Programmer and writer David Auerbach recently took to the pixels of Slate to fret that his preschooler loves princesses. He writes: “When my 4-year-old told me the other day that she was ‘ready for princesses,’ part of me died.”
Most offensive, it seems, is that the four-year-old daughter’s preferred princesses are insufficiently Progressive. These princesses apparently pine away for husbands, and worse, they don’t encourage the author’s daughter to aspire to a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) career.
Both Auerbach and his wife are programmers, and they want their daughter to consider that an option for herself too. He sees “a series of small- to medium-sized discouraging factors that set in from a young age, ranging from unhelpful social conditioning to a lack of role models to unconscious bias to very conscious bias.” How does this bias manifest itself, for example, in higher education?
In Science and Engineering (S&E), women earned 50.3 percent of the bachelor’s and 40.9 percent of the doctoral degrees [in 2010]. Compare these statistics to 1970, when in S&E women earned 28.0 percent of the bachelor’s and 9.1 percent of the doctoral degrees. . . . However, in math-intensive fields such as Engineering, Computer Science or Mathematics, progress has been limited. In 2010, women were only awarded 18.5 percent of bachelor’s and 23.1 percent of doctoral degrees in Engineering.
Of course, Auerbach’s own wife seemingly managed to navigate that cultural minefield and chose a programming career. Interestingly, she tells him that was the result of her “being a loner and pretty much ignoring wider society while growing up . . . (with NO INTERNET TO TELL ME WHAT I COULDN’T DO).”
Girls Can Love Princesses and Science
I can sort of relate. While I wouldn’t describe myself as a loner in my younger years, I definitely marched to my own music. I grew up as one of two sisters. We both gladly dressed up as Queen Esther for several years’ Purim celebrations, our version of playing princess. But, our parents also always encouraged us to shoot for the stratosphere in our education and careers. Whenever we expressed interest in something, they encouraged us to pursue it and continue studying and practicing new skills so that we’d excel.
I still remember writing short stories in the pink and purple Super Snake notebooks my grandmother began giving me at age eight to encourage my interest in writing. There was never any sense that I couldn’t become a writer because I was a girl. That would have been absurd. The same could be said of my sister, who is now the geriatrician she had dreamed of becoming since age 12, when we visited our grandmother in a nursing home.
We were both exposed to science at an early age, including on family outings to New York’s Hall of Science. Yet my interests led me away from STEM terrain, while biology and medicine dazzled my sister.
A new study from George Mason University (GMU) shows that my sister’s experience is remarkably common. Researchers “surveyed 149 [high school and college] participants in the Aspiring Scientists Summer Internship Program,” and found that “the majority—65.5 percent—said science experiences with a family member or a childhood activity piqued their initial interest.” The GMU study demonstrates that—not surprisingly—parents matter. In fact, parental influence is critical. Parents should be heartened that we can make a real difference in our children’s lives.
Our Society Could Use a Little More Demand for Marriage
Auerbach’s second fear, that his daughter’s princesses are marriage-crazy, seems entirely misplaced. We live in an era of record-low marriage; the marriage rate fell nearly 60 p ercent between 1970 and 2012. That precipitous drop might not matter if it weren’t also paired with a sharp uptick in unmarried births.
As Robert Lerman and Brad Wilcox write in their new report, “For Richer, For Poorer: How Family Structures Economic Success in America[J1] ”:
Growing up with both parents (in an intact family) is strongly associated with more education, work, and income among today’s young men and women. . . . Men and women who are currently married and were raised in an intact family enjoy an annual ‘family premium’ in their household income that exceeds that of their unmarried peers who were raised in nonintact families by at least $42,000 [page 3].
This is to say, if Auerbach wants his daughter to be personally and professionally successful, he should encourage her interest in marriage (to a worthy partner). And if Auerbach and his wife want their preschooler to know the full spectrum of available career options, including those in STEM fields, they should be proactive, exposing her to those topics at an early age and regularly discussing why they love programming.
There’s no reason to fear princesses. It’s a phase. But parents’ involvement and positive influence on their children is forever.