Just last week, The Hubby and I were speaking to a friend’s dad about the start-up costs on a small farm. He rattled off some figures, which I dutifully listed down. Then he said, “So how much is that?” My brain hung. I could hear the desperate whirring as it attempted to process. I needed a mental reboot. The figures weren’t even difficult ones; they were rounded off to the nearest thousands. But what is it about Math that makes me freeze?
I’m not the only one, apparently. Math anxiety is a real thing. Some people even show physical symptoms like sweating, cold hands, elevated blood pressure and heart rate, even lightheadedness. I may not have it as bad as others, but on-the-spot calculations still send my brain into mini panic attacks.
I often catch myself saying, “That’s why I’m a writer—Math and I don’t get along.” But I realize that I’m perpetuating the myths, and I’m discouraging my kids from developing very useful Math skills. Most people believe that they were born lacking that Math gene, but they most likely picked up the aversion from their parents or teachers. Also, most people believe that they suck at Math, and that’s why they get Math anxiety, when in fact, it’s the other way around. Stressing about Math actually uses up brain resources that should be used for making calculations.
Seeing the basic relationship between numbers, and the ability to manipulate them are skills that can be acquired. So how can we parents ensure that our kids don’t get Math anxiety, and that they develop numeracy skills? Here are a few tips:
“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all”
Pretty good advice from a cartoon bunny (and that’s Thumper from the classic Bambi, in case you missed the reference) so I’m trying to quit my writer-against-numbers routine. Kids do pick up a lot of their beliefs and attitudes (and not just for Math) from us. So if I roll my eyes or sigh every time I have to help them with a Math problem, or say “This is so hard!” then I’m passing on all my hang-ups to them, putting them at a disadvantage.
Make Math fun
It takes more effort, sure. Compare the time it takes for you to say, “Do all the addition problems on pages 3 and 4 of your workbook,” versus playing Snakes and Ladders with your kid, using a pair of dice. But which one would your kid be more willing to do? It’s easier to learn when you’re having fun—and that goes for anything.
While doing addition and subtraction drills with Breeze, for example, instead of droning on and on, “2 + 3 is…? 6 – 2 is…?” I would make her time machine scenarios: “So you’re 6 years old now; how many years would you have to go [on a time machine] so you can have your own Facebook account?” (she needs to be at least 13). “You finally got your Facebook account; how many years so you can vote for a president? But you want to be carried again; how many years do you have to go back so Mommy will still carry you?” (that’s supposed to be 5 years old, but I confess to carrying her still, even if she’s already a few weeks shy of 7!).
It takes us ages to do drills this way—and she keeps asking for more problems! But she can be pretty quick adding and subtracting mentally (which is more than I can say for myself).
“When will I ever use this?!”
I guess one of the issues I had with Math is that it didn’t seem to have any real-world application. Who cares that a2 + b2 = c2 in a right triangle, or that you know how to solve problems like “If the sum of four consecutive integers is 78, what are the integers?”
But say I’m papercrafting, making a card with a step design. I need four strips of paper with different lengths, with a 1cm difference in length from one to the next, and I need to cut those from my last 78cm strip (no room for mistakes!), how long will each strip be? That’s an algebraic equation, with an answer that matters to me. I need to figure out the correct answer before I start cutting, because, hello, no sane paper crafter would want to waste any paper (btw, in proper Math syntax, it would be x + (x+1) + (x+2) + (x+3) = 78; and the paper strips should be 18, 19, 20, and 21cm)!
Raine, for example, was studying perimeter and area. She built a Lego theater, and solved for the area for carpeting, and length of wallpaper needed. She also loves baking lemon bars, and once she quadrupled her recipe because we were having the clan over—that was great practice for her fractions.
If you can’t beat it, fake it
Raine’s Singapore Math textbook sometimes takes an approach that I don’t quite get, much less explain properly. In this case, I’d tell her in a cheerful tone (at least I hope it comes off as cheerful, rather than maniacal), “I need time to figure that out, let’s move on to something else.” But I still try to show enthusiasm and a positive attitude, rather than giving in to the urge to toss the book in the trashcan out of frustration.
A lot of times though, while faking it, I discover interesting Math facts and techniques—which make Math more interesting and fun, which in turn makes Math easier, and before I know it, I actually am enjoying Math.
Surreptitiously, of course, because I’m a writer, not a Math person.
A version of this article is included in the There's a Math Teacher in The House newsletter, to which I have started contributing to. This newsletter is published weekly by MATH-Inic, a system that teaches mental Math techniques that will help make Math fun, fast, and easy. The newsletter contains tips on how to promote Math in your home; techniques to speed up calculations (useful for competitions!); and fun things you can do with numbers. Sign up here to receive the free weekly There's a Math Teacher in The House newsletter and other updates from MATH-Inic.