Parenting Anxiety and Why We Worry

I’m back! It’s been a minute. It’s been a busy year to say the least. Along with starting a new job, I’ve also been working on publishing my research on children coding and parent confidence around STEM media. I’m happy to have both papers published and ready to get back to writing my blog for you!

Although the past year has indeed been busy, I can’t blame my lack of writing completely on time. Over the past few months, I’ve been reading articles and talking to friends to try to understand what information they look for on parenting. 

Instead of discovering topics of interest to them, however, the parent friends I spoke with expressed feeling inadequate or anxious about their role as a caregiver. One friend told me about how she would look for parenting information online and then find other information that she “didn’t want to know but now can’t unknow” because it made her worry more. Another friend told me that she felt like everything she did would potentially “mess him [her son] up for life.”

Despite my initial intentions to empower parents with research-backed information, I started to think my blog posts were part of the problem. When I thought back to some of them, I could see how a worried parent could read and think, I’m not doing enough. I feared that I was making parents feel small and inadequate—the exact opposite of what I’m trying to do.

Anxiety around parenting is not new, but it does seem to be heightened. We live in the age of information, where every parenting question can be answered by reading the right books or joining a Facebook group or Google searching frantically at 2 a.m. 

With the “answer” being one click away, it’s no wonder that parents worry constantly if they’re doing it right. Unlike previous generations that learned by trial and error, parents today feel like because they can know the right answer, they should know the right answer—if they want to be good parents. 

One parent told me that knowing too much information made her helicopter-y. “It breeds the wrong idea about what your job as a parent is,” she told me.

Economist Emily Oster has leveraged the plethora of data we have on parenting and pregnancy and written extensively on these topics. As an expecting mother when she wrote her first book, she wanted to know what the research said about parenting topics, like eating sushi when pregnant. In her most-recent book, Cribsheet, Oster summarizes the research literature and delivers parenting suggestions based on what we know (and don’t know) from the data. 

But what Oster also discovered in her research—and wrote about in this article—is that many topics, like breastfeeding, were loaded with parental anxiety, judgement and guilt. Along with being able to easily access information, we also can easily peer into someone else’s life and judge them for how they parent. In part, parenting anxiety comes from parents knowing that they’re going to be evaluated by others for doing something that is perceived as wrong.

While the fear that I was contributing to parenting anxiety initially stopped me from writing, learning more about the worries that parents face motivated me to pick it back up. My goal has always been to empower parents with information, but part of empowering parents is encouraging them to take care of themselves so that they can be effective parents. 

As I ease back into writing for you, I want to be more mindful about the challenges parents face today. More than ever, guilt, worry and anxiety taint parenting experiences. I think one step forward would be to invite parents to do what they need to do to take care of themselves—even if it doesn’t look like good parenting. 

You can turn the TV on when you’re home alone with your child and haven’t seen another adult in 12 hours. Even if the TV show isn’t educational, I bet you’ll be a more present, happier and effective parent after having a break.  

I don’t have a solution for fighting parenting anxiety, but I hope parents find solstice in knowing why they might feel guilty and worried on a daily basis. 

At the very least, I want parents to know they’re not alone.

New Guidelines on Play – For Children and Adults

This month, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a report outlining the importance of play for development. The report asked parents to engage their children in playful learning and urged pediatricians to “prescribe play.” The main tenet of the report was that play is not frivolous; rather, it is imperative for social-emotional and cognitive development, self-regulation, and for prosocial learning.

As evidence, the report details numerous research studies that demonstrate the positive effects of play early in life. For example, research shows that preschool children who were given blocks to play with for six months showed improvements in language development, likely because parents talked to their children more during play. Other research shows that physical play, like recess, promotes attention and brain functioning, which is important for focusing in classroom settings. Researchers hypothesize that pretend play – like pretending a banana is a phone or playing with an imaginary friend – allows children to practice social norms while also testing, experimenting, and bending the rules without real world consequences. Indeed, research shows that pretend play improves children’s ability to make inferences and reason about hypothetical events.

Play is also critically important for parents, too. For instance, the AAP outlines the importance of play for building healthy parent-child relationships. By practicing give-and-take exchanges, parents can become better attuned to their child’s non-verbal cues from a young age. Play can also reduce parent stress, which undoubtedly all parents experience.

When parents play with their children, they can promote learning by subtly guiding their children toward a certain learning goal. Guided play is important because it allows parents to scaffold play in a way that still gives the child agency to explore and create, but at the same time the parent can ask questions and make comments that direct the child toward a particular goal. Indeed, research shows that children who were taught the names of shapes through guided play showed improved shape knowledge compared to children who learned through free play or instruction. Play therefore promotes parent-child bonding but also can be a powerful way to help children learn new, challenging concepts.

The same week the AAP released its report on the importance of play, LEGO released a report showing that parents and children aren’t getting enough play. In a survey of more than 12,000 parents and children, researchers at LEGO found that 61% of parents admit that life’s demands, like chores and smartphones, get in the way of play. At the same time, four out of five children reported that they wished their parents would play with them more.

The researchers also found a strong link between play and happiness: Families that played together for five hours or more a week reported they were happier than families who played for less than five hours a week. Importantly, parents understand the critical role of play, with 95% of them saying that they believe play is essential to their child’s well-being and 91% saying that it is good for their own well-being and happiness.

Paired with the AAP’s report, it’s clear that parents and pediatricians know that play is important, but sometimes struggle to incorporate play during their hectic, overscheduled lives. The release of these reports also comes at a time when play in early education is being replaced by more structured instruction or test-prep. Practitioners and researchers seem to be urging parents and teachers to advocate for playtime, recess, and a playful approach to learning. At the very least, these reports are a reminder to parents of the sanctity of play for the family as a whole.

Parents and Policy Makers Continue to Seek Guidance on Children and Media

Over the past three weeks, I’ve been traveling to conferences to share my research on children’s learning from STEM media. In early May, I represented Northwestern at the Coalition for National Science Funding in Washington, D.C., where I met with members of Congress and their staff. Later in May, I travelled to Prague for the International Communication Association Conference and then to Amsterdam for the Jean Piaget Society Conference to present my research on how parent-child interactions affect children’s learning from a coding app.

At these conferences, I kept being asked the same questions from researchers, parents, teachers, and policy makers. In addition to being asked about the specific findings of my research, I was also being asked questions about appropriate uses of media. Researchers who had children would describe to me their child’s habits around media and ask, “Is that okay?” Or they’d ask, “Which apps should my child use?” Even the customs agent at the airport expressed anxiety around his children’s use of media. When I mentioned I was travelling to present research on children and media, he replied: “Ah yes—we need that type of research. Even I’m like, ‘What to do! What to do!’”

The research I presented overwhelmingly shows that children can learn STEM concepts from media, and that parents can help their children learn from touchscreens. Still, it seemed as if my audience couldn’t yet consider the nuanced implications of the findings because they were too concerned and anxious about their practices at home around screen time. I often felt like I was giving them therapy, trying to help well-meaning parents feel less guilty about letting their children use media.

Here I share my response to these questions for parents and educators who still feel unsure or uneasy about using media in the home.

What apps should my child use?

Although I do research on children’s learning from touchscreen apps, I always remind parents that I don’t evaluate all the apps that are available for preschool-aged children. Instead, we select apps to use in our research that we know are created by companies that have research teams to ensure the content is high quality. For preschoolers, I always encourage parents to do the same, and to look for apps made by PBS Kids, Sesame Street, and Parents can also consult Common Sense Media for free for curated lists on apps that experts have deemed are educational for each age.

I also encourage parents to play the game first before letting their kids play; they should then play it with their child as well. Playing with their child can help them see if their child is having any difficulties, or if it seems like their child is “zoning out” and not learning. If parents notice any of these issues with the game, they can pick a different game that is more developmentally appropriate.

This is what we do – is that okay?

When answering questions about media habits, I always remind parents about the American Academy of Pediatrics’ guidelines on children’s screen time: Children aged 2 years and younger should be using media limitedly and with a parent, while children aged 2 and older should be limited to an hour or less a day. Of course, I often hear parents “confessing” that they let their 1.5 year old play with the tablet while they’re trying to get chores done, or that they feel bad about letting their child use a tablet at a restaurant. Here, I try to remind parents that they need breaks to be effective parents. If that means the iPad is a babysitter for 30 minutes, then so be it.

Once I feel like I’ve reduced parent guilt, I try to empower parents by giving them resources on where to find high-quality content, so that when they’re letting their child use media, they’re more likely to be learning from it. In this way, I try to convey that if the content is high quality, they shouldn’t feel guilty about letting their child play for limited amounts of time.

I also remind parents that media habits aren’t once-size-fits-all. What works for one child might be over-stimulating for another. When making changes or trying out new routines, I encourage parents to consider their child’s development holistically: Media use can be a powerful learning tool, but too much can replace hands-on learning experiences that are also important for development.

My goal is to help parents feel empowered around media. To do this, researchers and educators can provide parents with resources that help them better understand how to best use media with their young children. When we reduce parental guilt and empower parents to feel good about the media choices they make for their kids, we can move past the screen time discussion and talk more about the more nuanced ways that media can promote children’s learning, health, and happiness.

The Four Parenting Styles and How They Influence Development

Parents play an important role in their children’s lives, not only by providing essential nourishment and care, but also by providing emotional and social support.

Psychologists have studied the ways parents “parent” since the 1960s; over time, they have tried to classify the range of parenting practices as they observe them. Importantly, research shows that the different types of parenting have implications for children’s academic achievement, mental health and emotional development later in their lives.

Parenting type or style is typically measured on two dimensions — warmth and control. Parents who are high in warmth are accepting and affectionate. They listen to their children and include children in decision making, and they respond to their children’s physical and emotional needs.

In contrast, parents who are low in warmth are less responsive, more rejecting and have trouble expressing affection to their children.

Parents who are high in control set limits for their children and are clear about what these limits are. They explain when certain behaviors are appropriate and how much is allowed. Importantly, these parents also have high expectations for their children. They expect a lot from their children but provide the appropriate guidelines to help them meet those expectations.

Parents who are low in control are often described as permissive. They set few limits, and they typically allow their children to do whatever they want.

The combination of these dimensions results in four general categories, which were termed by Diane Baumrind as the Four Parenting Styles: Authoritarian, Authoritative, Rejecting-neglecting and Permissive.


Psychologists typically regard authoritative parenting – the style in which parents are high in warmth and control –  as the best in terms of providing children with the emotional and psychological support they need. Research shows that authoritative parents have children that are more likely to succeed in school, have less problem behaviors, and experience less mental illness.

What make authoritative parenting effective is not only the structure it provides, but because children understand why rules are set. Expectations are not arbitrary, and because these parents are loving and responsive, there is value in their approval and disapproval. Children of authoritative parents are challenged to meet their potential, which helps them build self-control and self-confidence.

Unfortunately, the outcomes for children whose parents exhibit the other three parenting styles are less positive. For example, children of authoritarian parents are more likely to experience depression and have poor coping skills. Children of permissive parents are more likely to be impulsive and exhibit problem behaviors in school. Rejecting-neglecting parents, unsurprisingly, have children who have trouble forming healthy relationships and sometimes exhibit anti-social behaviors.

Are these children doomed to grow up with problems?

Not necessarily. First, most studies show that authoritative parenting is the most common parenting style in the U.S. Second, research suggests that different parenting styles may be more beneficial depending on culture. For example, authoritarian parenting has more positive outcomes for African-American families compared to white families, potentially because African-American children are more likely to grow up in environments where safety is a priority.

The bottom line: The degree to which parents exhibit warmth and control matters for children’s development. However, it’s important to remember that the degree of control needs to be appropriate to children’s age and abilities. For example, it might be unreasonable to expect a 2-year old to sit still while reading a book together. Here, punishing a child might seem arbitrary because the child may not understand why they are being punished. Therefore, parents should aim to set high but reasonable expectations for children while showing them responsiveness and unconditional love.

OPINION: The conversation around children and media may be too narrow

In recent weeks, there has been heightened concern in the news about the effects of media use on children’s well-being. Two large investors of technology company Apple wrote an open letter stating their concern that children’s overuse of smartphones may be harmful to their developing brains. Dozens of pediatric and mental health experts took to Facebook asking that they get rid of Messenger Kids, a social media messaging service for children as young as age 6. Concerns from parents, teachers and health practitioners about children’s use of media aren’t new, but recently there has been a call for tech leaders to be held more responsible for the products they create.

This call to action is certainly warranted, as a conversation between developmental experts and technology companies is necessary to create a healthy place for media in children’s lives. But during this time of uncertainty, it’s also important to consider various historical factors that contribute to the concern around children’s use of media, as well as the influence of our own relationship with media.

Historically, society has always been concerned about the influence of new technology on children.

In the 1940s, adults expressed concern about the effect of listening to radio on children’s emotional development. In the 1950s, adults were worried that watching television would make children go blind or expose them to too much violence.

With new technology, history follows a pattern: Each new technology brings about new concerns, which are then followed by an increase in research investigating the technology’s effect on children. As we learn how to safely adapt the technology into children’s lives, the uproar and subsequent research wanes — sometimes just in time before the next technology arrives.

The presence of this pattern doesn’t negate societal concerns. Rather, this pattern signifies that, in many ways, the worry around the tablets or smartphones is no different than the worry surrounding, say, TV in 1950s. The same will likely come once future technology becomes mainstream. For instance, once virtual reality devices are released for widespread use, there will likely be a similar concern about their impact on healthy child development. Adults’ concerns and reactions are necessary to decide how and if these technologies are going to become a part of children’s lives.

We can worry about children, but adults’ use of mobile devices is also problematic.

Most parents and caregivers know the importance of being a positive role model for their children. Children are adept at modeling adult behavior, and children learn from observing their parents, like what role each parent plays in the home. As much as parents might think that restricting children’s use of devices will fully protect them from potentially harmful effects, parents are also teaching children what appropriate media behavior looks like through their own use. For example, a parent may not let their child play with touchscreen devices, but if they themselves are using their device at the dinner table or while interacting with the child, the child may implicitly learn that these are appropriate ways to use technology. As much as it is important to start the conversation around children’s use of technology, we also need to consider our own use and how it may influence our children’s relationship with technology.

Consider the role of media in your own child’s life.

 Amid the general conversation about media and children’s well-being, it’s also important for parents to consider the role of media in their own child’s life. There are certainly individual differences in technology use, as well as in the extent to which people develop habit-forming behaviors toward media. For example, two children may use social media the same amount of time, but one child may be replacing social interactions with social media while the other has maintained their real-world relationships and activities. Healthy media use may not look the same for every child, so it’s important to consider whether your own child’s behavior and happiness has changed negatively, or positively, due to media use.

When considering the role of media in children’s lives, it’s important to consider the historical, parental and individual factors that influence children’s development. As we work as a society toward figuring out how new technology fits into children’s lives, we can work specifically on creating healthy media habits for ourselves and for the children in our lives.

Too Many Toys? How Children’s Surroundings Can Affect Their Play

Children love toys, and many parents love buying toys that can entertain and potentially educate their children. My favorite toys when I was a child were a miniature barn that had real hay, Lite Brite, and any type of putty or dough that I could squish into my parents’ carpet. While there are many great toys on the market for children, researchers have questioned whether the environment in which children play with toys or other learning tools affects their learning. Can the physical space that children are in – like a playroom or classroom – affect their learning and play?

One group of researchers at the University of Toledo were specifically interested in whether having too many toys available to be played with reduces the quality of play. In one study, toddlers played in a room for 15-30 minutes where either 4 toys were present or 16 toys were present. The toys included educational toys like shape-sorters, pretend toys like dolls, play vehicles like cars or trains, and exploration toys like blocks. They found that children played with toys longer and in a greater variety of ways when there were only 4 toys in the room compared to 16 toys in the room.

For example, when there were 4 toys present, each play incident lasted about twice as long as when 16 toys were present. The researchers suggest that children play in more advanced and creative ways when fewer toys are present, which has significant implications considering parents often have more than 16 toys in their children’s play space. In fact, the parents in this study reported having nearly 90 toys in their children’s environments.

Even a more subtle distraction, like a television playing in the background, can divert children’s attention during play. One famous study had children aged 12 months, 24 months and 36 months play with a variety of toys in a lab that was set up to look like a living room and included a television. Children played for 30 minutes. Half the time the television was turned on to a gameshow; the other half it was turned off. Although children only looked at the television for a few seconds at a time when it was turned on, the researchers found that the background television disrupted the length of children’s play and their attention during play. In a way, the “background” television was not background at all but rather an important influence on children’s play.

Perhaps I’ve convinced you that playrooms and living rooms are sometimes distracting environments for children, but now consider the typical kindergarten classroom. Many have multiple, brightly colored bulletin boards filled with fancy scalloped boarders and other posters of animals and planets on the wall, all of which can potentially distract young children during play or during lessons. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University investigated this possibility by having Kindergarteners learn six science lessons in a sparsely decorated or a typically decorated Kindergarten classroom.  After two weeks of lessons, the researchers found that children were more distracted and learned less in the typically decorated (i.e., highly decorated) classroom compared to children who learned in the classroom with no decorations. Therefore, the visual environment of classrooms may affect children’s learning, with overly decorated classrooms distracting children from learning during lessons.

The results from these studies are important because many parents want their children to learn from play. If certain objects or environments are distracting to children, then children may not be benefitting as much from play as they could be.  When creating play spaces for children, consider how the environment may be potentially distracting – including the toys you put in it. Creating an engaging but not overly stimulating environment may be the best for helping children play and learn.

Parenting and Gender Expectations

Parents often make decisions for their children based on their child’s gender. For example, parents often use gender to make decisions about how to dress their child, what color to paint their room or deciding what activities to enroll them in. These types of decisions may seem inconsequential, but many developmental psychologists have investigated whether parents treat boys and girls differently in more consequential ways.

Dr. Mesmen and Dr. Groeneveld from Leiden University refer to this line of research as gendered parenting — the ways parents convey how boys and girls should and shouldn’t behave. Parents rarely admit that they explicitly treat their sons and daughters differently, but a number of studies suggest that parents may unintentionally treat their children differently by conveying gender stereotypes to them.

In one classic study, an infant was dressed in either female-typical (pink) or male-typical (blue) clothing, and adult males and females were asked to interact naturally with the infant. The researchers found that adults spoke more to the female-looking infant, but made more eye contact with the male-looking infant. There were also some differences between male and female adults. For instance, male adults were more likely to smile at the male-looking infant, and females were more likely to use feminine toys when interacting with the female-looking infant. When later interviewed, parents were largely unaware of their gendered behaviors.

Parents also convey gender expectations to their older children in subtle ways. For instance, one study asked mothers and fathers to read a book with their 2- to 4-year-old child that depicted male and female characters doing a variety of activities. During reading, mothers commented more positively about drawings of children doing gender stereotypical activities (e.g., “Playing with dolls is fun!”), and fathers commented more often to confirm gender stereotypes (e.g., “He plays hockey but his sister doesn’t”). Other research shows that mothers respond more positively to their son’s disruptive behaviors compared to their daughter’s disruptive behaviors, but are less encouraging of their son’s prosocial behavior, like sharing and helping.

Parents’ unintentional gendered behaviors, like smiling more, responding negatively or positively to children’s behavior, or playing with certain toys may affect children’s development. Given that children are adept at modeling their parents’ behaviors, parents who endorse gender equality can try to be more conscious of the gender expectations they’re conveying to their children. Indeed, research shows that children who grow up in families with traditional family roles (like fathers working and mothers caring for children) also have more stereotypical gender expectations. Parents can also be more conscientious about exposing their daughters and sons to similar activities, especially if they’re beneficial for learning. For example, research shows that playing with blocks can improve children’s spatial skills, but parents may be less inclined to encourage their daughters to play with blocks because they’re stereotypically viewed as a male toy.

For parents who endorse gender equality, making the additional effort to reflect on the gender expectations that you’re conveying to your child can make a difference. By exposing children to a wide array of activities they enjoy, regardless of their gender, parents can increase their child’s learning opportunities while also broadening their child’s understanding of what it means to be a boy or a girl.

Let’s Talk About Math

 Much of my research at Northwestern focuses on children’s learning of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills and how media can be used to help preschool-aged children learn science and math specifically. You might be asking yourself, “Why on earth does my 3-year old need to learn math? There are more important skills for her to be learning.”

Math and science may seem like advanced skills for preschoolers to be learning, but simple math learning in preschool (like counting, sorting objects and ordering things from smallest to biggest) are associated with long-term learning. For example, research that tracked children from preschool to age 15 shows that math learning in preschool predicts math achievement in high school.

But outside of school, parents can also help their children learn math by engaging in math talk. Math talk isn’t just talking about math; it’s finding opportunities in everyday interactions and play where math can become part of the conversation. For example, in playing with blocks, parents can talk about shapes, the number of blocks, which blocks are bigger, or sort the blocks by shape. Another example is engaging children in other activities, such as cooking, playing board games and grocery shopping where opportunities to talk about numbers, quantities and measurement come up naturally and can be elaborated on.

Perhaps most important, research shows that parent math talk can help children start to talk about – and think about – math. First, research shows that parent talk about math during a play session predicts their child’s talk about math. This is likely because when parents talk about math, their child responds about math. Children may also bring up math first, and then their parent responds with more math talk. Interestingly, research shows that maternal support, including math talk, in preschool was associated with children’s math ability at age 7.

Despite the importance of engaging children in math activities and conversations, much research shows that many parents have math anxiety, or a fear or apprehension of math. Instead of looking for opportunities to discuss math with their children, research suggests that parents with math anxiety avoid behaviors or interactions in which they may have to talk about math, even with their young children. More important, parents who are anxious about math may influence their children’s math learning. One study showed that parents with math anxiety who helped their child learn math more had children who learned less compared to parents with math anxiety who attempted to help their children less.

Should parents who feel anxious about math avoid talking to their kids about math?

There are ways in which parents with math anxiety can interact with their children to promote math learning. Specifically, learning tools like math apps have been shown to help parents talk to their children about math. One study using an app called “Bedtime Math” showed that using the app a couple times a week improved first graders’ math skills over the course of the school year. Importantly, the app was especially helpful for kids whose parents reported that they were anxious about teaching their child math, suggesting the app supported parents who were especially anxious about teaching their child math.

If parents feel apprehensive about talking about math, it may help to find apps, books and toys that help communicate math concepts to children. Math learning is important in the early years, and these learning tools can help children and parents become comfortable with math.

Why You Should Watch TV with Your Child

Research has shown that television can be educational for young children. For example, years of research on Sesame Street has shown that the show can improve preschoolers’ abilities in a variety of academic areas, like reading, math and social skills. In general, when television programs are designed to be age-appropriate and when the content aligns with its educational purpose, pre-school aged children can learn from television.

But television has its limitations in being an educational tool, especially for young children. Although television can be beneficial for children’s learning, young children learn best from people who can respond to their questions and direct their attention. For example, one study found that 12- to 18-month year olds did not learn any new words from watching an educational video (Baby Einstein) over four weeks, but they did learn the same words when their parent taught them through natural interactions.

Most important, parents can help young child learn from television by watching television with them, This is called “co-viewing.” When parents co-view with their child, they often elaborate on the content of the show, or direct their child’s attention to a certain aspect of the show. For instance, if Elmo is demonstrating how plants grow, a parent who is co-viewing may remind the child that they have plants in their home too, or point out that Elmo is feeding the plant water so it will grow.

One way co-viewing can help children learn is by directing children’s attention to important learning events on the screen. For example, researchers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, observed parents and children’s looking patterns toward a television screen and found that one-year-olds will follow their parent’s eye gaze toward the screen. This is important because children’s learning from television depends on their attention to the screen, so parents’ attention to the screen can also help children stay focused.

Another way parents help children learn from television is by using it as a teaching opportunity. One study conducted at the University of California, Riverside, found that 12- to 25-month olds were more attentive while viewing a show and used more vocabulary words from the show when their parents engaged in more teaching interactions compared to children whose parents did not engage in many teaching interactions. Therefore, parents do not only direct their child’s attention to the screen, but can emphasize important learning concepts that are represented in the show.

It is important to note that having the television turned on generally reduces parent-child interactions. Parents talk less with their children and scaffold their children’s play less when the television is turned on compared to when it is not turned on. However, when the TV is turned on, children have the opportunity to learn the most from television when they are viewing with a parent who can direct their attention, answer their questions and elaborate on the storyline of the show.

There are some great educational shows on TV for children to watch, and parents can help their children learn more from the screen and apply that learning to their everyday lives when they co-view with their children. Once you spend some time watching television shows with kids, you’ll be surprised how much you learn, too!

Why Kindergarten-Aged Girls Think They’re Less ‘Brilliant’ Than Boys

We often tell children they can be anything they want when they grow up. Unfortunately, societal pressures often dissuade young girls and women from pursuing certain activities and career paths. For example, there has long been an underrepresentation of women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, despite the fact that women earn more bachelor degrees than men.

Research suggests this may in part be because “brilliance,” or gifted-ness, is implicitly thought of as a male quality, and women are therefore reluctant to join or persist in academic disciplines that are conveyed as requiring a high degree of brilliance. Researchers from four universities across the country asked a large number of academics in a variety of field about the degree to which they thought brilliance was important for success in their field. Fields that reported that brilliance was important for success, like philosophy, computer science and physics, were more likely underrepresent women compared to fields that thought brilliance was less important, like biology and sociology.

Most important, new research led by the same team of researchers shows that young girls may be attuned to the stereotype of “male = brilliance” by the time they’re six years old. The researchers read five- to seven-year-olds stories and had them play games that involved adults who were “really, really smart.” When asked whether the adults in the stories were male or female, five-year-old boys and girls were both more likely to say the protagonist was their own gender. For six- and seven-year olds, boys were more likely to say the protagonist was their gender, but the girls in this age group were now also more likely to say the protagonist was male. When children were told about two games, one for “children who are really, really smart” and one for “children who try really, really hard,” girls were less interested in the game for smart children compared to boys.

By the time they’re six years old, girls are beginning to develop ideas about who is brilliant, and those ideas influence their interest in and pursuit of certain activities. Although we know that gender inequalities exist, this research is the first to suggest that the underlying notion of brilliance that dissuades some girls from pursuing certain activities, studies or jobs develops at a very young age.

It’s always important to remind ourselves as educators, parents and researchers that a lot of what children learn is implicit — learned through social experiences rather than from being explicitly taught. Nevertheless, it may be necessary for parents to explicitly talk to their children about what makes someone smart, capable or brilliant — especially because learning such stereotypes can shape children’s decisions, narrowing their interests and potential career options from a young age.