Three Parenting Myths about STEM, Busted!

Ryan Hagerty, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, via Creative Commons.

Ryan Hagerty, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, via Creative Commons.

By Lela Nargi

There’s a lot of contradictory and downright erroneous parenting info floating around out there. We’re not afraid to tackle it head-on!

With all the talk these days about the relevance and importance of STEM subjects—Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math—it’s easy for parents to feel like they’re massively failing in making basic math- and science-related concepts interesting to their kids. Or worse, to check out of the conversation altogether, because they’re sure it’s over their heads. But STEM is all around us in the world, even if we don’t immediately recognize it, says Johanna Arnone, editor of the kid’s science magazine Muse and also mother to a science-curious 4-1/2-year-old daughter. Finding it, and harnessing it, is a lot easier than you think.

Myth #1: I don’t know anything about science, so I can’t teach my kids anything about it.

Truth: Science is the air we breathe, the food we eat, the animals—even pigeons and rats for city-dwellers—that pass by our window. But, admits Arnone, “It’s common for parents to feel like science is a closed room and that you either belong or you don’t.” She points out, though, that we can learn a lot about science from even our very smallest children who, led by their own pure curiosity, are the real researchers in our families—they want to learn by touching and doing. Taking our cues from them, we can stop to collect differently shaped leaves on a walk around the neighborhood, or watch squirrels scampering into their nests, then talk about what we see. Some parents, says Arnone, might need to “trick” themselves into science mode, by seeking out books and stories that are first and foremost great, engaging tales—whether they cover coral reef degradation or how mosquitoes fly. When you get the right science interpreter, says Arnone, “It can be magical.”

Myth #2: If girls aren’t actually worse than boys at STEM subjects, they at least need special games and toys to get them interested.

Truth: “I recently had a conversation with my daughter where she told me, Boys like trucks!” says Arnone. “I felt like slamming on the brakes and saying, What have I done?” The truth is, from a very young age, children pick up on societal “norms,” and that goes double for STEM subjects (Construction sets? Those are for boys, unless they’re a pink-colored, girl-themed construction sets.) Arnone says that placing raw materials in front of a child—acorns; caterpillars that will morph in to butterflies; baking soda and vinegar, to see what happens when you put them together—keeps things neutral and as a result, allows your child to make decisions about what interests him or her, without gender stereotyping. Whatever you do, keep your own expectations (I want my daughter to be a rocket scientist!) out of the equation—you’re sure to be disappointed.

Nicole Hamilton, Courtesy of the national wildlife federation.

Nicole Hamilton, Courtesy of the national wildlife federation.

Myth #3: My kid’s going to be an artist; he won’t need to know anything about STEM subjects to be successful in life.

Truth: “STEM is so intertwined with so many different directions a person could go in,” says Arnone, “that it’s counterproductive to think of science and math as things that are esoteric.” Who’s to say your budding artist won’t want to make 3D art one day—a pursuit that would greatly benefit from his knowledge of design software? Or that his interests won’t change over time? Rather than saying to your child, “You’re so good at baseball you don’t need to worry about physics,” Arnone suggests, “What if we see how much overlap we can find between physics and your sport? It makes the world a much bigger place!”