You can catch “mathophobia” from your parents

Picture of plastercine doll alarmed at "math"

Are you mathophobic? You might have caught it from your parents.

“Math anxiety” is precisely what it sounds like — “a feeling of tension, apprehension, or fear that interferes with math performance”, as one scholar puts it. No-one knows how exactly how prevalent it is, but it affects a lot of folks. One study found that 25% of US college students (and 80% of community-college students!) suffer from it; a 2010 survey found that about one in five adults feel “frustrated” or “anxious” when doing math. It also found that 30% of Americans “would rather clean the bathroom than solve a math problem.”

No-one’s quite sure where mathophobia comes from. Educators have suggested all sorts of causes, ranging from abstruse math curriculum, working-memory issues in certain students, supergendered cultural messages telling girls they’re innately bad at math (women suffer from math anxiety more than men), or the high-stakes panic of “timed” math tests.

But it’s also a social thing. There’s a pile of research showing that many elementary-school teachers feel nervous about math. (Some examples: here, here and here). Since they’re the ones teaching it, kids pick up on the fact that math is freaky and scary. So mathophobia is also an emotional virus: You catch it from anxious adults.

And now a recent study identified another source of transmission — your parents!

Parents, of course, are often encouraged to be involved in their kids’ homework, because research finds that when parents are engaged in schoolwork, children are more likely to thrive academically. But recently, a group of academics noticed one aberration: Math. Sometimes, when parents get involved in their kids’ math homework, the students do worse.

Maybe, the reseachers wondered, these parents have math dread — and they’re infecting their kids:

We considered the possibility that it is specifically parents with high math anxiety whose homework help is negatively related to their children’s math achievement. These parents may have inadequate math-helping skills or rigidly use instructional strategies that conflict with those that teachers use in the classroom, which could confuse children and negatively affect their math learning. Frequent involvement of parents with high math anxiety in their children’s math homework could also create opportunities to communicate their fears about math to their children.

So they tested it. They gathered 379 first- and second-grade students (211 girls, 168 boys). They checked the children’s math abilities at the beginning and the end of the school year. Then, crucially, they checked with the children’s parents. How often did they help their kids with homework? And what were their levels of math anxiety?

The result? The scientists’ hunch was correct. When parents had high math anxiety, they passed it on. The more they helped their kids with math homework, the worse their children did.

So if you’re a mathophobic parent, what are you supposed to do? If your kid is struggling with homework, you feel like you have to help out, right?

Maybe not. The researchers also analyzed the performance of kids a) who had mathophobic parents, but b) whose parents didn’t help them out when the math got tough. And what do you know — the math performance of those kids did not decline. In effect, the parents emotionally quarantined themselves from their children, so their math-panic didn’t rub off on the younguns. Consider it the Euclidean version of Hippocratic oath: First, do no mathematical harm!

By the way, neither I — nor the researchers — are blaming mathophobic parents for their fears. The odds are high that the parents were taught math horribly too, by people who were themselves taught horribly; these biases go back generations, and deepen like a coastal shelf. So the long-term solution, the researchers argue, is palliative. We need to help parents out, by developing strategies to alleviate their mathophobia. As they suggest:

These might include structured activities that allow parents to interact with their children around math in positive ways, which could be delivered in the form of math books, computer and traditional board games, or Internet apps. Parents’ homework help could also be facilitated by providing tip sheets with general guidelines for math-homework help and through video models of effective math-homework help (Robinson, 2014). With support, parents with higher math anxiety may be less anxious while helping their children with math and be more equipped to positively affect their children’s math achievement and math attitudes (Frenkel, 2013).

A gender note here: The teachers of those kids in the study? Of the 79, fully 76 were female and only 3 were male. The vast majority of elementary-school teachers are women, and have been for decades (for a welter of economic and sociological reasons). This becomes part of the math-anxiety cycle. Because girls have been told for decades that “math class is tough”, society has, in effect, assiduously cultivated math anxiety in the very people most likely to wind up teaching the subject to young children.

So one can see how the social transmission of mathophobia is liable to happen inside the classroom, too. It’s a good lesson for why we need to stamp out all lazy generalizations about the how men “get” math better than women; these memes have consequences.

(That Creative-Commons-2.0 picture above is courtesy Jimmie at Flickr!)


6 thoughts on “You can catch “mathophobia” from your parents

  1. Fernanda

    I hated math (and basically every other class) in school and I did terrible at it. My parents were not involved in the work I did. I brushed off my dis-interest in math to the fact that it’s not really useful in “real life”.

    10 years after graduating high school, it turns out math is really useful in “real life” and I frequently bump into it at work (I don’t have a technical role, but turns out basic math can help you in business and marketing strategy). I always get anxious when I’m faced with numbers. I get blocked and right down give up on whatever I’m trying to do. Reading your article made me understand a little more about my anxiety and feel a little bit better that I’m not the only one.:)

    I recently joined Khan Academy with the purpose of changing that. I’m going over all middle and high school content, with the goal of eventually making into calc (which I never did in school). Hopefully I can get over my mathophobia.

    1. Clive Post author

      Yes, you’re certainly not alone! It’s a pretty common feeling, it seems.

      That’s a great idea to use the Khan Academy! I was talking with a friend today on Twitter about how whenever she and her daughter get baffled by her daughter’s math homework, they look at some Youtube videos on the subject. It’s not as awesome as having a private tutor to answer your questions, but it’s the next best thing. And looking at several different videos on the same subject, I’ve found, can be quite useful, because every youtuber has a slightly different way of explaining the same mathematical concept; eventually I hit on someone who explains things in precisely the right way for me to grasp.

      I’ve actually been using the Khan Academy myself in the last year or so to bone up on statistics, which I really need to have a better grasp of …

      What math have you run into at work?

      1. Fernanda Elias de Saboia

        I work in digital product strategy. So every now and then I might need get involved in data analysis and business metrics. I also want to get into programming, and every time I try some basics computer classes (like CS50) I bump into some basic math and logic I have no foundation on.

        1. Clive Post author

          Aha, interesting.

          I think if you want to learn some programming, CS50 is probably diving too much into the deep end. Instead, I’d try an online course in Javascript or Python — they’re both very approachable languages, quite practical, and honestly much of what you do in the early stages doesn’t require math much more complicated than adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing! Indeed, it’s far more important to be able to think logically … i.e. if *this* is going happen then *this* has to happen first.

          Codeacademy has good basic intros to Javascript or Python, and Free Code Camp is another good one that introduces people to HTML, CSS and Javascript simultaneously … the goal is to help people learn how to do front-end design, i.e. the code that makes web pages display attractively and interactively.

  2. Ken Knudson

    I did pretty well with math right up to calculus which, by the end of the semester, I was able to spell perfectly. But I gave up trying to help my kids somewhere along about eighth grade or so. It seemed that, somewhere along the line, numbers didn’t work the way they did in the fifties and sixties, so my tutoring was not only no longer needed but was actually hindering the learning process. I abandoned the kids to their own devices and they turned out to be fine professional engineers. They learned their lessons and, apparently, so did I.

    1. Clive Post author

      Nicely done, sir!

      One of the things that’s debated — in the question of how to combat mathophobia — is whether high-school curriculum ought to require things like calculus. I personally loved it; I found the idea of “approaching infinity” to be shiver-inducingly cool. But there’s been a counterargument that calculus isn’t terribly applicable to the types of mathematical thinking that kids are going to practice in their everyday life … while they’re going to need things like basic probability, ratios, percentages and quick-and-dirty estimating.

      It’s actually true, when I think about my work (my job includes reading a fair bit of scientific material, and business stuff) and the math that it requires, it’s mostly those things: Quickly manipulating ratios and percentages, estimating things to figure out whether a quantity someone is telling me seems likely or fishy.


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