In Algebra, Not All Advice Is Equal

The afternoon routine hums along like clockwork. At the sound of the 3 P.M. bell, three of my four kids joined their sports teams for practice. Two hours later, sweaty and tired, they've peeled off their stinky socks and wadded them into aromatic balls on the floor next to their backpacks.

How they can concentrate with that odor hanging in the air, I'll never know, but they unload the night's assignments and crack the books.

The school year is only a month old and already the homework is breathtaking. Tonight, my daughter the sophomore has assignments in theology, US history and geometry. Before bed, she'll read several chapters of The Scarlet Letter, due next week.

The eighth-grader just finished her social studies assignment — finding a map online depicting the Louisiana Purchase. She joins her sister in the living room where textbooks and notebooks cover the couch and litter the floor.

At the kitchen table, my fifth-grade son works on a page of English sentences due tomorrow. Even my second-grader has homework — looking up “key words” in the glossary of her literature book.

Everybody seems to have things under control. I'm supervising and answering questions while I start dinner.

And then, I hear the words every English major mother dreads: “I need help with my algebra.”

Even in high school, I could sooner write an essay about algebra than do it. Algebra is one of those subjects I thought you didn't need to learn because you'd never use it again. Turns out you do need algebra — when your kids take it and ask you to help them with their homework.

In our household, math dispelled the myth that “Mom knows everything.” Used to be I could dazzle my kids with answers to their every question. Why do avocados have pits? To grow new ones. Prepositions? I know 40 by heart. Photosynthesis? I can spell it and explain it.

But math is another story. I'm good through long division, but once we get to fractions, I say things like, “I've been to fifth grade. It's your turn to figure out the answers.” (Mom-speak for “please don't make me sit down and try to remember how to find the common denominator.”)

The Mom Mythology unraveled completely when the eldest child reached middle school and brought home her first “logic puzzle.” If a man is stranded on an island with six sheep and a boat that seats only five, how many trips must he make with the fox until all the sheep are sweaters?

Where do they come up with this stuff? And what does it have to do with math? It's not logical anyway. Why not just shoot the fox or take a ferry? Plus, there's only one right answer and in my house, we're usually up until about 10:45 trying to find it.

So just now, when the call for help comes from the living room, I deflect it(in an effort to teach the children the important leadership skill of delegation). “Help your sister with her math,” I urge the high schooler.

“It's not math, it's algebra.” I stand corrected.

“Excuse me, algebra,” I say.

They put their heads together over the book, but right away it's clear the younger sibling isn't interested in solving the problem. She's just looking for sympathy. She does what any eighth-grade girl will do in this situation — she gets huffy and emotional.

“This isn't the way my teacher did it,” she whines.

“Maybe not, but we weren't in your algebra class this morning, so you'll have to do the problem the way your sister is explaining it.” I'm trying to stave off an argument between the two of them and hold back some mathematically induced tears before dinner.

“I have to do it the way she taught us,” she wails.

“Then you'll have to call someone who's in the class with you or else use the process your sister is explaining. But fussing and whining aren't going to get the homework done.” Who says I can't do logic?

I look at the clock and realize if she doesn't conquer the algebra soon, my husband will step in the door and we're in for a tense 20 minutes. It's not that he minds helping with homework — in fact, he enjoys it. It's a great way for him to keep tabs on what the kids are learning. But dads, teenaged girls and math are a combustible combination sure to end in tears and frustration — for her, too.

She stews for a few minutes. Then, with an age-appropriate mood swing, she brightens and announces, “I did it.”

Turns out she remembered how the teacher solved the problem on the board this morning. Or else she actually looked in the book without my noticing. Either way, the algebra is done and she's moving on to literature.

“I knew you could figure it out,” I say confidently.

It's times like these, when I can't offer any help, I wish math had come more naturally to me, just to perpetuate the myth I always know what I'm talking about.

Then again, if I'd been able to help my daughter tonight, she'd have relied on me and not on her own ability to think through the problem. Instead, she proved to herself when she sticks with it, she can find the answer.

Not to mention, she got it right.

(Marybeth Hicks is a writer and author of the features “then again.” and “A View from the Pew.” A wife of 17 years and mother of four children from second grade to sophomore year, she uses her columns to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families and the communities we share. Marybeth began her writing career more than 20 years ago in the Reagan White House. She currently writes a column for The Washington Times. Learn more about Marybeth and her work at This column first appeared in and is reprinted with permission from the Washington Times.)

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