Mom tips: Don't transfer your math phobia to your kids!

This guest post was written by Maria Lando. Her work can also be found at www.TheMathMom.com


A hectic school night in your home – it’s homework time.  Your child asks for some help with math and, without hesitating, you dismissively say, “Oh, you know, I have never been good at math. Let’s wait for dad with it.  Start on your Word Master for now.”

Nothing seems wrong with this answer.  You can’t be expert at everything, right?  Well, you have just sent your kids an implicit “Mom doesn’t do math and it is okay” message. Their next thought could be: “If she can manage without math in her life, then I can as well. If she is afraid of it, then I should be too.”  Children are experts at deciphering our passions and priorities even while appearing to reject them.  

A recent study provides a caution.  It demonstrated that, after a year with math-anxious elementary school teachers, girls (who frequently use teachers as role models) showed a decline on their math tests.  Interestingly enough, the math teachers’ attitudes didn’t affect boys’ performance in this study.  Looking at the positive effect, we all know examples of brilliant scientists and entrepreneurs who attribute the sparking of interests to parents or school specialists who taught them. 

Math.  What is it good for? Do we really use it once done with school?  Those who claim to be bad at math would be pleasantly surprised to discover that they master it daily – often without realizing it – and that they are actually much better at it than they think.  We bounce math ideas in our head everywhere we go and whatever we do: when cooking, shopping, driving, home decorating, and traveling.

For example: How should I drive to optimize my carpool route? Does the order of the discounts matter and whether 30% off after ½ off discount is the same as 80% off?  If I buy this dress here, what are the chances someone else at the party will wear the same one?

And we can have more fun with math by applying it mindfully. Math can suggest how many babysitters to interview before you can feel confident in your choice. It can be used as an excuse to purchase expensive winter boots because their cost-per-wear is small considering New England's 6-months-long winter.  Math can even help you decide whether you can afford to return to work after having your second child, and much more.

Professionally, math offers many choices.   The pay is good; the work conditions are great. But the best kept secret is its universality: you can speak the language of math anywhere and with anyone on this planet. It allows people on a remote Pacific island to work for Orbitz or Apple. Personally, I owe to math, the paved road from post Cold War Russia to jobs in Hollywood, TV, chocolate manufacturing, Neurosurgeries, and ironically even US National Defense.

Math is a great tool, advisor, and toy to enjoy. Surely you want your child to be comfortable with it!  Contrary to what many people assume, you do not need to be a math expert to support your kids in math.  Consider Soccer Moms, Hockey Moms, Swim Moms - some of them never play the sports.  But they do so much to help their kids succeed.  All you need to do is follow similar rules with math:

Encourage and expect high achievement.

Success in any kind of learning is enhanced by encouragement and challenge, and inhibited by threats or shame.  Think of how we challenge and support our kids on the football field or ski slopes.  Remember those trophies that everyone gets just for trying? The pride we feel when our child scores a home run? Recall how we share the excitement of our kids’ successes in sports and work on their failures. Why not adapt a similar mindset for math learning right there at your homework table.

Avoid stereotypes.  

Beware of those movies that depict smart kids as unpopular geeks.  Instead, point out those geeks polishing their statistical presentations in the roomy Business Class section of your next flight.  Another old nonsense theory - boys are better at math than girls.  A multitude of recent scientific studies in the US and around the world proved that math skills are equal across genders, that culture is a factor in female math achievement and that girls’ confidence in math is dampened by parents' and teachers' gender stereotypes. Math is for everyone to enjoy, play with, and use.  Don't let your child miss out on developing a passion for it.

Keep a positive attitude.

People rarely admit to being illiterate. We may share shamefully that we are not good at spelling or composition, but immediately add that we have regretted it all our life, to make sure our kids understand we are not proud of it and should learn from our mistakes. There is an extreme example in “The Reader,” a book by B. Schlink and a movie with Kate Winslet.  The main character is so ashamed of her illiteracy that she doesn’t let her legal defense use it in her trial, even when it could save her life. With math illiteracy it is a different story. You may have met people boasting about it at a party, or unapologetically admitting to their kids they are bad at math. Guess what, no one knows all the answers in life and in math, but it is crucial to build your child's confidence and to show how to search for them.  No more “Let’s wait for dad to come back from work.” Making time to sit and patiently figure out math problems together signifies that this is important and possible.  A “we can do this” attitude grows wings. The Internet is your best advisor and teaching kids to use it effectively is a great learning skill.

Explain your reasoning.  

You probably have done a lot of mathematical thinking recently, without necessarily noticing.  Contemplating how to best seat your guests around the table: “clustering” by age, gender, or interests. Figuring out the turkey cooking time based on its weight. Coming up with various permutations of the same set of foods for your kids’ lunches. Our daily lives are full of math puzzles and we have become proficient at solving them.  Pass this expertise on to your kids.  Explain your reasoning.  And don’t forget to share and laugh together about your miscalculations.

Stimulate curiosity and search for answers together.

Kids are naturally fascinated with numbers, patterns, and logic. All we need to do is nurture this curiosity and expose our kids to the beautiful math of this world.  Encourage questions and search for answers together on the web, in books, or ask around.  What day of the week will your birthday   fall on in seven years, for your Sweet Sixteen party?  How does a 50 SPF cream differ from a 15 SPF?  What are the chances of getting a hot pink gum ball out of all the available colors in the gumball machine? Present these as intriguing little puzzles of daily life and encourage your kids to spot some by themselves to share with you.

Math resources are everywhere, but the most important resource is your attitude. You are the best math guru your kids can get. And they really need one, because proficiency in the universal language of math is a key to the global competitive world of their future.

You can find answers to the above math questions on TheMathMom.com – a website that illuminates and demystifies mathematics for adults, describing its fun use in everything from preparing school lunches to arguing with police. Her weekly newsletter contains stories and puzzles for the whole family, and tips on perceiving math and presenting it to kids as a toy, a tool, and a friend.