“Math” No Longer Defined as “Misery”

"Homework?" I ask as Amy settles into the van and clicks her seat belt.

"Math and English. And I have to color a page for social studies."

I figure these tasks will consume roughly a half-hour of my daughter's afternoon — just the right amount of time to support the day's lessons, but not so much that she'll still be sitting at the kitchen table hovering over her books when it's time for the rest of us to assemble there for dinner.

"Sounds easy," I say.

"Mom, it's math," she says.

Say no more. I feel Amy's pain with respect to math because this subject presented my most difficult academic challenges. As I'm fond of admitting, I could sooner write an essay about an algebra problem than solve one. (Maybe this also was true for the person who invented story problems).

It pains me to hear Amy complain about math. I worry that I have communicated my own "mathphobia" to her like some genetic defect. Or perhaps I've done it insidiously, in the same way I don't serve foods to my family that I personally don't prefer.

In a world that needs more mathematicians and fewer people with their sights set on getting a Disney sitcom of their own, I somehow have neglected to inspire my fifth-grader toward an enjoyment of all things numeric.

I guess I always just assumed I was like most females – more verbal than spatial, more interested in language arts and social studies than in "hard" subjects such as science and math.

Recently, a Miami University survey of 2,000 girls in grades four through eight found that enjoyment of math and science is high for female students. In fact, research revealed that fourth-grade girls start out liking math and science best. Their interest in these subjects wanes by the eighth grade, but it decreases no more than their interest in other subjects.

In fact, it turns out that eighth-grade girls lose interest in all things academic. The survey doesn't tell us what subject consumes their interest at that age, but I think we can assume it starts with "B," ends with "S" and rhymes with "noise."

This study reminds us not to stereotype girls, a lesson it seems should have been learned a generation ago. A better reminder came to me from my friend Kimberly Thompson, a Harvard professor, math whiz and, most important, a mom.

"It's a big issue for me that many people inadvertently discourage their children from pursuing math by saying it was too hard for them," she told me. "We have to break the cycle of 'I'm not good at math' as an excuse for avoiding it, to 'Math and numeracy are as essential to your development as reading and literacy.'"

She's right, even if math really was too hard for me.

So here's the new strategy around my house: We've gone cold turkey on math. No, wait — I mean cold turkey on complaining about math. No one is allowed to "dis" math. Not even me.

No more groaning about math homework.

No more fussing about a challenging problem.

No more whining about a bad math grade that "isn't fair."

Most of all, no more snarky comments about how you never use algebra or geometry again, so what's the point in learning it.

From now on, we're opening a new book on math — a book that says math is easy; math is fun. OK, this book has a bit of fiction thrown in, but work with me. It's a new attitude — a new "mathitude," you might say. 

When I convey our new math-minded world view to Amy, she's underwhelmed.

"OK," she says, "but just because I can't complain about math doesn't mean I like it."

"I know," I say, "but at least we can stop feeding the belief that you can't do it. You're smart. You can do anything."

Do I think our positive vibe will prevail? You never can tell. All I know is, I only have two more years until Amy is in eighth grade.

That's the year they spell math b-o-y-s.

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