There have been a flurry of articles in the NY Times, the Atlantic, and Business Insider coming at parents from every angle to encourage our children to enjoy math. This is an important cause, given that in international rankings, the U.S. ranks 26th out of the 34 OECD countries in math skills. The future will depend on careers in science and engineering and we’re told math is invaluable to the growth of these sectors. Those sound like great reasons to champion my kids and their interest in math. But, I don’t know, it’s still math. It’s hard to get excited about.
I have never said “I’m not a math person” or “I’m bad at math,” which is (apparently) the worst thing you can model for your kids. However it has always been clear that my strengths in school — and most certainly my interests in life — revolve around more creative endeavors such as writing. And arguing (“debating” if you want to spin it into a positive). So it’s hard for me to be enthusiastic about math and numbers, when I love words so much. Still, since becoming a mother I’ve resolved to foster my kids’ math skills. I had my son in “cooking” classes as a toddler, not only as an opportunity to try new foods, but because measuring is a basic introduction to math concepts. I really am trying, even if it doesn’t come naturally to whoop it up over the subject.
What I hope to impart on my children is that “math” is a term that covers a huge range of topics. Everyone needs to understand basic arithmetic. Truthfully, I do most of my math when shopping and trying to calculate exactly how much a “20% off sale” is going to save me. But beyond the practical uses, in high school I really enjoyed algebra. I loved the formulas and the search for the one singular answer of x. Geometry? I shudder just thinking about it. I am terrible at drawing and could barely sketch the shapes we were learning about, let alone understand anything substantive about them. It’s just like my favorite subject, English. Poetry is part of English yet when I look at those sparse words on a page, they do absolutely nothing for me. I’ve never been a “poetry person.” Doing poorly in one area of math, doesn’t mean you are doomed when it comes to the entire subject.
Math teacher Elizabeth Cleland would let me off the hook for not rallying the same enthusiasm for reading The Gruffalo as I do math homework. The way she sees it, it’s her job to make the kids love math and develop their skills with perseverance and encouragement. But she urges parents not to ruin it.
My students’ parents also believe in this fallacy [that there are "math people" and "nonmath people"] and sometimes, perpetuate an anti-math attitude. They don’t use math at work, can’t help their students with their math homework, and are convinced themselves that they’re “not math people.” Furthermore, because these adults have survived without math, they tell their children that math isn’t necessary in the workplace. These adults have made their choices. They chose or were forced into careers where math wasn’t required and so they convince their children that only the “math people” will ever get anything out of a comprehensive mathematics education. Our job as role models is to give our students the freedom to make their own choices, including lucrative choices in fields that require math. In my education courses, we were always told that modeling is more powerful than teaching. Adults are modeling this self-defeatist attitude.
The most important is to keep a positive attitude about it and not let our own limitations dictate our children’s abilities. That’s probably good advice for parenting in general.