True Confessions: I Hate Math

Okay, maybe “hate” is too strong a word. Over the years I’ve come to appreciate math and the cool things it does, I just can’t do most of those things myself. Geometry only sort of makes sense to me, I barely slogged my way through algebra, and I never even made it to calculus.

I’m aware that I’m playing into a nasty “girls can’t do math” stereotype and it used to bother me, but knowing that doesn’t make me any better at math. It does make me worry about passing math phobia on to my girls. And make no mistake, I’m passing it on whether I meant to or not.

My second-grader, Tiger Lily, is struggling with math. She has trouble with patterns and hasn’t yet got her addition and subtraction facts memorized. We work on it, but she doesn’t have much faith in me. After all, “you’re not good at math either. Math is stupid.”

This is all my fault. I’m passing on math hatred the way some parents pass on body hatred. What the hell do I do now?

I don’t actually know what to do. But a friend of mine wrote, and I quote (with her permission–hey Julia!):

I’m a stay-at-home mom. I’d say I don’t really use math all that much, just a few times a day, though probably a lot more than other moms who are not as comfortable with numbers. I do it so much, in so many small situations that I don’t really notice that I am . . .

She goes on to talk about doubling recipes, figuring out medicine dosage, comparing prices on everything from groceries to a new house . . .

Wait, what? I do that stuff. I also don’t think of that as math. I’m better at balancing the checkbook than my husband, but because he can do calculus I think of him as a great mathematician. I feel so much better about my math skills now–I’m not bad at all math, just parts of it. I can measure a bedroom and calculate a 20% tip like a pro. I vow to (try to) never again say I’m bad at math.

The same friend, who’s not the slightest bit baffled by calculus, wrote a much longer piece about how much we shouldn’t hate math. I thought about quoting it here, but then I wouldn’t have room to blather on about my own math phobia. I would like to share some choice bits, though. (Once again, hey Julia! Thanks!)

I personally think an active, educated mind incorporates information and experiences from diverse sources and varied topics into daily thought and decision making, even things like history that need processing and thought before direct application to modern life becomes evident. To me, the ‘why do I HAVE to learn ____, I’ll never use it in my REAL life’ whine would be almost as ridiculous applied to other subjects, but for some reason it’s almost always math . . .
Because of specialization in modern times, there may be the illusion that some can ignore math and leave it to others to do, but even in that scenario somebody has to do it. How on earth do the math-nots manage their bank accounts?

Ouch. It’s like she knows me. If she lived close enough I’d drop my kids off at her house and say “See? Some girls are GREAT at math!” Sadly, we’d have to take a plane to her place and as a math-not, I can’t figure out how the prices work.*

But seriously, growing up I never thought of it as a gender thing because my dad was also bad at math. Almost everyone in my family was bad at math. In my family, math was the only subject we were allowed to suck at and I absolutely lived down to that expectation. It took me years to realize that my parents weren’t doing me any favors with that attitude.

Now, my attitude isn’t doing my kids any favors. I think what I need here (and what I’m starting to develop) is a more nuanced view of math. Math isn’t just one thing that I definitely suck at, it’s a huge set of tools for a huge range of problems.** Sure, I may not be good with the layout square, but I’m handy with the hammer and screwdriver and measuring tape and that’s not bad. I’ve also learned to appreciate the awesome furniture (and bridges, and space shuttles, and everything else) people make with those tools. I certainly try to pass on that appreciation.

Math phobia is, in part, just a bad habit and I’m slowly learning better ones. I just hope my new and improved attitude inspires Tiger Lily to stop whining and memorize those subtraction facts.

*Crap. I just made a joke about being bad at math. Didn’t I promise myself I would quit that?
**I kind of stole the tool metaphor from Julia. For the third time, hey Julia! You rock!

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Jo S

Jo S. is more scared of you than you are of her. She's a stay-at-home mom in the heart of Utah, where three kids is considered a small family. She cooks, crochets, blogs, and runs a small but dedicated skeptical book club.

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  1. I try to say that I don’t like math, as opposed to being bad at it. Compared to my husband who does statistical analysis, yeah, I’m not exactly a math wiz (although since I do speak legalese, I’m our designated tax preparer), but I can do it and got through 5 years of honors/advanced math in junior and high school, so it’s not like I’m bad at it, but unlike most of the other things that I studied, math brought no joy and was always a struggle.

    1. My husband’s the one who speaks legalese, so I make him do the taxes but I pretty much handle all the regular bills and budgeting. I’m not too good with math but I like science and I’m pretty good with it from a conceptual standpoint, so I focus a lot on that. I’m hoping that even if I can’t credibly talk about math for its own sake I can be enthusiastic about all the stuff math is good for. 🙂

  2. I was actully quite good at math, but I bought into the ”math is for freaks” bullshit., so I’m trying hard not to pass that on tothe kids . We use a lot of the everyday math stuff as a kind of game. Like who’s going to get how many mini spring roles and such, the same way we play ‘I spy’ or something like that. Also,their kindergarten has a special maths project each year where they try to get math out of the ‘hard and boring’ corner into the ‘ cool and exciting’ corner.

  3. I am actually one of those people who is legitimately bad at math. I’m mildly dyslexic and more than mildly dyscalculic. I always make sure that the Hellions know I actually CAN’T easily help them with math, but their mother absolutely can!

    Oh, and to answer this question “How on earth do the math-nots manage their bank accounts?”
    We bounce an incredible number of checks.

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