Recent studies have shown that parents who struggled with math anxiety in school can unwittingly pass this learning difficulty to their own children. This happens when parents who have their own “math insecurity” assist their children with math homework. 

These parents don’t do it on purpose — in fact, it’s often because they are trying so hard to help their children do better in math than they did. 

The problem is, their help backfires. 

Instead of helping the child feel more confident with math, the parents often make what they think are reassuring remarks:

  • “It’s okay. I struggled with math, too.”
  • “You’ll be fine. I never really use this stuff as an adult, but it’s important to learn for this class now.”
  • “You can do this. I’ll show you how.” (Which often turns into: “Um … okay, hang on … maybe we should try it this way? No. Okay, what about this? … Let’s look it up online … ugh, I don’t know either.”)

Researchers at the University of Chicago studied about 400 elementary students. They tested the kids’ math abilities at the beginning of the school year, and they also surveyed them on their feelings about math. How do they feel when taking a math test? When doing their math homework? Parents completed a survey, too, responding to questions that asked about their own math anxiety and how much they help their kids with homework. At the end of the year, the students were re-tested in math and re-surveyed. 

Turns out: the kids with math-anxious parents who helped with homework not only internalized their parents’ discomfort with math, they actuallylearned less than their peers

This kind of math anxiety has long-reaching effects. Adults who struggle with math don’t just get nervous when it’s time to split a restaurant bill. They also don’t understand their credit card interest, how to best finance a car purchase, and what kind of savings will be needed for retirement. 

So what’s the moral of this story? Should parents who’ve had their own problems with math not help their children? 

Well, it depends. If you can maintain a “math positive” attitude, you can probably provide support with passing your anxiety down to your child. You can do this by:

  • Talking to your child frequently about your own “math homework.” Explain how you use math to calculate grocery-store savings, comparison shop for a television, and figure out a tip. Instead of cringing at math opportunities, discuss them as everyday challenges where math is an important and helpful skill. 
  • Don’t discuss your own problems with math. This communicates a fixed mindset, or the idea that people are either good at something or not. Instead, focus on the idea that everyone can learn math, even if it doesn’t feel easy at times. Explain that problem-solving is one of life’s most important skills, and math helps us be better problem-solvers. 

If you find that you’re unable to support your child’s math development without communicating your own angst, talk to us. Our tutors have an excellent track record of success, even with students for whom math has presented a years-long challenge. 

One Chesapeake parent tells us: 

“My daughter now understands the subject that once gave her so much trouble. Not only has she worked her way from a D to an A-, but she also passed the Algebra II SOL with a Pass-Advanced score!”

The most important skills we can teach our children are perhaps not division or solving equations, but grit and persistence. Kids need to learn that they can do hard things and that their teachers and parents will support them in the process. Math homework is a great opportunity to practice those skills.