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Math Homework and Why Parents Should Sometimes Stay Out of It

When it comes to school subjects, mathematics is far from being a crowd favorite. Math can seem complex and intimidating, yet early math education forms the foundation for essential life skills, including problem-solving and critical thinking.

Many parents simply don’t enjoy math. Their child calls out for help with their algebra homework, so they breathe out a little sigh and stroll over to the dining room table, hoping their math knowledge isn’t too out-of-date.

Some people, however, have such a negative emotional response to the idea of math that they will go out of their way to avoid math whenever possible. Even once they’re adults, long past the age where passing a math class is a general concern, they have a lingering internal dialogue that says, “I suck at math.” In school, they panicked during math tests and lacked the motivation to learn and do math. When studying for a test or quiz, they focused all their efforts on memorizing the answers to problems instead of trying to understand how to get to the answers on their own.

This aversion to math is common. It’s called math anxiety. And if your child ever needs help with their math homework, but math makes you anxious, your child might actually be better off — as far as their math grades are concerned — if you refuse to help them with their homework.

In 2015, a study by Maloney and colleagues published in Psychological Science looked at the relationship between parents’ math anxiety and children’s success in mathematics. The researchers analyzed data from 438 children in Grades 1 and 2. Each child’s math achievement was measured using a math test, and their level of math anxiety was measured using a child-friendly questionnaire. As a control measure, the children were also tested on their reading abilities. Then, their parents filled out questionnaire packages in which they reported their own levels of math anxiety and how often they helped their children with math homework.

Maloney and colleagues found that when it came to parents with high math anxiety, the more they helped their children with math homework, the worse their children performed in math and the more math anxiety their children experienced. Essentially, if you are someone who hates math because it brings up feelings of worries and fears, then, when it comes to your child’s academic success, less homework help is more: your child has a better chance of succeeding in their math class if you don’t help them with their math homework.

Let’s say you’re thinking that you might have math anxiety, and now, in the hopes of setting your child up for success in their math class, you are considering stepping back from your role as their homework aide. Here are a couple of things that you can do.

First, ask around among your family members and friends. See if any of them seems confident in their math skills, and ask them if they’d be willing to fill in for you as your child’s homework helper.

If you can’t find someone to help your child this way, consider hiring a tutor. Reach out to a couple of tutoring agencies with inquiries, post an ad, or simply spread the word throughout your social sphere that you’re in the market for a math tutor. You never know — your neighbor’s cousin’s granddaughter might be looking for some side income while she finishes college, and she might be the perfect candidate for the job.

If none of these options sounds appealing, or if you’ve tried them and they didn’t work out, don’t worry.

In 2018, Schaeffer and colleagues published a paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology that looked at whether math apps could help kids with math-anxious parents do better in math. They found that when parents and children used a math app together, the math performance of children with highly-math-anxious parents improved.

Math apps can provide a structured way for you and your child to engage with math together. So often, when you help your kid with their math homework, the pressure is on you to answer their questions and provide the guidance your child needs to learn from. An app, however, removes that pressure from you, which can help make ‘doing math’ a more positive experience for both you and your child.

Furthermore, when parents have low expectations for themselves regarding their ability to do math, they tend to project those expectations onto their children. Kids are responsive to the feelings and beliefs of their parents, so your low expectations of math abilities can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, when you tell your child, “You’re just like me; I’m not good at math either,” your child might internalize that belief and, as a result, they don’t bother trying on their next math test because “it’s pointless anyway, I’m just like my mom, and she’s not good at math.” Your child didn’t try on the test, so they get a bad mark. But when they see that they did poorly, they don’t realize it’s because they didn’t even study for the test; they interpret the result according to their internal beliefs and think to themselves, “See? I’m not good at math.”

By using a math app with your child, you can watch them engage with math successfully and productively, which can help change your attitudes from things like “I’m no good at math, and neither is my son” to “Wow, he figured out that problem — he must be getting better at math!”

Go to Splash Learn and check out their list of the 16 Best Math Apps for Kids for 2023. Also, I highly recommend visiting the Kahn Academy, a highly recommended non-profit providing a wide variety of math programs at all levels and for most other subjects. All of their materials are offered free of charge.

In conclusion, if you want your child to be good at math, it’s important that you don’t pass your own negative attitudes and feelings toward math down to them. Instead, find somebody comfortable with math to help your child with their homework, or use the technology at your fingertips and download a math app so that you and your child can engage with math together positively.

Finally, please check out The Holistic Positive Parenting Course for more information and tips on helping kids and teens with homework, motivation for learning, becoming self-directed and self-motivated, and much more.