A recent New York Times article made a splash when it cited research showing that math-anxious parents who try to help their kids with math homework are doing more harm than good. They are transmitting their own anxiety to their children, and the result is poor grades.
Furthermore, parents don’t even have to help with homework to cause damage. Casual comments such as “I’m not a math person” or “I’ve never been good at math” are detrimental to the education of a child who is struggling with math. These comments relay the message that math isn’t really that important. They give kids an out. Mom and Dad have good jobs and they’re not good at math, so I don’t need it either.
While the researchers cited in the NYT article believe this to be a “newly discovered factor,” ask any math tutor and she’ll shake her head and roll her eyes. The fact is, we tutors see this problem first hand, and on a regular basis. One comment I hear often is: I’m not good at math, but I want my child to be. Parents say things like this in front of their kids without realizing that it is detrimental. I wrote about this problem in my book, Math Can Be Fun. Fortunately, this part of the problem is easy to fix. Be careful how you talk about math. As simple as that.
But what else can you, the math-anxious parent, do?
Researcher Dr. Harris Cooper suggests modeling math behavior. Demonstrate to your children that you do, in fact, use math every day, while buying groceries, paying for dinner, and balancing the checkbook.
But is that enough? Sorry, but no, it isn’t. Someone has to help with homework. That someone could be a math tutor. That’s the easy solution. But that someone could also be you. The article describes a mom who took the bull by the horns and studied the math curriculum so she could help her son with his homework. That is inspiring!
And that mom is not alone. I know a mom who is doing the same thing. Actually, she is a great example of a third option for math-anxious parents: join your child in math tutoring sessions!
This mom hired me to help her son toward the end of the last school year. His skills improved quickly, but she really wanted to be the one who helps him with his homework. And she didn’t want to pass her math anxiety on to her son. So over the summer, she started attending tutoring sessions with him. She’s as busy as most moms, working full time, taking both her sons to baseball practices and games, and working on her master’s degree. Maybe she’s more busy than most moms. But she decided that math is as important as all those other things that compete for her family’s time.
In my book, she is a hero. And guess what. We all had fun!
Is tutoring the only way for parents to improve their math skills? No! If your child is doing okay in math right now, but you worry that the time is coming when you will not be able to help him, there’s a great alternative to tutoring. It’s called Khan Academy. KA is a non-profit started by Sal Khan; his objective is to level the math playing field, making quality math help available to all students. It offers a complete math curriculum that is being used by many home-schooling parents. It’s a fantastic resource for those parents who need to hone their own skills. And it’s free.
You can use the KA site in various ways, but my suggestion is to target a specific grade level. Decide where you think you fell off the math wagon when you were in school, and start at the previous level. The site will step you through the skills, offering videos with examples to teach you how to solve a given type of problem. Then you answer questions, starting with easy problems and progressing to more difficult ones. If you approach it with an open mind, you’ll actually find that it’s fun. Plus, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you are taking charge of your math anxiety!
Believe it or not, I have a friend who woke up one day and decided he was tired of not being comfortable with math. His kids are grown, so there was not a pressing need for him to hone his math skills; he just wanted the knowledge. He began at the beginning, and has worked up to the 9th grade. And he’s still plugging away. His days in any math classroom ended many decades ago, so if he can do it, you can too.
So do yourself and your kids a favor. Find a tutor or sign up for Khan Academy. Maybe you can talk some other parents into joining you. You can overcome your math anxiety, and in doing so, you’ll be a great role model for your kids.