Imagine tucking your one-and-a-half year old into bed, only to discover that she had brought a handful of earthworms with her as sleeping companions, dirt and all. How would you respond?
This is exactly the situation that confronted Vanne Goodall, mother of noted scientist and conservationist Dr. Jane Goodall, when her daughter was a toddler. Recently, I was privileged to hear Goodall describe this event firsthand during a daylong visit she made to my school. As Goodall recounts it, her mother was not upset with the muddy and squiggly companions: Her mother just patiently explained how the worms would die if they weren’t living outside in the garden.
Goodall gives her mother much credit for encouraging her curiosity as a child and helping her scientific passions to soar. “A different kind of mother might have crushed that spirit of scientific curiosity and I might not be standing here now.”
Goodall gives her mother much credit for encouraging her curiosity as a child and helping her scientific passions to soar.
Goodall vividly described the many obstacles to her realizing her dream of studying animals in Africa, far from her native England. Back in the 1960’s, when travel was more challenging than just reserving a ticket with a simple click on a laptop, she wasn’t allowed to begin her fieldwork in the Gombe unless she had a companion, a role for which her mother volunteered.
Goodall’s mom was criticized for letting her daughter venture to Africa. The prevailing view at the time was that girls didn’t do this sort of thing. How easy it would have been for Vanne Goodall to have said “Can’t you just stay in London and study pigeons, or crows, or maybe the falcons that nest on the garrets of buildings?” But, together they traveled, nevertheless.
Sitting next to my own daughter during Goodall’s evening presentation, I wondered, how am I stacking up as a mother? Am I as encouraging and supportive as Vanne Goodall? Sure, there have been fireflies and salamanders on the dresser in the bedroom, and hikes to see bighorn sheep and eagles — and I’d like to think that if my daughter had brought home a handful of earthworms to her bed, I would have been equally as encouraging — but I wonder. These wriggly critters never found their way up the stairs at our house.
Many of the parents I spoke with after listening to Goodall’s talk were wondering, as was I, how supportive and encouraging have they been to their daughters. Certainly explicit examples of gender-based restrictions have changed in England and other Western countries since Goodall was a child. The limited career opportunities available to women when Goodall was a young adult — teaching, nursing, or being a secretary — are, in many countries, a thing of the past. Global travel is more routine than in Goodall’s early days, and the adventurous spirit of girls and women has been more encouraged.
Many of the parents I spoke with after listening to Goodall’s talk were wondering, as was I, how supportive and encouraging have they been to their daughters.
Obvious impediments based on gender may have faded away, but subtle expectations are powerful as well. Implicit biases and seemingly minor messages help to shape and mold the paths of girls. We may no longer commonly preface statements with “girls don’t …” but a recent video highlights the power of subtle messages being conveyed to girls. Don’t get dirty. Don’t explore. Don’t create.
When mothers say to their daughters, “I’m not good at math — ask your father to help with your homework,” a lasting message about gender influences on math abilities is being conveyed. We may be taking our daughters to science museums seemingly just as we do our sons, but once there, research shows that parents, both mothers and fathers, provide significantly more causal explanations about the exhibits to their sons than to their daughters — and this difference occurs with children as young as 1 to 3 years of age! What kind of subtle pathways towards future interests are already being laid by these interactions?
The message of empowerment and encouragement Goodall received from her mother is extraordinary. If, as parents, we could try, even in small measure, to emulate Vanne Goodall’s support of her daughter’s passion, imagine the possibilities for our own daughters.
Dr. Wendy L. Hill, Head of School