I have heard so many adults (myself included) utter the phrase “I’m bad at math” that it’s no longer information that I actively register. In fact, my friends and I often say things like “I can’t count” or “my brain can’t work numbers.” I will reach for a calculator a fraction faster than I should.
I never really considered any of this damaging, but in an era where math anxiety is at epidemic levels, we need to watch what we say in front of children and never let them get the idea that being bad at math is cool.
Mathematics experts agree. “Imagine if the same number of people claimed ‘I’m not good at reading.’ I don’t think it would be deemed socially acceptable – in fact, most people would be embarrassed to make that claim,” Catherine Attard the Associate Professor, Mathematics Education, Western Sydney University, said.
Her research has found that these comments do not go unnoticed:
“My mum doesn’t really like me asking her because she thinks she doesn’t have a math brain. She thinks that she’s got more of an English brain than anything else,” Molly a six-year-old student said.
Attard has found that this attitude is infectious, and kids who are great at math have noticed that their peers will have a different perspective. “Maybe some just don’t enjoy it the way I do; they just think maybe it’s not their subject. They might enjoy English,” another participant in Attard’s research, said.
In the US, a similar editorial came out recently mourning the way that “smart people enjoy saying that they are bad at math.”
“Our country’s communal math hatred may seem rather innocuous, but a more critical factor is at stake: we are passing on from generation to generation the phobia for mathematics and with that are priming our children for mathematical anxiety,” Petra Bonfert-Taylor, a professor of engineering at Dartmouth College, wrote.
Bonfert-Taylor noticed that it’s not just parents. Sometimes teachers will make a remark here or there.
“Girls are especially affected when a teacher publicly announces math hatred before she picks up the chalk. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported that female — but not male — mathematical achievement was diminished in response to a female teacher’s mathematical anxiety. The effect was correlated: the higher a teacher’s anxiety, the lower the scores,” she wrote.
Both experts noted that there’s nothing malicious in the expressions. Most adults say these things to make their children feel better about their math performance and understanding, more than anything it’s empathy.
However, a lot of research has found that these statements actually help breed math anxiety rather than curb it.
So what should parents do?
Attard recommends the following:
- Do not make negative statements about math in front of your child.
- Seek help from schools if you are having trouble helping your child with their homework. Many schools will give a parent some tools to brush up on their math skills.
- If the math problem is too hard, simply say “I don’t know” or “I don’t remember.” There is no need to tell your child you are/were bad at math.
- Math is hierarchical, so if your child is confused with something make sure they get the help they need before the class moves on without them.
Marina Gomer is a journalist and mother of tow. She lives with her family in Sydney, Australia.