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How To Talk To Your Kids About Math (And Why You Need To)

There's a way that we parents can dispel the myth that only smart people do math. And there's also a way that we parents can combat math phobia. The approach requires work on the part of the parent, but hey, what part of parenting doesn't? Here's what I have in mind.
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When I started elementary school my mother, like all mothers, began asking me "what did you learn in school today?" I was always eager to share, and did. I talked about the things I was learning in all of my classes. I even remember some of those conversations -- like the time I told her about cumulus clouds. After that, I remember mom pointing them out to me regularly, and we'd bond over the ensuing conversation... yes, about clouds. Then middle school came. The concepts got more serious -- governments and their roles, Greek tragedies, etc. -- but she still asked her question, I still answered, and we still bonded over those conversations. It seemed that no matter what the subject was, I could always enjoy a nice discussion about it with my mother. That made me happy; it also made me want to keep learning. But on the horizon was one subject that would eventually drive a wedge between us: math.

The trouble started in eight grade with algebra. I found the subject truly exciting (I'm a math professor now), and would come home eager to share my enthusiasm about parabolas, factoring quadratics and graphing polynomial functions. The problem was that algebra was (is) my mother's "math limit," the math level at which she stopped understanding math. Every time I tried to talk algebra with mom, she'd tense up and change the subject. I could see that the whole thing made her feel insecure. So, sometime during that year, we reached an unspoken agreement: the question "What did you learn in school today?" would now exclude my math class. And that's how my mother stopped talking to me about math.

My experience isn't unique. There are millions of parents around the world whose individual math limits prevent them from talking to their children about math. As a math teacher, I find this deeply saddening on so many levels. For starters, it means that at some point, math becomes "off limits"; it becomes a subject that parents feel like they can't help their children with no matter how hard they try. Put another way, a "math wedge" appears. And to make matters worse, this wedge only grows larger with time: first comes the abstraction of algebra, then the proofs in geometry, then the matrices, and then... the dreaded calculus. It's no wonder that by the time kids are in high school, tutors have replaced parents as the homework helpers. The message this all sends? Very few people, including parents, can help with math. Only smart people get it, and since you don't, math is not worth your time or effort. (And... cue the national math crisis.)

But there's hope. There's a way that we parents can once again reclaim the all-encompassing nature of the question "what did you learn in school today?" There's a way that we parents can dispel the myth that only smart people do math. And there's also a way that we parents can combat math phobia. The approach requires work on the part of the parent, but hey, what part of parenting doesn't? Here's what I have in mind.