Help Kids Lose the Wrath for Math

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Bad news for parents who don’t like math: If you have math anxiety and try to help your child with his math homework, the probability is high that your child will pick up on that stress.

Rachel Miller of Albany, New York, helps her son, who is in middle school, with his language arts, history and science homework. But when it comes to math, she’s at a loss.

“I just don’t know how to help him,” Miller said. “If there’s a history assignment — or even a science problem that I have no idea about — I can look it up on the Internet. I can’t do that with algebra.”

Miller was able to help her son with the basics. When math became more complicated, “even going online to search for a solution was useless,” she explained. “I just didn’t get it. I was stressed, and my son picked up on my stress, enough so that he refused to do his math homework.”

A study from Change the Equation, a nonprofit initiative that furthers math and science learning, found that more than a third of Americans would rather clean their toilets than do math. It also found that 56 percent of middle-school children would rather eat broccoli than do math.

Those findings trouble Glen Whitney, founder and executive director of the Museum of Mathematics in New York City.

"The myth surrounding math is either you’re a math whiz, or you’re not good at it," Whitney said. "Math, like any other activity, can be improved upon with practice and perseverance. It’s like playing the violin. You need to practice in order to master it. The same thing can be said about math."

Our lack of love for math also stems from our upbringing. At a very early age, we are taught that reading should be an integral part of our lives, that as parents we need to encourage our children to read and that we should read to them as often as possible.

"Just imagine if we approach math the way we approach reading," Whitney said. "We should encourage our children and praise them for their efforts. Acknowledge that they are trying and that you are proud of them. Get their teachers involved and make it a team effort."

He looks at equations and word problems the same way detectives solve cases.

"Most math is not about numbers. It’s about solutions," he said. "If you can’t go directly to the answer, go around it, look for clues and work your way towards the solution. Often there's more than one way to solve a problem."

To get some of Whitney’s enthusiasm for math to rub off on you and your kids, do the following:

1: Try math puzzles online or get math puzzle books at your local library or bookstore. You can start easy and work your way up. Remember, math is like any other subject, you need to practice.

2: Visit the Kahn Academy online. It’s a series of free videos that are easy-to-understand, are free, short, and explain various math problems.

3: Talk to your kids about careers that use math. Don't just mention the obvious ones: accountant, bookkeeper, or financial-sector jobs. How about these cool jobs: astronauts, NBA professionals (you can devise shots and moves by using math), engineers, architects and animators (a director at the Museum of Mathematics has a niece who majored in math and works as an animator at Pixar; she uses math to make the folds and shapes in the clothing of many of the animated figures). Jugglers, magicians, astronomers and meteorologists are a few more.

4: Watch action movies about mathematicians. Have you ever seen "Sneakers," "The Imitation Game" or "A Beautiful Mind?" All are PG-13 and show off math in an amazing light.

5: Cook and bake with your kids and have them use measuring cups and spoons. Divide a pie; talk to them about division.

6: Check out Bedtime Math online, a free site with short quizzes and fun games that kids and adults can engage in. Some take as little as five minutes to do.

7: Hire a tutor or enroll your child in a math class if you are still having trouble. You can also take an adult school math class. There are even math camps for kids.

8: Find fun puzzles and games at the Museum of Mathematics's online site. If you can, visit it in New York City.

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