Do You Pass Along Math Anxiety to Your Kids? I Know I Do!

Parents can pass along their own anxiety about math when helping their kids with their homework, according to a new study.

Mother helping daughter with schoolwork
Photo: Goodluz/Shutterstock

In my house, we more or less follow this homework-helping system: I oversee our 8-year-old daughter with her reading assignments, and her dad checks over her math problems. It's a gender-stereotypical arrangement to be sure, but it takes advantage of each of our strongest skill sets—and avoids each of us feeling unnecessarily stupid and frustrated. My husband is not fan of grammar worksheets that make no sense to him, while I love diagramming sentences; and he can figure out what math strategies should be used while word problems make me want to stab myself in the eye. When we do help our daughter in the "opposite" subjects, it generally leads to bickering, thrown pencils, and her head down on the table in despair.

A new study at the University of Chicago has proven what I—and many of you as well, I bet—have experienced firsthand: Parents can pass along their math anxiety to their children. For the study, researchers assessed math achievement and math anxiety among 438 first- and second-grade students and asked the children's parents about their levels of math anxiety and how often they helped their kids with math homework. The results showed that children of math-anxious parents learned less math during the school year and were more likely to be math-anxious if their parents frequently helped them with math homework.

"Math-anxious parents may be less effective in explaining math concepts to children, and may not respond well when children make a mistake or solve a problem in a novel way," study co-leader Susan Levine, a professor of education and society in psychology at the university, said in a news release.

Levine and co-leader Sian Beilock, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, said math books, computer and board games, and Internet apps could improve parents' ability to help their children with math.

Now, I don't know about you, but I don't really have time to go back to the fourth grade and do all those things to get better at helping my daughter with her math homework. Even if I did, it wouldn't make me a math teacher or equipped enough to explain the concepts to my child. While I totally understand that kids need to practice what they learn at school, I wish they would just make the school day an hour longer so students did their homework in the classroom, where a trained professional would be available to answer any questions and make sure they are solving problems using the right logic and strategies.

Ellen Sturm Niz is a New York City-based editor and writer who is thankful for Mr. Steinlage, the only math teacher who ever made her enjoy the subject and feel like she wasn't hopeless at it. Check out Ellen's new Etsy shop and follow her on Twitter and Pinterest.

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