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I Love Math, Really: On Faking My Love of Math with My Kids

math loving polar bear

Ada Lovelace stuffy showing off her calculations

“Math is fun. MATH IS FUN!” I regularly say, shout, chant, and sing to my kiddos.

What they’ll never hear me confess is: “I’m not a math person,” “Some people just aren’t good at numbers,” or “I’m bad at math.” All thoughts I’ve 100% had.

Why this double-life? Because I want my kids to relish numbers.

I want them to dig puzzles and problems. I want them to jump right on board that train traveling 80 mph, heading toward Easton, 260 miles away and wave at some other train, traveling 50 mph, that leaves Easton heading toward Weston. I want them to delight in knowing when the two trains meet and how far from each city they are when they meet! I am teaching my kids to love math because it is a crime that I don’t.

I am completely capable of doing math, I just doubt my abilities on a daily basis. Whenever I calculate tips in restaurants, I always double check myself against the little tip card I carry in my wallet.  When something’s on sale at a store, I never trust the deal, calculating over and over how much I really must be saving. These little things can add up too. A few years ago, I wanted to roll my mutual fund over into a lower fee account, but I let my financial advisor talk me into staying with the higher fee even though I KNEW it was costing me more money. And while I make a good living, I cringe when I see what I might be making if I’d pursued a career that uses math. It’s ridiculous how much my fear and doubts about math have held me back in little ways and big. This is why I’ve taken steps to hide my fears about math; I want more for my girls.

Want to join me in my subterfuge? Here’s how:

Model Math Positivity: Tell Your Kids that You Love Math

Have you ever heard someone say they weren’t good at reading? No? Chances are, you’ve heard plenty of people say that they weren’t good at math. For some reason, it’s socially more acceptable to put down your math ability than it is your reading skills. People have no problem publicly mocking another person’s math skills when they’d never joke about your reading level. Our readiness though to point out someone else’s or confess so easily to being innumerate ourselves may be a big problem. Thinking that we’re not good at math can make us- wait for it- less good at doing math. And the more other people say they’re not good at math, the easier it is for us to believe that math is hard.   

Growing up, I saw my older brother and both of my male younger cousins doing well in the subject I struggled with in the same schools, and I didn’t get it. How did I miss the math gene that they so obviously got? Was it because I was a girl?

Loving math

How I used to feel about math

The truth is that there is no math gene and that girls can achieve equally well at math. We can all be good at math if we work at it. My brother and my cousins were good at math because they worked at it and because they saw plenty of male role models doing math. And while I wasn’t a slacker, when math got hard for me, it was just easier to say I wasn’t good at it and that I hadn’t been born “gifted” as they had been. Not seeing a lot of professional women using math probably didn’t help either.

A few years back, my aunt shared that she always tried to promote math with my cousins. They never heard her say math was hard or that she couldn’t do it. Instead, she declared a passion for math and spoke positively any time the subject came up. Our kids take their cues for how to think about things from us, which is why I’m following my aunt’s example with my two girls, genes and gender aside. We read books about math, I point out all the women we know who work in finance or math or science. When Libby was puzzling for what to name her new stuffed polar bear, I suggested Ada for Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer. My girls hear plenty of good things about math from me.

Still doubting your own abilities to stay positive about math?  Watch this video from Stanford math professor, Jo Boaler, about how anyone can learn math to a high level. Now watch it again with your kids!

Do Math and Make it Fun

If the thought of polynomials causes you to break it in a cold sweat, relax. Doing math with your kids, especially when they’re young, is more doable than you think.

For the babes & toddlers:

Count. Count EVERYTHING. Fingers, toes, Cheerios. The girls and I would count our shoes, our books, how many toys we put into the toy basket when they were young. Our ritual of counting the steps going into her pre-school helped get my youngest daughter excited for the school day. You can also identify shapes (early geometry!) and build with your wee ones to promote development of their spatial abilities. 

For little kids:

Bake with them. I’ve found no better way to teach fractions than having my girls measure ½ cup of chocolate chips. Measuring cups are essential math tools.

Have fun estimating. Guess how many chocolate chips there are in that ¼ cup and count to verify before eating them. If my kids associate math with fun and chocolate, I count that as a win! 

Math books

Check out your library for good picture books about math!

For elementary school kids:

We started doing Bedtime Math with our kiddos around the time they started school. The idea is that we read to our kids to promote literacy, why wouldn’t we want to also do math problems with them to promote numeracy? We signed up to get a daily email of a math problem that we then read at the dinner table with the girls. The problems are always based on some fun story (like this one about a snowboarding crow!) and the answers are right at the bottom for you (whew!).

Do you hate trying to make conversation with your children at the dinner table? Try math problems instead!

We’re also big fans of using the girls’ allowances to teach math. Just yesterday, Libby had to shell out $7 of her own money for the dress she wanted me to buy her. She painstakingly counted out quarters, nickels, and pennies from her wallet. When offered the same deal, her older sister Nell opted to save her money, deciding the shirt she had wanted was “not really worth it.”

For big kids:

Don’t stress your kid’s math homework. Seriously. It’s their homework, not yours. Don’t get me wrong, your student may need support completing homework. Your job though is to offer that support, not the answers to any math problem

Also, try not to slam the Common Core math (I know I may not be making friends on this point!) your kids are learning at school. You may notice that the math work your student is bringing home looks different than what you used to do in schools; trust me, this is a good thing. Students today are learning to think more deeply about the math they’re doing, which means they’re not always solving problems the way we learned how to a century ago. Your student will take their cue from you, so if you can be open to trying to solve problems in a new (and research supported) way, so can your student. Common Core math may not immediately make sense to us, but having our kids teach us can also be a powerful motivating force to encouraging their love of math.

Let Your Kids Make Mistakes

There are plenty of articles about letting your child fail at something these days, and math is no exception. Our brains actually grow more when we make mistakes, so letting your child mess up on their own is a good thing. We like to puzzle through a problem and ask the girls to try to explain why they think what they think. In our house, when Libby figures out a problem too quickly, I apologize for giving her a boring problem: “No fun!” The time we cheer the girls on is when the problem get hard and they stumble. We push them to persist, telling them how the synapses are firing when the math gets hard. Working and failing is learning. Deep learning doesn’t come easy.

All of which leads me to confess something not a single one of my high school math teachers would ever believe: I am such a math nerd. I love math. Seriously, you can ask my kids. They’re getting pretty nerdy themselves, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.  

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One Response to I Love Math, Really: On Faking My Love of Math with My Kids

  1. Cathy March 10, 2017 at 2:26 pm #

    My sister and I grew up thinking that girls were supposed to be good at math b/c our mother was as was our father. The struggles you mention of how to cope with the ‘new’ math remind me of the times my father would try to help me and steer me in the totally wrong direction! Each generation has to learn something ‘new’ it seems 🙂

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