But it turns out there are some key differences in how mothers conduct those narrative conversations with their daughters, as opposed to their sons. Tom Jacobs, for Miller-McCune magazine, spoke to researchers from the University of Delaware’s School of Education who have been trying to decipher whether American mothers give their daughters different messages when it comes to math — because, as the researcher Alicia Chang told him: “By grade school, boys are very confident at math, and girls are saying boys are better at math. The issue isn’t actual performance but perception of competence.”
What she and her colleagues found was troubling.
Even [when their children are] as young as 22 months, American parents draw boys’ attention to numerical concepts far more often than girls’. Indeed, parents speak to boys about number concepts twice as often as they do girls. For cardinal-numbers speech, in which a number is attached to an obvious noun reference — “Here are five raisins” or “Look at those two beds” — the difference was even larger. Mothers were three times more likely to use such formulations while talking to boys.
The difference was as unintentional as it was striking. These mothers didn’t set out to use numbers and number concepts less in conversations with girls than with boys — they simply did. There’s no proof, of course, that that difference affects girls’ later perceptions that math is not their thing.
In the winter of 1906 an aging Civil War veteran wrote to Dr. S. Weir Mitchell to update him on his condition. The two had, apparently, spoken some years earlier regarding the veteran’s experiences having lost his right arm. The man describes the pain he continues to feel in his amputated hand and his recurring dreams of using both hands.
“Dr. S. Weir Mitchell,
Referring to a talk we had some years ago, about the loss of a limb, I thought it would be interesting to you to have some of my experiences in the case.
… When a gust of wind would make it possible that my straw hat would blow off, an attempt was involuntarily made to catch my hat with my right hand. This feeling of the possibility of using the right hand gradually grew less, until it entirely disappeared, and now I never think of my right hand with any though of using it…
I am now fond of writing with a pen, fond of the mechanical skill which writing requires, and I write often in my dreams, but always with the right hand I used over forty years ago. To do this, I attempt to use the tendons which would hold and guide the pen, and this is done with so much fatigue in attempting to control the hand and move the pen, that I suffer great pain in my finger tendons, even to wakening me up from the most profound sleep, because of the pain in the lost hand.
Thus, in my dreams, I remain a man with a perfect frame, but while awake, I never think of myself otherwise than a one-handed being. And this after two-thirds, (and that of course the last two-thirds), of my life had fully accustomed me to being with one hand only.
Now for the curious part. I was 24 years old when I lost my arm, and am now 67. Almost two-thirds of my life has passed without thought of the possible use of my right arm, and yet never have I dreamed once, that I was not without two arms, and only last night I dreamt that I was holding a paper up with my two hands. When I ride or drive, or cling to limb on the trees, or write, in my dreams, I always have the use of both my hands.