Research shows that our seemingly benign statements about math (“I never liked this stuff,” “This never made any sense to me”) rub off on our children and do lasting harm. (
With a new school year officially underway, experts in numeracy (like literacy, but with numbers) have an important message for math-averse parents: Your anxiety is contagious.
Our anxiety, I should say, is contagious. (I count myself among the math-averse.)
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Research shows that our seemingly benign statements about math (“I never liked this stuff,” “This never made any sense to me”) rub off on our children and do lasting harm.
In a 2015 study, math-anxious parents who frequently helped their elementary schoolers with homework saw their kids learn significantly less math by the end of the school year than kids whose parents didn’t express an aversion to math. The kids of math-averse parents also reported more math anxiety than kids of parents who were not math-averse.
“The idea that you could make it worse by trying to help seems so diabolical,” said Jennifer McCray, principal investigator at the Erikson Institute’s Early Math Collaborative.
But when trying to help includes math-bashing, making it worse is precisely what we do.
“Statements from parents are extremely powerful in terms of helping a child decide, ‘Who am I going to be relative to math? How should I feel about math?’” McCray said. “Somewhere along the way, we decided some of us are math people and some of us are normal people, and that’s the way the world is.”
McCray is on a mission to show us a better way. Her tips for a better, math-friendlier year:
Look for math in everyday moments: Count steps aloud as you’re climbing them together. Keep a running tab in your heads at the grocery store. Talk about measurements — when you’re pumping gas, baking cookies, doing home repairs — to reinforce how often numeracy is woven into your days.
Play math games together. “Games that involve math are a really powerful, positive way for parents and kids to have fun mathematics interactions,” McCray said. She suggested card games such as capture (also known as war) and dice games such as Yahtzee or Farkle.
Don’t automatically check out at math time: “I don’t want to send the message to parents that they shouldn’t try to help with math homework,” McCray said. “Be willing to struggle and bring your best adult reasoning skills to the situation.”
But keep your wits about you: Avoid saying, “I hate math,” “I’m lousy at math” or other math-bashing phrases aloud, even if you’re thinking them. “Your child thinks, ‘If my mom, who I admire, thinks it’s OK to say she’s not good at math, it must be OK for me to say that too,’” McCray said. “You need to try to move yourself to a frame of mind that math is something everyone can do.”
Lean into the struggle: “Avoid sending kids the message that we throw up our hands in the face of things we have to wrestle with,” McCray said. “Telling kids, ‘Let’s get our hands around this together, let’s celebrate that we’re doing something together that presents us both with a challenge’ has a lot of value.”
Don’t be afraid to ask for help: And if you hit an insurmountable roadblock, model another good life skill: Call for backup. “Show your child, ‘Here are some things we can do: We can talk to your teacher. We can call a friend,’” McCray said. If you’re truly in a bind, many public libraries offer homework help, as do private tutoring outfits.
“Somehow, we’ve gotten to this place where it’s almost a fashionable thing to say you’re bad at math,” McCray said. “It creates the idea that math is for a special and unusual group of people. But math really does crop up every day in everybody’s life.”
Maybe if we help our kids greet it with open arms, we can learn to stop cowering in its presence.
Math is the second most exciting thing.
715 South Boulevard
Evanston IL 60202-2907
Mathematics Teacher at Evanston Township High School (retired)