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Update 4/25/2017: I’ve learned through feedback that some feel this article was missing a key point: that by treating the STEM fields as the “smart” fields our kids will shy away due to the fear of failure. This is absolutely a concern, and I’ve added my thoughts on that topic under point three (“It lowers self-esteem”).
Not long after I finished grad school, my friend Sarah and I took our kiddos to play a local mall. There we met a little girl, and what I assumed to be her dad and grandmother. While the little ones played, we started talking. The point came up I just recently became a stay-at-home-mom because I was finishing grad school when my son was first born. The conversation continued something like this:
Woman: What did you study?
Woman and man: Ooooohhhh, you must be really smart.
While I was flattered, I just shrugged it off….this wasn’t the first time someone assumed I was smart because I studied a STEM field.
But let me tell you a dirty little insider secret: Not everyone in the STEM fields are “smart.”
In grad school I discovered how socially awkward and narrow-minded some (not all, of course!) people in STEM could be. But most of us know that the ability to connect with people, to use our common sense, and consider our place in a much broader world are all types of “smarts” that are extremely important but often undermined. Why? Possibly because they are less quantifiable, but that’s conversation for another day.
Of course, these generalizations don’t apply to everyone. My husband Ted, who also happens to be a Chemistry PhD-to-master’s convert, is one of the most math-and-science-minded people I know: without ever studying for the SAT, he scored a 790 on the math section, and when he decided to leave Chemistry he self-taught himself everything he needed to so he could become a software engineer. But he also can connect with people and reason through just about anything.
You know what else he did? He ran away from home to avoid taking the Spanish GCSE. He thought he was so bad at Spanish that he legitimately ran away to the woods for several days because he was afraid of failing the test. Maybe, just maybe, the pressure he felt (or put on himself) from his label as “smart” was confusing and too much to handle when it came to understanding a “simple” subject that just didn’t resonate in his particular brain.
These scenarios got me thinking….might we be hurting our kids by labeling the STEM fields as the the ones for “smart” people over fields that require creative, emotional, and other types of intelligence?
Absolutely! While a basic knowledge of math and science is important, I think there are several reasons that assuming your child is going to be the next “big” doctor or scientist is hurting them. With that being said, here are 4 reasons why we need to stop treating the STEM fields as “smart”:
1-) It undermines their natural talents
Teaching our children the idea that the STEM fields are the “best option” rather than helping them build their natural talents encourages them to turn their focus to something they are not particularly inclined to do. Or worse, to turn their focus to something they don’t like. Which leads to my next point…
2-) It builds resentment
Ted and I both taught undergraduate students who clearly didn’t want to do science but felt obligated. Ted had a student directly tell him that she actually wanted to study History, but her parents immigrated over to the US so that she could become a doctor (talk about pressure!). She clearly felt unhappy already, and she hadn’t even made it to medical school yet! That kind of “encouragement” of our children will only build resentment and hurt relationships.
3-) It lowers self-esteem
Only praising the person who is good at science for being the “smart” kid indirectly implies that the person who is not good at science is less “smart”. Obviously, this isn’t true; but it’s also bad for the self-esteem of the kids who have other talents outside of the STEM realm.
Similarly, someone interested in STEM may shy away due to the fear of failure because he/she has the impression that it’s only for “smart” people. This becomes especially true when someone comes from a family where very few people have careers in the STEM fields because they don’t have the guidance or role models. For these kids interested in STEM, science or math as a career can feel foreign. Even if their parents encourage them to “go for it,” whispers from other family, friends, or peers about how STEM fields are “difficult” may make them feel inadequate or nervous.
4-) It leads to mediocre careers
If our children to go into the STEM fields simply because they are respected and will lead to “good” careers, they will never be passionate about what they do, nor will they feel inclined to work towards big goals. They may ultimately change to something they are passionate about later on in life, which gives them a late start in a career they really enjoy.
So, if these are the consequences of treating the STEM fields as the “smart” fields, what do we do instead? Here’s a few suggestions:
1-) Encourage our kids to explore different fields
Yes, this includes science and math. Tell them that it’s important to expose themselves to everything they can, but that it’s OK if they don’t enjoy it once they’ve tried. They need to understand that exposure is the only way our kids (or anyone, really) will discover what they enjoy. There’s no shortcuts around it.
2-) Acknowledge their strengths
There’s a movement out there to avoid giving kids participation trophies because it undermines the others’ achievements. Whether or not you believe in this, it’s important to acknowledge what our children do well….sometimes even kids are hard on themselves and need an outside set of eyes to realize what they’re good at.
3-) Acknowledge their weaknesses
Telling our children that they are the best thing since sliced bread will not lead to them becoming well-adjusted adults. Of course as parents we want our children to be awesome at everything, but it just doesn’t work that way. Does your kid always strike out in baseball? Give him/her a big hug and offer to practice together. Saying “you’ll get it eventually” or “you’re not really that bad” won’t teach them to be proactive at bettering themselves. As a bonus, you’ll improve your relationship by spending one-on-one time together.
4-) Ask them what they enjoy
Most college students today feel immense pressure when choosing a major because they haven’t decided what they really enjoy. And who can blame them? Trying to decide your life’s path at the age of 17 or 18 is scary!
But people….college is SUPER EXPENSIVE these days. We owe it to our kids and to ourselves to prepare them for it the best we can. Regularly asking our kids what they enjoy (and what they don’t) and why they enjoy (or don’t) x,y, or z teaches them to be honest with themselves. And hopefully this skill will guide them in making confident decisions and ultimately lead to a satisfying career and life.
5-) Remind them that they can do what they want
I don’t mean this in a generic “you can be whatever you want it to be” type sense. Instead, I mean that a particular major/job/etc doesn’t necessarily lock them into a certain path just because that’s where they started.
I learned this the hard way. Throughout college and grad school, I was under the impression that my two options after I graduated were to a-) get a post-doctoral position and ultimately go to academia or b-) go into industry. After all, that’s what most people do.
Now I would smack myself in the face for thinking that!
Ted started in Chemistry and has made a successful career in software development; one of his frat brothers left an engineering job and opened a brewery; a trained scientist I met on vacation went on to be a graphic designer! Kids need to know that they can, and should, define their own lives. It will not always be easy (in all honesty, it’s down right hard most of the time!), but it will always be worth it.
What do you think? Are we over-emphasizing certain skills in our children? What should we do about it?
For more thought-provoking parenting ideas check out How to Reduce Your Environmental Impact When You Have a Baby or Toddler and Why You Should Be Friends with the Mom Who Leashes Her Kid.