kids have never seriously questioned them:
- vegetables are good food just like any other good food so if you’re hungry, you eat them;
- learning is sometimes easy and sometimes hard work but we learn all the time and learning is good both for its own sake and for the opportunities it opens up;
- it’s good to work hard at work worth doing and if you need to work harder at something you want to do, then work harder;
- since hard work isn’t scary and since you can do most things to some level of competency if you just apply yourself, there is no reason to think math or programming or boxing or ancient Greek or kanji is especially scary. Just. Do. The. Goddamned. Work.
I’m reminded of Richard Feynman’s story of realizing that girls could understand analytic geometry and then finding out they were talking about knitting argyle socks. Everyone assumes girls are perfectly capable of learning to knit argyle socks if they work at it, and we don’t tell them that knitting is hard and scary. Why should we tell them that the geometry behind those patterns is any scarier?