Menaka Raman is the Online Content and Social Media lead at Adhyayan. She is a former copywriter whose parenting philosophy is: if there’s no blood, don’t call me. She tweets @menakaraman.
An edited version of the column was published in City Express on November 12, 2015. City Express is a daily supplement of The New Indian Express.
Last week, my seven year old and I sat down to work on a Maths Homework Assignment.
“So, what’s 4×3?” I ask him, in my best ‘Isn’t this fun’ voice, I need to dig up when he’s doing his homework.
“Ummm… I forgot.”
“Tha’s ok. You can do the addition and tell me.”
“Oh. that’s easy. 7”
“No that’s 4 plus 3.”
“You’re the one who told me to add them”
“No no no. Add repeatedly. Multiplication is repeated addition. Remember? We talked about this…come on, you remember right?
As my own internal hysteria builds over what 4×3 is, I can see the shutters go down over his mind.
There’s a lot of research out there that says that parent’s pass on their maths anxiety to their children… especially when they help them with their homework. The NYTimes wrote a blog post up about this a couple of months ago, with stories from math anxious parents, which would be funny if they didn’t remind me so much of myself. The article even ends with an “Are you maths anxious quiz” for parents, which I admit, I am to scared to take.
My own math anxiety started in primary school, with time and distance. You remember those questions: “Two people are running on a circular track. X runs clockwise at 5 miles an hour. Y runs in the opposite direction at 8 miles an hour. How many minutes will it take for them to cross each other on the track?”
I could never do these sums. No matter how hard I tried to keep up with X and Y I was always left behind. It’s funny, but when I took up running, I would think of these questions as I ran on the track, and I would begin to feel the same sweaty, sickly feeling I got in class all those years ago in school, and would have to stop for a drink of water before clearing my mind and starting again.
What started then followed me all through school and college. The elegantly curved spine of an integral sign in calculus was to me the slippery slope to hell. Matrices in statistics made me feel like Neo trapped in the matrix. I felt stupid and would cower over my desk in Maths class, terrified I would be called up to the board to solve a problem. I took to learning ‘how’ to solve problems by rote.You do this, and then this and then this. I never understood why I did it. I did amazingly well in tests and exams, and no one would ever guess that behind that 95 was the terrible fear that someone would find out what a fraud I was.
So think, all this baggage, anxiety and fear radiating off my body as we do 4X3 for homework. My son can feel it, because his body is rigid and tight when we do maths. When it’s English or Science, his long limbs are loose and sprawled. I recognise his hunch, as it’s mine from all those years ago.
So I took a step back and stopped myself from saying “If you don’t get this now you’ll never get it. You’ll find it harder and harder. Why are you not putting up your hand and asking for help in class? You have got to speak up for yourself!”
But I knew why he wasn’t asking for help. He didn’t want to be ‘that’ kid who didn’t understand multiplication. He didn’t want to seem less cool, or able.
Instead, I said “Why don’t you try this on your own. When you’re done, let’s take a look at it together.”
I write this, because it’s so important for teachers to keep an eye out for these kids in class. To not wait for them to put a hand up and say “I don’t get it”. They’ll be waiting forever. Instead, scan the class, and look, really look. And you will know who needs you to sidle up to them and quietly ask “Shall I explain that to you again?” “Can I help?”
I wish someone had done that for me all those years ago. I’m not saying I would have gone on to win the Field’s Medal, but hey, I would have probably felt a whole lot better about myself.