When was the last time you did a bit of math? Perhaps, like this writer, when splitting a check with some friends at a restaurant you (admittedly lazily) simply throw your credit card onto the pile, allowing the server to take care of the division on a computer tucked away from sight. When you pay for a taxi home, you dutifully click on the 20 percent key to add your tip, and the multiplication and addition is done for you. You regularly have in your possession a device that calculates whatever you need to calculate, but you never think about the actual process of all those calculations. You have a vague, vestigial memory of carrying "the 1s," and maybe deep in your brain there's something called a sine or a cosine, but when you think about that for too long you fear you've gone off on a tangent. So you shake your head to clear it of those cobwebs and get back to the business of what it does, which is, mostly, not doing any math for itself.
This, you might not know, is the scourge we have to face. An increasingly math-disabled society. Except it's not that the society doesn't have math—societies are made of math, they have math in their veins, in the cities and the highways and the industries and businesses and even the books and newspapers and candy bars and computers—it's just that people don't know how to do math anymore. Or they're too scared to try.
In this writer's case, I don't have a math phobia, per se. Instead I'm just overly coddled by my devices and a surrounding world in which math is not necessary, at least, superficially, for my day to day life. I'm not "bad at math" but I'm not "good at math" either—mostly, I just don't do it. I can get around without having to, for reasons I've enumerated above. Ironically, our great skill as humans in doing math, which has resulted in us giving math to the machines to do, has made it less and less necessary for us to keep an active practice going once we graduate from high school or college, depending on the focus of the school attended. We've commoditized the products of math, but somehow, not the skill itself. But who's really getting the brunt of all this math-apathy or even math-fear? The children. The children are not learning the math.
Sue Shellenbarger addresses this problem in the Wall Street Journal, summarizing it succinctly: "Many parents who loathe math fear raising kids who feel the same." And, yet, probably, kids are going to need to do some math, whether to get through elementary school or to become computer geniuses or industrial leaders of the free world or math teachers. Because, clearly, we're going to need more math teachers. Research indicates that kids are better off if they know how to do a bit of math, yet U.S. teens are below average in the skills compared to global peers. Mom and Dad: They learned it from watching you.
Shellenbarger talks about how parents can stop being so scared of math. (We suggest math immersion therapy! Looking those numbers in the eye and showing them who's boss! Picturing the numbers naked! Remember, they're more afraid of you than you are of them....) You should read her tips if you are afraid of math, and worried about passing that terror along to your kids. But why are we so scared of math, anyway? How did we get to this math-averse place? Let's look at a case study Shellenbarger presents:
Tammy Jolley is one of them—"a horrible math-phobic," she says. After struggling through algebra and statistics in high school and college, helping her 9-year-old son Jake with math homework makes her "feel like saying, 'Aaarghh, this is hard! I know why you don't get it,' " says the Madison, Ala., state-court official.
Despite that early math-trauma, she works through it and encourages Jake anyway. This appears to be, like any good psychological growth technique, the ticket. Many parents have not acknowledged their fear of math, and are passing that fear on "unconsciously." Shellenbarger writes, "A parent who reacts to a child's math questions or homework by saying, 'I have never been good in math,' or, 'I haven't done math in 20 years,' conveys to kids that math is daunting and they probably can't do it either, says Bon Crowder, a Houston-based teacher, tutor and publisher of MathFour.com, a website on math-teaching strategies." You may not be an Olympic swimmer, either, but that doesn't mean you should be afraid of the water! And if you are, for goodness sake, don't make your kid feel that way, too.
Shellenbarger suggests encouragement, even if you're not so good yourself at math, and playing to your strengths. You can count, right? Puzzles and blocks use math skills, and educational websites are rife with math games and questions. Cooking is a form of math as well. And even when you fail at math, your child can learn important lessons about not giving up, and/or, you can always hire a tutor. Challenge yourself by doing the math yourself to pay him or her that tutorial fee.
But in a way, this parental math-fear is a little bit sweet. Certainly it's better than the bad rap certain presumably entitled parents are getting for insisting on bringing their kids to beer gardens and restaurants only to run around and irritate other patrons and the waitstaff. If those parents turn out to have been bringing the kids to the beer garden to work on math problems, conquering fears and making difficult sacrifices all the while, it would seem we've been underestimating these parents all along. Yes, that was a math joke.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.