If you feel lost when your child asks for help learning mathematics, you can take comfort in knowing you’re not alone. Teachers, parents, and PhD students—even biologists, chemists, and physicists—sometimes feel daunted by math. Add to that the fact that math education isn’t as static as we might like it to be. As we better understand learning and the human brain, the ways in which we teach math inevitably evolve. For many, the sorts of problems and strategies that comprise the “new math” can seem impenetrable. For others who enjoy accelerated math companies like Random Math can be an ideal solution to foster their full potential.
But fear not! There is hope with growing evidence that your reaction to math, while completely understandable, is more related to how your parents, teachers, and peers talked about it than anything related to your brain.
Ways to Help Your Kids with Math
You don’t have to go from math phobic to mathematician overnight, but here are some tips to help foster the math whiz in your child.
1. Avoid saying you’re bad at math. Stay positive!
This is probably the most far-reaching tip in terms of how much it will benefit your child. If you feel inclined to say something like “It’s fine that you’re bad at math, so was I,” bite your tongue! Counterintuitive to many, research suggests that the concept of being a “math person”—or not—is a myth. Even if that’s firmly how you feel right now, one of the best ways to avoid passing math anxiety on to your children is by steering clear of negative messages about math. Instead, try focusing on difficulty and effort by saying things like, “I understand how difficult this is for you. It was difficult for me too,” or “Don’t worry if it feels like math problems take more effort than some of your other assignments. You may not understand it yet, but I am confident we can work it out together.”
2. Talk about math.
Talking about math doesn’t have to mean making a nuanced statistical analysis or debating what equation best models a phenomenon. Talking about math can be as simple as counting clouds or guessing heights. This is especially crucial for young children who need to feel comfortable just thinking about math and seeing that it is a part of the world. Depending on the age of your child, find ways to incorporate math into any topic you’re talking about as the opportunity arises:
- How many is that? How many would I have if I had another one?
- What would half of that look like?
- How could I split this equally?
- How do you predict this trend will change over time?
- What’s the chance of that happening?
- How can you make that more abstract? (The whole purpose of mathematics is to take ideas and make them abstract!)
- How many cards will you draw?
3. Frame this moment as a chance for kids to explore whatever math question interests them.
Most teachers must get through a particular set of standards every year. That can leave students who are curious about an unrelated part of math disappointed or frustrated because there simply isn’t enough time to explore it. Standards and assessments are important but try to free yourself from worrying about whether your kid’s question is too easy, too hard, or even part of the curriculum. Keep in mind that math can be an effective tool to approach nearly any question. If you’re tempted to answer a question with, “You should know this by now,” “That sounds way too hard,” or “That doesn’t matter,” instead direct the curious mind to the teacher or active math educators on social media. How would they approach the question?
Moreover, connect math to what interests your child. Do they like animals? Have them explore how many animals are in a zoo, how much space they need, or how much they cost to obtain. Do they like fire trucks? Find out how heavy they are or how much water they can pump out in a minute. What about video games? Challenge them to record their scores in a table or graph.
4. Have your child teach you math.
Here’s a great way to learn something—teach it. Ask any teacher. Most will agree that even when it’s something “simple” that they could swear they knew inside and out, once they have to explain it to someone else, they’re forced to consolidate knowledge and try new ways of explaining it. When faced with a question that you can’t answer, explain that you’re stuck too, and challenge your kids to figure it out just well enough that they can try to explain it to you. Even if they help you only a little bit, they may spark insights that allow you to finish where they left off.
5. Try the new math.
If the thought of “new math” intimidates you, it’s understandable. How is it your third grader is taking home math problems that stump you?! Rest assured, the “new math” is no different from the “old math.” If you double 15, you still get 30. If you multiply 6 and 3, you still get 18. It’s not that multiplication, division, and fractions have radically changed; it’s just that we now have better tools for explaining them.