“Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.” – Tommy Lee Jones, as “K”, in Men in Black
Math is the subject American kids express the least confidence with. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Who you believe you are determines what you work at
Everything we do springs from our identity, from our belief in what our potential is. We generally have more than one identity. For example, we may think of ourselves as athletic, honest, artistic, or hardworking; typically a combination of several of identities like these at the same time. Have you ever witnessed someone else behaving as if they couldn’t do something they were obviously perfectly capable of? They were 100% sure and yet you knew they were 100% wrong. For example, many people say they can’t speak in public – yet they manage to (1) stand up and (2) speak -with no problem every day! Some have a phobia, like flying, in which they feel they can’t simply get in a plane and sit quietly, but ultimately they can do it (without drugs).
“What we see depends mainly on what we look for”. – John Lubbock
Where your identity comes from
In many ways our identity is shaped by the people who raise us. If our parents praised our intelligence, we believe we are intelligent. If they praise our talents in a particular area, like art, we tend to see ourselves artistically talented. Many well-meaning parents will even label one of their children “the smart one” or another as “the athlete in the family”, and these identities can become part of a person’s self-image throughout life. Even when not stated directly, our parents can have unconscious beliefs about us. These beliefs can profoundly influence the conclusions we come to assume about our own potential.
“Every time you state what you want or believe, you’re the first to hear it. It’s a message to both you and others about what you think is possible. Don’t put a ceiling on yourself” – Oprah Winfrey
How parents influence their child’s identity
A fixed mindset is the view that abilities and intelligence are set at birth and can’t be changed. People who have a fixed mindset tend to assign inborn talent as the reason for an individual’s success, rather than hard work. The opposite of this is a growth mindset, which acknowledges that the mind is plastic, that is, constantly growing and responding to how we use it. People who have a growth mindset believe persistence and effort are far more important to achievement than genetics.
In America, we have a fixed mindset about math ability. We call anyone who appears to understand math easily a “math person”. We think anyone who struggles even briefly is “not a math person”. But math is supposed to be learned through practice, repeated attempts, and trial and error. Frustration is par for the course. In fact, it has been demonstrated with brain scans that making a mistake in math actually grows your brain! In spite of this, when a student finds math a challenge they are sometimes labeled as “not a math person” and led to believe they don’t have what it takes to succeed at higher levels. They are often deliberately steered away from classes and careers with high level math requirements. They can be discouraged from even trying!
Most American adults have been shaped by these attitudes while growing up. Not surprisingly, a majority of American adults describe themselves as being either not a “math person” or outright math phobic. (It is interesting that there can actually be a fear of math. A fear of death, snakes, heights, or spiders is easy to understand but what exactly could happen from getting a school math problem wrong?!) These beliefs can influence the way people react when their kids are feeling frustrated with their math homework. American children often hear these kinds of things from their parents:
“Don’t worry, you are good at other subjects.”
“I wasn’t a math person either.”
“Just memorize what you need to know to pass the test and get through your requirements. You aren’t going to use it anyway.”
“I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed.” – Michael Jordan
In Other Countries it’s Different
This is a far cry from the mentality seen in many Asian countries. Math is seen as a learned skill, to be practiced and worked on continuously until it’s mastered. Mistakes are just part of the learning process – not proof of low intelligence. Math is something anyone can do if they apply themselves enough. It doesn’t require a special genetic trait enjoyed only by a fortunate minority. It is self-evident that success in math is the same as success in general – the result of persistence and hard work, not merely being lucky.
“Nothing can stop the person with the right mental attitude from achieving the goal and nothing on earth can help the person with the wrong mental attitude.” – Thomas Jefferson
Your attitudes influence your choices, and your choices determine your results
A person won’t persist for very long without having faith in their ability to be successful. When we believe our hard work will pay off we are more likely to keep going. When we don’t, we tend to get discouraged and quit. Once we decide we are not a “math person”, we tend to operate through that filter. Overwhelming insecurity about our math ability weighs against the persistence needed to succeed.
“If you realized how powerful your thoughts are, you would never think a negative thought”. – Peace Pilgrim
Math is a lot like reading
When a child has difficulty in math, American parents tend to accept it, thinking it’s just not their area. But when their child has trouble reading, they don’t conclude that they are “just not a reading person”! They commit to helping them by providing plenty of interesting books, having them read every day consistently, and practicing their writing. American parents carry the attitude that all children (barring certain special needs) are able to read well and it is just a matter of time and effort until they do. Math is no different. If we understand that our children are capable and help them persist until they succeed, we will see what they really can do.
“When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it”. – Henry Ford
How to promote a positive math identity in your child
American adults were brought up with certain attitudes about math that may have influenced part of their own identity. But we don’t have to blindly accept any identity given to us. We can decide to be a person who keeps working through frustration in an area outside of our comfort zone. We can consider the possibility that we may have been unconsciously underestimating ourselves in a lot of ways.
So the obvious question that follows is, how do we get our children feeling empowered to confidently persevere with math challenges?
Here are a few easy suggestions:
Don’t verbalize your negative thoughts about math or your negative experiences with it. Think of positive things to say about math challenges when you can.
Praise their hard work and persistence rather than their intelligence.
Never tell a child (or even imply) that they are not a “math person”. There’s no such thing.
Encourage them to take risks and try new math challenges.
Let them know they can succeed if they work hard enough.