Math Anxiety

Copyright (c) 2002 by Kenny Felder

I originally wrote this as a radio commentary for Morning Edition on WUNC, and recorded it using two different voices.

Quick! Tell me what you think about when you hear the word "math."

<In a different voice>Math? Oh, my high school math teacher who was also the Driver's Ed teacher and used to make us do long division problems as a punishment. It was a nightmare! Me, I never could tell a quadratic equation from a least common denominator. I've got a good job and I balance my checkbook and I've never needed a square root since I got out of school. But now the new nightmare is my kid. She won't do her homework in math. I keep telling her, I had to do this, you have to do it too, but does she listen?

As a high school math teacher, I've heard that monologue more times than I can count. The parents really want their kids to get into a good college and get a good job. They're trying to be sympathetic, and at the same time, to steer their kids in the right direction.

Listen, Lisa, math is just like…well, it's like flossing. Nobody likes it. Everybody has to do it. You don't want to get math cavities, do you? Look at me, hated math every day of school but I got through it and you will too.

Sounds very helpful, doesn't it? These parents look at me with genuine surprise when I tell them that they are part of the problem, and they can be part of the solution.

Folks, math doesn't have to be the mental floss of life. It's like reading. Kids who see that their parents enjoy reading—to themselves, not just to the kids—tend to become readers. They see that reading is a pleasure, not a duty. It's something adults value, not just something they put their kids through.

It's the same with math. If you tell your kids that the object is to grit your teeth, learn the formulas, pass the test, and move on, then of course they'll hate it—who wouldn't? You're setting them up for failure. Instead, try telling them the opposite. Tell them that they really can understand the ideas behind the math—which is true. And tell them that most people enjoy math when they understand it, when it makes sense—which is also true. Tell them it is a practical skill in many walks of life, but also tell them that it can be a challenging, fun mental puzzle, if they are determined to really understand it.

But I don't like math, and I don't understand math. What do you want from me?

You, as a math-hater, have the perfect opportunity to help. This is what I always urge parents to do: ask your kid to explain the math to you. Imagine replacing that last monologue with this one.

Lisa, I didn't really understand math when I was in school. But I had friends who understood it, and they didn't seem any smarter than I was. Let's see if we can tackle this together.

The stage is set. Then you look at her homework, and you genuinely don't understand what's going on. So you ask. Simple questions about what she is doing, and also much more fundamental questions about what it means.

I see you've got an equation here, y=3x–5. I see you drew a line on the graph paper. What does that mean? This line is the graph of that equation? No, no, I don't get it…what does this equation have to do with this line? They don't look alike to me.

You see what this does? It emphasizes understanding, not just how to do the problem. It sends the message that there really is some possible way to make sense of this, even though you don't get it right now. More importantly, it communicates that this can be interesting or important to you.

What happens then? Sometimes Lisa will know the answers. She'll explain it to you, and get a good feeling of being able to teach her parents something. Sometimes, she won't know. Don't make her feel bad, just tell her that you don't get it either, and she isn't stupid, and she should ask the teacher to explain it tomorrow. Then, she should come home and explain it to you. That puts the power and the responsibility in her hands. Make it a team project, you and her together. If she sees that it is interesting to you, it will become less awful to her. And that is the first and biggest step you can take. The rest really is up to her.

 Kenny Felder's Essays and Commentaries

 Send comments or questions to the author