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Overcoming Math Anxiety: Are you transferring your fear to your kids?

It’s a hectic school night in your home and it’s homework time. Your child asks for some help with math and, without hesitating, you dismissively say: “Oh, you know, I have never been good at math. Let’s wait for Dad. Start on your WordMasters for now.”

Nothing seems wrong with this answer; you can’t be expert at everything, right? Well, unfortunately you have just sent your kids an implicit “Mom doesn’t do math and it’s OK” message. Their next thought could be: “If she can manage without math in her life, then I can as well. If she is afraid of it, then I should be too.” It may not always be obvious, but children can decipher our insecurities and be negatively influenced by them.

A recent study, for example, demonstrates that after a year with math-anxious elementary school teachers, girls (who frequently use teachers as role models) showed a decline on their math tests. (Interestingly enough, the math teachers’ attitudes didn’t affect boys’ performance in this study.) Just as positive role models often affect kids – we all know examples of brilliant people crediting that one teacher or parent with their successes – so too can negative role models hinder the skills and abilities of children by not encouraging them.

And considering how essential math is in life, positive reinforcement is essential. We are confronted with math everywhere we go and whatever we do: cooking, shopping, driving, home decorating, and traveling. For example: What carpool route is most efficient? Is 30% off after 50% off the same as 80% off? How many babysitters should I interview? Are the sturdy expensive winter boots worth it or should I go cheap? Can I afford to quit work and have a second child?

Because math can be such a great tool and advisor, surely you want your child to know how to use and enjoy it! And contrary to what many people assume, you do not need to be an expert to support your kids in math. Consider Soccer Moms, Hockey Moms, Swim Moms – some of them never play the sports, but they do so much to help their kids succeed. All you need to do is follow similar rules with math, starting with these tips:

  • Stimulate curiosity and search for answers together. Kids are naturally fascinated with numbers, patterns, and logic; all we need to do is nurture this curiosity and expose our kids to the beautiful math of this world. Encourage questions and search for answers together on the Web, in books, or ask around. What day of the week will your birthday fall on in seven years? How does a 50 SPF cream differ from a 15 SPF? What are the chances of getting a hot pink gum ball out of all the available colors in the gumball machine? Present these as intriguing little puzzles of daily life and encourage your kids to spot some by themselves.
  • Encourage and set goals. Success in any kind of learning is enhanced by encouragement and challenge and inhibited by threats or shame. Remember those trophies that everyone gets just for trying or the pride we feel when our child scores a home run? Why not adapt a similar mindset for learning math right there at your homework table? Set practical goals that fit their aptitude so they don’t get discouraged or overwhelmed along the way. Discuss with your child’s teacher where improvements can be made and help your child to apply these skills in life.
  • Explain your reasoning. You probably do a lot of math without even knowing it. Figuring out seating arrangements for your guests by age, gender or interests; calculating how long to cook the turkey based on its weight; coming up with various permutations of the same set of foods for your kids’ lunches – our daily lives are full of math puzzles, and we have become proficient at solving them. Pass this expertise on to your kids by explaining your reasoning. And don’t forget to share and laugh together about your miscalculations.
  • Keep a positive attitude. People rarely admit to being illiterate, and if they admit to being bad at spelling or composition, they tend to make sure their kids understand they’re not proud of it. In The Reader, for example, Kate Winslet is so ashamed of her illiteracy that she doesn’t let her legal defense use it in her trial, though it would save her life! But people unapologetically admit to their kids they are bad at math, which sends the wrong message to your kids that such ignorance is acceptable. Instead you should reinforce the importance of math by prioritizing it. Don’t wait for Dad; make time to sit and patiently figure out math problems together, demonstrating it’s both important and possible. A “we can do this” attitude grows wings and with the Internet you can learn on your own.
  • Avoid stereotypes. Beware of those movies that depict smart kids as unpopular geeks. Instead, point out the people polishing their statistical presentations in the roomy business class section of your next flight. Another old nonsense theory is that boys are better at math than girls. A multitude of recent scientific studies in the US and around the world suggest that math skills are equal across genders, that culture is a factor in female math achievement and that girls’ confidence in math is dampened by parents’ and teachers’ gender stereotypes. Math is for everyone to enjoy, play with, and use. Don’t let your child miss out on developing a passion for it.

Math resources are everywhere, but the most important resource is your attitude. You are the best math guru your kids can get. And they really need one, because proficiency in the universal language of math is a key to helping your kids gain the life skills needed to become confident and successful adults.

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