How Parents Give Their Kids Math Anxiety

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Boy (10-11) sitting at table over open book, head resting on hand, (B&W), close-up
Photo: George Marks/(c) George Marks

If figuring out how to split the bill fairly at a restaurant is enough to leave you feeling sweaty and nervous, maybe you are not the most qualified person to help a young kid with his or her math homework. A new study, published online this week in the journal Psychological Science, confirms this, suggesting that kids internalize their parents’ math anxiety — and that when math-anxious parents try to help their kids with their math homework, it often ends up backfiring. 

Researchers at the University of Chicago led by Erin A. Maloney analyzed the math attitudes and abilities of more than 400 first- and second-graders, using a data set that was part of a larger, unrelated study. The kids were tested twice on their math skills, once at the beginning of the year and once toward the end; they were also asked how nervous all things math-related made them, like tests or being called on by a teacher to answer an addition question. Their parents took surveys, too, to measure their math anxiety and how much they’d helped their kids with homework over the school year.

In the end, the kids with math-anxious parents learned less math during the school year, and they were also more likely become more math-anxious themselves — but only if their parents had helped them with homework. “Notably, when parents reported helping with math homework less often, children’s math achievement and attitudes were not related to parents’ math anxiety,” Maloney and her co-authors write in their paper. So if the parents who hate math didn’t try helping with homework, their kids fared about as well as the children of parents who had less math anxiety. 

Kids are perceptive little beings, picking up on and internalizing the attitudes of their parents, even when it comes to things like basic addition and subtraction. If parents can’t keep their nervousness about math to themselves long enough to help their kids through a few worksheets a night, the researchers indicate, perhaps it’s best to step aside and find a more suitable tutor. As for the restaurant question — do what my math-anxious friends and I do, and agree ahead of time just to split the bill evenly.