Say This, Not That

Saying These Phrases To Your Kids Can Make Them Worse At Math

Helping them succeed at math is all about maintaining a growth mindset.

Originally Published: 
A dad helping his child with math homework using an abacus.

It’s late, you’ve just come back from a long shift at work, and your kid is asking for help with math homework due tomorrow. Of course, you’re happy to assist. Then they mess up some of the formulas and get upset, calling themselves “stupid.” Trying to help, you say, “It’s okay; you’re just not a math person. And that’s fine! I’m not a math person either, but I’m still smart.” These words may sound encouraging, but a new study suggests talking to your kid about math in this way is linked to math anxiety and lower scores on math tests.

For the study, scientists at the University of Georgia surveyed 561 parents on their beliefs about mathematics. The questions were along the lines of, Do you think that math ability is something that's fixed or something that can change over time? Overall, it was fairly common for most parents to believe that math ability can change, displaying what experts call a “growth mindset,” says Michael Barger, Ph.D., an assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Georgia and one of the lead authors of this study.

Barger’s team also asked parents to self-report how they respond to the attitudes and achievements of their elementary schoolers — averaging between ages 7 and 8 — regarding mathematics.

They found that parents who believed math is a skill that can change over time are more likely to give their children process-based feedback — analyzing their strategies or efforts. These parents are more likely to encourage their child to continue working at the problems even when they’re hard. Parents who see math more as a fixed ability you either have or you don’t are more likely to give person-based feedback, like praising their children for being smart and naturally good at math.

And one of these types of feedback is clearly better than the other, according to the study.

“What we do see is that when parents are giving these person-messages more often — when you're saying ‘You're so smart at math,’ or ‘It's okay if you're not a math person’ — kids are later less likely to prefer challenges,” says Barger. “They're more likely to experience math anxiety, and they achieve less on math achievement tests.”

The process-messages, on the other hand, weren’t necessarily linked to improvement or more enthusiasm for math. They just weren’t detrimental to the kids’ performance — but hey, not making a kid worse at math is a win in our book.

Of course, Barges notes, it’s not that hearing “You’re so good at math,” one time will suddenly send a kid’s test scores off a cliff — and the study didn’t prove that these types of messages cause lower math scores, only that the two are linked. But Barger says subtle changes in how you talk about math with your kid could make a big difference. And because the kids in the study were so young, it’s possible the effects could snowball over time, having even greater effects on math scores and math anxiety later on in the students’ development.

Here are three common person-messages parents say to their kids about math, why they’re problematic, and what you should say instead.

1. “You’re so smart.”

Don’t get us wrong. Positive feedback is beneficial, but it’s how you say it that makes all the difference.

Praising a child’s intelligence can be problematic, Barger says, because it conveys a worldview that when you’re smart at something, there’s something special inside you. “Then when you get into situations where math gets hard or when you're confronted with a challenge, what you then might interpret is, ‘Oh, maybe they were wrong. Maybe I don't have that special thing,’ or ‘Maybe I've reached my limit of how good I can be at this thing.’ So you see disengagement,” Barger says.

When kids think they’re failing because they lack a special gift that’s necessary to succeed, they're more likely to give up, Barger notes. Even though math, like almost everything else, just requires you to work through the problem and try a different approach. So instead of telling your kid how smart they are, praise their work ethic or the way they approached the problem.

2. “You might just not be a math person.”

Due to the same principles discussed above, this type of language can lead your child toward a sort of entrapment. It’s especially harmful when you say this type of phrase to young kids.

“It's particularly interesting with first, second, and third-grade students, because pretty much everybody can learn first, second, and third-grade math,” says Barger. So to say to a second grader who does poorly on a math assignment, “Oh, you're not a math person,” is like closing the door on all of the possibilities of learning that student could have and absolutely has the capacity to learn, he says.

Instead, acknowledge the difficulties they’re having, but assure them you believe they can do it.

3. “Not everyone has what it takes to do well in math.”

When you say “not everybody can do this,” kids have guesses as to who you're talking about when you say “not everybody,” Barger explains, pointing to research on this topic by his colleagues. Kids automatically resort to some of the stereotypes they’ve learned about certain slices of the population like women or minorities.

“When you have a field that has more of this belief in the importance of brilliance, you tend to see fewer women. You tend to see fewer minorities,” Barger says. “I think it's because of statements like this that can really push students out of these fields that otherwise they might be really successful in.”

Showing examples of people from historically excluded groups who are now succeeding in fields such of mathematics can help counteract these types of messages that your child may be hearing.

How To Use Process-Messages Effectively

Person-messages harm children's confidence and motivation in mathematics, especially if negative — but only using process-messages can sometimes seem disingenuous and inauthentic, especially because sometimes math tasks are easy for some kids and they don’t need to put much effort into completing them. So, what’s the right middle ground?

Focusing on what the kid thinks and feels about math could do the job. “Ask students to create their own meanings out of things,” Barger says. “Ask them if they liked doing it, ask them about their interest in doing it.”

Doing this can set parents up to have interesting conversations with their kids and allows the kids to practice explaining their own successes and failures so they can build their own understanding of what it takes to be successful in math, and school in general.

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