Burying the term “I’m not a math person”

Helping your child love math starts with being aware of the words you use. Children latch on to and internalize the messages they hear their parents say. Consider these small yet powerful messages:

  • I’ve never been good at math.
  • I’m not a math person.
  • Math is so hard for me.

Do any of these sound familiar? On the surface, these phrases appear harmless. However, when heard regularly, each statement is packed with potential meaning:

If my mom is bad at math, does that mean I am bad at math?

This math lesson is so hard! If my dad is not a math person, I must not be one either.

The first step to raising a math person is to remove negative math messages from your vocabulary. For some of us, this will be difficult, especially if you have believed that you are bad at math for the majority of your life. Even if you do not consider yourself a math person (yet), at a minimum you must pretend you are a math person when you are with your child.

To make this easier for any ‘non-math’ people, I am going to challenge your belief that you are not a math person. People do math every day, and because you are a person, that means you do math every day. Just because the math you do does not appear on a worksheet does not mean it’s not math. Let me provide some examples:

Grocery Store: If you’re on a budget like me, you’re always looking for the best deal. Comparing different prices for the same product involves tons of math: comparing quantities, estimating, finding the price per unit. In addition (no pun intended), you have to keep track of a running total of your items. Not to mention the additional layers of thinking that tend to sneak in: What is the probability that Max will be upset if I come home with Kroger mayo instead of Helmans? Is the dollar saved worth it?

Cooking: Take a look at some of these common kitchen questions: How many cups are in a quart again? Will this amount of soup fit in this pot? If the casserole takes 75 minutes to cook, what time will that be? All of these questions point to specific mathematical thinking: converting between units, spatial reasoning, and adding time. Fun fact: we have the Babylonians to thank for our sexagesimal (base 60) time system!

Hobbies: Consider the thought processes involved in some common activities:

  • Sports: If the ball is hit from this angle, what will be its trajectory? What is the likelihood of making the basket from this point on the court? If we kick a field goal now, will we be able to win the game if we only get one more possession?
  • Music: How many beats does this dotted half note get based on the time signature? What is the relationship between major and minor notes and chords? What impact does looping a rhythm have on the overall feel of the song?
  • Gardening and yard work: How much soil will I need to fill the garden bed? Which area of the yard receives the most sunlight throughout the day? How many plants can I fit in the bed if I space them 5 inches apart?
  • Exercise: What is the impact of lifting an additional 5 pounds per week? How much weight am I trying to lose? How many calories does each exercise burn?
  • Watching TV: What is the likelihood of being able to watch just one episode of Game of Thrones? If I watch three episodes, what proportion of my day will be spent sitting on the couch?
  • Home improvement: What is the height and width of the doorway compared to the dimensions of the new couch? Where is the exact middle on the wall? If I need to place three nails to hold the painting, where should I place each nail? How can I arrange the furniture to maximize the space? If you have not asked these mathematical questions when attempting DIY projects, you know the consequences of trying to fit a couch into a doorway without measuring first!

All of these activities involve thinking about the relationships between variables and require important math skills, such as spatial reasoning, pattern recognition, unit conversion, and measurement. So, just because you can’t do 145 * 310 in your head in ten seconds doesn’t mean you are not a math person. It may mean that you are not a math genius, but that’s ok – neither am I.

In conclusion, building a positive math environment at home starts with removing negative math language from your vocabulary. Whenever you catch yourself saying or thinking anything along the lines of “I’m not a math person” or “I just never really understood math,” remind yourself that you do math successfully every single day.

Maybe you won’t believe what you’re saying (yet), but at least you’re not putting negative thoughts into your child’s brain – or your own for that matter!

Take Action

  1. Choose one of the phrases above and fill in the blank with an activity you do regularly. If you’re likely to forget your new positive math message, write it down somewhere visible.
  2. Actively pay attention to how you talk and think about math. If you catch yourself saying or thinking a negative math message, rephrase your thinking with your chosen positive math message.

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