As part of my job as a researcher and graduate student in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, I invite parents and children to play math games in our lab. As I lead parents and children through studies about how children learn, I’ve seen very different attitudes in parents towards math. Some parents would happily talk about numbers and inferences in their daily interactions, and they make a lot of attempts to start a conversation about math. They are not upset when children run away from those conversations. Other parents “care too much” about how their children respond. They eagerly ask me whether their children are competitive in math and get upset when their children are reluctant to engage. Although this kind of attitude is different from what we call “math anxiety,” these emotional responses, we believe, play a big role in children’s “math life.”
Some people still believe that math is mainly a natural gift rather than something in which you can train, improve, and eventually succeed. Yet, math ability is changeable! You might say: those “math people” usually have “math parents.” This might be mostly true, but besides what was pre-decided before birth, what the “math parents” think and do later on also matters for a child’s success in math.
As early as preschool, the initial exposure to math is critical. Researchers carried out a study at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile to understand the relationship between families’ math attitude, home activities centered around numbers, and children’s numeracy skills. The results are straightforward: when parents believe math is important and engage their children with math activities at home, the children show improved early math skills.
How exactly are parents thinking about math? Researchers asked parents how much they agree with statements such as “I enjoy math,” or “It is important at this point that their children are able to count to 100.” Their responses were scored and reported as the “math attitude and expectations” of the parents. That is to say, when parents believe that they themselves love math, and that it is important for their children to be able to carry out certain math activities by a certain age, their children would generally be better at math. This was shown by testing children’s early math skills with age-appropriate tasks, such as counting, identifying numbers, locating a number on a number line, or applied math problems (e.g., I had 2 candies, and my friend gave me 3 more. How many candies do I have now?)
The results not only showed that the more parents care about math, the better the children are at math, but also showed that the family’s devotion towards a specific type of math activity would benefit that type of math ability the most. For example, if parents engage children the most in informal math activities (e.g., number games instead of directly teaching children how to count), children will benefit the most in their informal math abilities. (Don’t worry though – even informal abilities contributed largely to future math achievements.)
Now we know it’s important for parents to believe math is important. And yet in an interesting twist, another recent study (click to see a similar study) pointed out that if parents care too much about math, it could backfire. Researchers from Purdue University studied the relationship between parents’ math anxiety and their children’s math performance. They interviewed parents with questions such as how anxious they felt when they had to calculate a tip or adding three-digit numbers without a calculator. The higher the score parents got, the more severe the math anxiety they had. Researchers also assessed their 4- to 5-year-old children’s basic math ability. The result showed that the math anxiety from the parents is negatively associated with how much progress their children could make during their whole preschool year. This is important because whatever level the children started at, they made less progress during a year of preschool than the children whose parents had a lower level of math anxiety.
The opposing directions of these two studies suggest a paradox – that parents should care about math, but not too much. If the parents are serious about math in a positive way, the family would be more engaged in math activities, and children are more likely to have positive math experiences. However, if the parents are stressed with math activities, children’s emotional responses to math might also become negative.
Adding up the two studies suggests we need a subtle equilibrium when it comes to how much parents should care about math. They should care for sure, but if they care so much that it becomes a source of anxiety, it could be harmful. After all, we hope the math interactions between parents and children are frequent and cheerful.
What’s your earliest memory about math conversations or activities at home? How was that experience? I enjoyed it because I could play with colorful blocks and shapes. I hope yours are not too scary – but if they are, I wish you better memories about math in the future. (Never mind if you don’t want to see math again.)
Becker, M., Litkowski, E. C., Duncan, R. J., Schmitt, S. A., Elicker, J., & Purpura, D. J. (2022). Parents’ math anxiety and mathematics performance of pre-kindergarten children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 214, 105302.
Susperreguy, M. I., Douglas, H., Xu, C., Molina-Rojas, N., & LeFevre, J. A. (2020). Expanding the Home Numeracy Model to Chilean children: Relations among parental expectations, attitudes, activities, and children’s mathematical outcomes. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 50, 16-28.