Moms are awesome, both in science and in song

Early Christmas morning 1985, I quietly crept out bed. There was something that I really wanted, and I had to see if it was there. Tip-toeing down the long hallway, careful to avoid the floorboards that I knew would creak, I held my breath.

At the threshold of the living room I couldn’t hold it in any longer. I burst into room.

There, reflecting the blinking coloured lights of the tree, was the long white telescope I’d hoped for. A small crinkled note written on wrapping paper in my mother’s scrawled handwriting read, “To our girl who is always reaching for the stars.”

But oh, you love her
Like you never thought you could
And oh, you love her
Like the moon it loves the earth

Vancouver singer-songwriter Frazey Ford‘s debut solo album Obadiah is steeped in motherhood like few others. She has struck out on her own after a decade with the popular folk trio The Be Good Tanyas, and it’s something that has been constantly on her mind. The album is “moved by motherhood, earth and land.” Ford learned to sing at home, providing melodies to anchor her mother’s harmonies around the house. That domestic vocal partnership is recreated when her mom joins her on the track Lost Together. Ford is also mother herself and Hey Little Momma, our Song of the Week, embraces the theme completely. The song finds a young woman struggling with a new baby and an unreliable partner. She wants to give her daughter everything that she didn’t have. It’s a quirky and lilting song reflecting the fears, responsibility and, ultimately, immense love of motherhood. It’s a perfect (two days after) Mother’s Day song*.

Moms like the one we meet in Ford’s song aren’t only precious for the love and support they give their kids, though. They’re also good for science. My mom, who wrote the note on my brand new telescope in 1985, was a home economics teacher. Because of her skills, I learned to sew (well) and cook (not so well despite her best efforts). But she had no particular interest in science. She’d found it intimidating and dropped it as early as she could in high school. As a result, my mom could have chosen to ignore my constant questions about the stars and brush them off. She never did. She always made two things clear: that science was a great thing to be interested in and that both she and my dad believed in my abilities to do it. It turns out, those two things are pretty important.

What moms say to their kids about the value of science and how much they believe in their kids’ abilities are among the most important influences for students persisting in their science classes and choosing careers in science. In the early 1990s, Janis Jacobs, a psychology researcher then at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, did a series of studies of middle-school-aged kids and their parents. When those parents, particularly moms, expressed stereotypical views about boys and girls they also tended to say that their daughters weren’t as good at math. This was true even when the kids were no different in their actual abilities and grades. When moms expressed gender equality views, they ranked their boys and girls abilities that way too. And it wasn’t just that the moms believed it, the kids did too. Their beliefs in their own abilities tended to match their moms.

Okay, so it’s one thing to ask kids about their confidence in sixth grade. It’s probably no surprise that kids would have similar views to their parents at that age. What really matters is what happens as they mature, right? To find out, Jacobs and her colleague Martha Bleeker followed up with the kids 12 years later as 24-25 year old adults. Those moms’ predictions turned out to be very important, especially for the girls. Girls whose moms believed in their science abilities in middle school chose science careers much more often than girls whose grades were just as good but didn’t receive the same encouragement. Those girls even choose physical science careers, where there are usually fewer women,  as often as the boys in their classes.

We didn’t talk much about science at home or know anyone who worked in science. My school didn’t even have a science program until I was in Grade 7. What I did have was constant encouragement and support for my interest, support that carried me though undergrad, grad school and beyond. Thank you to all the moms out there like mine who do that every day.

From all your girls and boys who are reaching for the stars.

But oh, you love her
Like you never thought you could
And oh, you love her
Like the moon it loves the earth

*Big thanks to the CBC Radio 3’s playlist Ten Canadian Indie Songs to Play for your Mom for reminding me of this gem.

Bleeker, M. M., & Jacobs, J. E. (2004). Achievement in math and science: Do mothers’ beliefs matter 12 years Later? Journal of Educational Psychology, 96, 97-109. doi: 10.1037/0022-0663.96.1.97

Author: mcshanahan

Science education researcher and writer

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