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Want to Help a Kid Learn Math? Stop Being a Hypocrite

Kids are required to do math. Parents try their best to avoid it at all costs.

For many adults, math is a distant memory, a requirement dispensed with or a fever dream of a TI-82. And yet parents tell their children daily that math is not only fun but necessary and important. Parents tell their kids that they will use math their entire lives while using apps and guesses and pretty much every means possible to avoid doing so. This hypocrisy, long profound, is getting more obvious as adults do less math every year. So what do we tell the kids? Do we own our hypocrisy or do we tell them the truth about math? And what exactly is the truth about math?

Those are, quite obviously, unanswerable questions. But, in attempting to answer them, one is forced to confront certain realities and to get a sense of how confusing all these figures, parental and mathematical, look to little kids. As Anitra Jackson, a Montessori school teacher, explains, teaching math is hard for the same reason that learning math is hard: It’s based on a behavior (doing math) that parents don’t model.

“Unless parents have a job that’s really mathematically based, they won’t really insist on doing much of that, as opposed to reading and writing.” says Jackson. “It’s hard to say, ‘Oh, I can sit down and do some math problems,’ because most parents aren’t actively working on math at home.’”

She’s right. Even though math is a necessary life skill and critical to plenty of professions, most people don’t take home math problems for fun. There’s Soduku and that’s not really something people do with their kids.

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Anitra’s classroom is very hands-on, which is helpful because it helps kids learn what values look like, rather than just being numbers on a page. This is common in plenty of early education classrooms, and it works. It is also — almost more so than reading — a natural function of existence. Still, there is not a public dialogue around counting with kids. The Count of Sesame Street has a pun-derived name, but it feels less than coincidental that he is a bloodsucking monster. When it comes to addition, the general policy of most Americans is to subtract.

“You can use little rocks, you can use pennies, you can use beads,” Jackson says. “You can use whatever and teach kids the basics of adding and subtracting.”

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She sounds a bit desperate and perhaps she is because parents equal tired, and tired, in the modern age, equals automated. In China, there’s a popular app designed just so parents can check their kid’s math homework without doing math (you just thought what a good idea that is). Other apps, like “Photomath,” is literally a calculator and camera that does your math for you if you take a photo of an equation. These technologies aren’t bad — in fact, they’re pretty cool — but they do represent a good reason for kids to believe that they don’t need to learn math so much as they need to learn how to get math done. Paradoxically, this means that the kids doing the hardest math are the kids closest to the end of their academic careers and, if trends hold, to not doing more math.

“I have a daughter that’s in high school and one that’s in college,” says Jackson. “I actually have to step back and look at the problem and try to figure it out, instead of just trying to Google the answer because it’s so easy to do that.”

It is, and no one thinks that’s a bad thing. The only way in which it is bad is that it demonstrates a disconnect between education and adult life, insinuating that kids aren’t being prepared for the world but for further education. And here’s the catch: That’s kind of true. School produces education, not practical skills. Trade school produces skills and remains resolutely less popular than college because the skills that come with learning advanced topics like math, notably the ability to overcome frustration and clear a hurdle, are actually more valuable than knowledge of an advanced topic.

Kids need to know some math, but, more to the point, they need the experience of being frustrated by math. This is fine, but it is also complicated by parents and educators who insist that math is fun or critical to life. Kids know a bad sales job when they hear one. Knowing math isn’t necessarily critical. Learning it is. As adults do less to hide their aversion, it may be time to admit that to the kids.

For her part, Jackson won’t claim that everyone does or should enjoy math. She has math anxiety, but she still insists the process is important, and that parents have to keep that muscle alive, for the sake of their kids.

“You have to do math and read every day,” she says, seemingly in part as an admonishment to kids and in part as a reminder to herself.