Hate math? No surprise there, we’ve all been there before. However, there is no question that math is one of those essential skills in modern living, and so we all have to learn it, and so do our children.
For parents who are bad at math, having children who are also bad at math is a challenge. So maybe they inherited that from you, what can you do? Are you even qualified to teach what you yourself are not very good at? Shouldn’t you just leave this to their teachers? Isn’t that the best way to handle this?
In fact, educators nowadays advocate parents be more proactive in teaching their children math, regardless of their own skill level in it. Even if you can’t claim proficiency in the subject, as an authority figure there are ways you can influence your child’s attitudes, behaviors and ultimately their own proficiency in math.
Sue Shellenbarger recently wrote in the New York Times about how math phobic parents can teach math to their children. Let us expound on this news article so that you, the layman parent, can better understand how you can teach math to your kids, no matter what your own skill level is.
Many parents themselves have math anxiety
First things first, you shouldn’t feel alone. Many parents feel the same way about math as you do. Many are dependent on their accountants or programs to take care of a lot of the computations they depend on in daily living.
However, that many people have math anxiety does not excuse it.
Math anxiety is real phenomenon, affects even teachers
Math anxiety is not just a personal problem, it’s a social attitude people foster among each other, among many people without even knowing it. Sadly, even math teachers help spread math anxiety, although to be fair not all of them are even aware this phenomenon exists. If you told your child you know math is hard, you’ve already done the damage to them.
But no worries! You can definitely correct it.
There are a few math myths we need to address here, so that you can address them when your child asks or demonstrates belief in them:
1 Math is a talent.
If math really were a talent, babies would know the numbers one to ten out of the womb. No, math is a skill, and like other skills, some people were proven better at learning it than others, but it’s reasonable to assume most children will learn enough of the basics of math to get them through life.
2 Math is all about logic.
Math is all about logic, versus art which is all about creativity. Except the discovery of the Archimedes principle is often held up as proof and demonstration of Archimedes’ creativity. Archimedes, who is renowned as the greatest mathematician of the ancient world.
Math appears to be about logic on the surface level, but the best mathematicians, beyond rote memory and mechanically following logical systems, understand the role of the creative impulse in the formulation of problems and finding solutions. You have to teach to your child the value of using their imagination in solving math problems.
3 Math is about getting the right answer.
Math is about getting the right answer. If you saw the answer key without meaning to, and then go back to the problem and figure out how to get to the solution, that’s good enough, right? If your teacher explains what you did wrong and you understand it all afterward, that’s all that counts, right?
The problem with this attitude is it misses the point of learning math, which is that you’re supposed to learn how to do it for yourself. If a watchmaker didn’t understand every little bit of how a watch works, if they made a mistake assembling that watch they wouldn’t know how to fix it. But their fellow watchmaker who learned it right would be able to do it. Math is about learning how to get the right answer. That way, you don’t have to depend on others to give it to you.
4 A demographic is better at math than B demographic
I’ll be charitable and not name a particular demographic, but you know what these are. Some people have biases that make them think people of a certain race, or sex, or both, or some other demographic, are better at math than they are. It gives them a reason to excuse themselves for not being good at math, and ultimately this is related to the idea that math is a talent you’re born with.
In spite of the overlap, I felt it necessary to bring it up here because it’s a terrible thing to believe, and yet kids are likely to think that way. Make sure to address biases like these in your children, and really, keep them focused on the end goal; not being one with the best grades, but knowing what you need to know.
Focus on learning to think of it as process, love to do the process
So now we get into how to actually teach your children. The idea is to put the spotlight on the steps needed to get to the solution.
In plain terms, when you ask a question like 2+1=?, you don’t pressure them into giving you the ?, you make them think about the 2, and then the 1, and then the process of adding them to get to the answer.
Like I mentioned earlier, getting the right answer takes a backseat to learning how to get it. Don’t be discouraged if they don’t get the right answers, that will come in time as they understand the concepts better. And they will reach those goalposts sooner if they like doing math.
If you’re not good at math, be forthcoming to your child about it
Now, here is a great challenge. Say they look to you for help in your math homework, but you already know you might make mistakes. Don’t tell them you’re too busy to help, because they will seek you out when they figure you are free. If you’re straightforward about this at the start, they will respect you more and you will save them the time. Have them go to their teacher for help, or if you have a neighbor or relative who can help, point your child towards them.
On the flip side, you can turn this to your advantage. You can have them teach you, and then pay them as an incentive. Sue shares a great example of a mother who had her son teach her his algebra syllabus. He had to write his answers in such a way that she would understand the process, and when he failed to do that, she made him repeat until he did it right.
Math will be more important in world your child grows up in
Of course, we all benefit from the use of math in one everyday application everyone needs to do: accounting. However, this is a relatively basic skill, and one that many people bypass completely by hiring help. An advanced knowledge in math will assist your child in ways it would not have affected you.
Math is important in high paying careers, such as finance and programming. The demand for quants in Wall Street remains high, even as Wall Street itself continues to shrink. Quants are desirable for their ability to make complex financial calculations, which are then used in assessing investment decisions. Having a quant can make the difference in the rise and fall of a business.
Programmers play a key role in the biggest growth industry of the day: technology. Getting those coveted jobs in places like Google, Microsoft and Apple won’t just get your child paid well, it will also put them in a position where they can help shape the future. And at their core, all good programmers are good mathematicians.
Math also plays a major role in creative careers, such as photography and painting, and even being a fitness trainer or crime investigator requires good math skills.
Make them think of math as a natural, ubiquitous part of daily life
Ultimately, it’s about fostering this attitude that lets them see math everywhere they go. Sue Shellenbarger has a good example: when you’re driving and the child asks: “Are we there yet?”, you try to look at the markers in the road and calculate it for them. And then you tell them how to arrive at the answer. Any questions they may have, you try to answer to the best of your ability, and if you can’t, you ask them to formulate the question to see if they can figure it out.
Subsequently, you can tell them the story of the Archimedes principle the next time you give your child a bath, and encourage them to look at patterns, and things that can be counted, or added and substracted, all around them. Fractions are an obvious topic around the kitchen.