When it comes to math, research shows that attitude matters. So when you hear your child say, “I’m bad at math,” you want to nip that self-defeating attitude in the bud. We asked experts what parents should say to help their kids stop doubting their math skills and instead learn to embrace math as a subject they can excel at. Here’s what they said.

  1. “Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean you’re not good at it.”

    Many kids (and adults and, sadly, teachers) associate being “good at math” with catching on quickly. But math is a skill that’s acquired over time. Everyone can learn math. And everyone can get better at math. It’s important that kids understand this, because research shows that kids who think their intelligence and ability are things they can grow with effort outperform kids who think those qualities are fixed.

    Parent coach and psychologist Erica Reischer says parents should focus on noticing how you talk to your kids about achievement and success. “What kind of things are we paying attention to and acknowledging them for? Is it the thing that they get really fast? Or is it the thing that they strove to master and achieve?” she says. While praising your child for “being smart” or “being good at math” may seem like positive reinforcement, it can (inadvertently) discourage your children from taking on challenging or hard work.

    The goal, Reischer says, is “to emphasize the importance of skill development and the importance of process, as opposed to some kind of innate ability.”

    To encourage your child to be comfortable making mistakes and take on difficult challenges, praise their effort, work process, and perseverance when they master a task that didn’t come easily. And when they say they can’t do a math problem, remind them that they can’t do it yet.

  2. “Math is more than drills and abstract problems.”

    According to Kalid Azad, the author of Math, Better Explained, it’s important to connect math to a child’s every day life, and ideally, passions. “I would play games with them so they’d see math as a way to look at the world. Instead of abstract problems, I’d relate math to real-world things they were interested in — sports, arts and crafts, candy, or poker. I’d say, ‘Okay, that’s fine, let’s skip the math, but let’s walk across this field or let’s go shopping’ and then I’d try to make math something that relates to their life.”

    Chances are, your child probably enjoys lots of things that involve math concepts. Sheila Tobias, author of Overcoming Math Anxiety suggests parents show their child how something he thinks he’s good at relates to math, whether it’s cooking or sports or planning a road trip. “‘You can’t be bad at math because you’re good at tennis, and you can calculate when the ball is going to be on your side of the court. You cook and help me halve the recipe and we do the calculations together. You’re good at math because last year you figured out the mileage on our trip. You’re good at jigsaw puzzles, so you’re good at math.’ Whatever your child does well, I would find a link to math. You’re showing that your child does use math all the time, and knows how to do it.”

  3. “Let’s look at it together.”

    When a child complains about math, it’s often a sign of frustration and confusion, says Frances R. Spielhagen, author of The Algebra Solution to Mathematics Reform. “It is important to validate what the child is saying, with encouragement like, ‘Yes, math can sometimes be difficult, but let’s see what, in particular, is giving you trouble.’ This tells the child that the feelings of frustration are real but can be overcome.” Spielhagen suggests that when a child is struggling, parents can help their child become more math-confident by making sure they have the support they need to succeed.

    “Talk to your child’s teacher to determine the dynamics that are happening in the classroom. If your child needs additional help, determine how to provide that help at home, through local school resources, professional tutors, and even a bright high school student looking to earn some extra cash or service hours,” she says.

Don’t say: “I’m not good at math, either.”

It’s terribly common and unfortunately accepted for adults to proclaim, “I’m not a math person.” But research shows that kids pick up math anxiety from their parents, and it affects kids’ ability to perform in math. The brains of math-anxious people even process simple calculations differently from the brains of people who don’t suffer from math anxiety.

When you tell your child you’re not good at math, you’re implying that the ability to succeed in math is fixed and innate. You’re also implying that it’s ok if your child doesn’t have it, either. Instead, do your best to express confidence, calm, and curiosity around math, so that you’re modeling a positive (or at least neutral) attitude toward math for your child.

Want to really transform your child’s relationship to math? Listen to our podcast The M-Word to learn new tools and strategies from the math revolutionaries who are tackling America’s math problem.

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Updated: March 3, 2019