Before having my daughter, I couldn’t remember the last time that I consciously counted. But while I was pregnant numbers entered my life in a big way. I counted the weeks of gestation, the days until the baby was due. I counted through my contractions, and counted how many years I would spend in prison if I murdered my useless husband while I was in labour (I decided it would be zero, they would let me off on grounds of compassion).
Then I had the baby. The sleep deprivation pulped my brain for half a year or so, and any useful letters or numbers danced in the remaining head space to no particular beat. Eventually, the remaining curds of my brain came back together into a gooey blob, and I started to count again, this time to my daughter.
I counted in the bath before I would pour water on her head. She would howl on ‘three’ temporarily blinded by the so-called “tear-free” shampoo. When she would go to bed, we counted slowly to five then tickled her. Within days, she started to burst into giggles of anticipation by the time she got to four. Recently, she has started walking, and I count to help her navigate each step, hoping that she will slow down.
She also counts: “Wah, te, thi, faw.” Sometimes the order is lost, and I can hear a “sis” after the “thi.” But the general rhythm is there.
A few days ago I went to a playground with my daughter, now 20 months. Initially, we were by ourselves, and my daughter was shamelessly piling bits of dusty bark onto the lower half of the see-saw and insisting that she sit on the gritty seat. Then a mother and her girl entered. I knew what we were up against as soon as I saw them. The girl had butterfly hair clips in her hair; the mother was wearing carefully applied make-up. My child and I resembled half-eaten scarecrows.
Of course my daughter developed an interest in the swing that she rejected three minutes ago, as soon as she saw the other girl approach the equipment, so Stepford Mummy and I stood side-by-side pushing our kids along. I counted “one, two, three.” Then I heard a soft “faw” emerge from the other child, who made her way up to ten with quiet determination. I asked how old the girl was…19 months. A month younger than my daughter. I then asked Stepford Wife how she taught her to count. “My friend’s child could do it, and he was younger than her, so I decided to really drill the numbers into her. It only took a week.”
This was a competition I was not about to enter. And for the first time, I was grateful for my daughter’s lack of attention span, as it allowed for a swift exit.
But the whole episode made me think about what numbers mean to toddlers. When I watch my daughter manage the world around her, I’m not sure at what point numbers actually have significance. She is at the stage where she can recognise a banana or “manana” as she calls it, but I don’t think that she understands that a “manana” can also be yellow, or that there can be two bananas or three of them. Then, to add to the confusion, is the fact that those numbers are represented by symbols.
At first I was delighted to learn that Stepford Mummy’s numerical boot-camp was in vain. According to PBS Parents, children who are 18-24 months can use number words without having a grasp on quantity. The really clever kids may be able to identify between one, two and many. They might be able to request one apple, or give you two stickers and understand that you have many exciting objects poorly concealed in your handbag. Very bright toddlers will be able to understand that if you add an object to another object you have two, and that if you take away one of those objects you have one again, but there is no mention of understanding all of the digits up to ten.
Unfortunately, my joy was short-lived. Another study found that they could test a child’s understanding of counting if they understood numbers greater than three. The researchers tried to pinpoint the instance when kids could make the connection between number words and numerical value, which is called the cardinal principle.
To do this, they visited 44 families with children aged from 14-30 months and noted each time numbers were mentioned. These visits were 90 minutes long and took place every four months. When the children were close to four, their understanding of numeracy was tested.
The authors found that youngsters who were more inclined to master the cardinal principle were the ones whose parents talked about sets of four to 10 (like Stepford Mummy), on a regular basis. The parents who stopped counting at three (like I do a lot) may have had children who could discern between one and three objects, but those kids were unlikely to have an understanding of the numerical significance.
Why is any of this important? Well, kids enrolled in kindergarten who already have the hang of the cardinal principle do better at math (and probably at life). While I was looking forward to leaving the teaching up to the teachers there is apparently a lot I can do beforehand, and Stepford Mummy might have the right idea.
Marina Gomer is a journalist and mother of one. She lives with her family in Sydney, Australia.