A few weeks ago, I witnessed two women I know playing cribbage. At one point they had a little confusion while adding up their points. They laughed it off, each saying “oh, I’m not good at math.”

One of these women has a toddler daughter, who is one of the sweetest, prettiest little girls you have ever seen. Both are graduates of elite liberal arts colleges, where you have to have a darn good SAT score to get in.

I restrained myself from ranting at them, so I will rant here instead.

First:

AAAAAAAAAAGGGGGGHHHHHHHH!

No mother of a little girl should blow off poor arithmetic/counting skills and claim to be “not good at math.” Would you ever claim “oh, I can’t read very well” as an excuse for driving through a stop sign? Or for missing the correct exit to get off the highway? Or for voting for the wrong candidate? What would you say to someone who used that excuse? How would you feel about that person, especially if you knew they had graduated from a highly selective college? Would you assume they have a learning disability, such as dyslexia? A reading phobia? Mental problems?

If you are not good at arithmetic (which is really what these women were having difficulty with), you can do something about it. You can practice. You can play math games. You can use flash cards. You can, in other words, exercise that part of your brain. And you SHOULD.

If you are not good at mathematics, i.e. algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus…well, you won’t need those much in most professions. But keep it to yourself and encourage your daughter to love and excel at math!

My mom is no mathematician. She was an English major at a small liberal arts college in Ohio. She never, to my recollection, claimed to be “bad at math” nor did she ever discourage me from doing math. While she didn’t take the more advanced math classes in high school (they were not required) and therefore couldn’t help me with math by the time I was in seventh grade and starting (for the first time) to need help with it, she has always been an excellent arithmetician. She can add up a score tally faster than I can, if we’re playing a game that requires adding points. She can balance a checkbook. She’s a very smart woman, with a very large vocabulary and a love of reading, and she can add, subtract, multiply, and divide without complaint, comment, or wimpy excuse.

Why is it acceptable for people (not just women) to shrug off this skill? At a time when government leaders are pushing for better math and science education, and when high school science teachers I know bemoan the lack of math skills their incoming students have each year (which greatly hinders these students’ ability to learn science skills), such excuses as “I’m not good at math” should absolutely NOT be acceptable. Especially in front of young girls who don’t get “humor” yet.

If you truly think of yourself as “not good at math,” you should do something about it! Especially if your kids are old enough to play math games with, you should actively compete against them in math games. You and your kids will both benefit.

Of course you should also read to your kids, play fun games with them, and teach them good manners and all that…but you should ALSO encourage them in arithmetic and math!

24 July 2008 at 6:11 am |

Hey! Remember me?

So clearly this struck a chord with me. This hit me a few years ago. Here I am, former physicist, financial person known for my quantitative skills in the workplace, and I started to realize that I became completely dependent on machines to do my arithmetic. I think I even started making excuses like “I’m not good with arithmetic in my head.” Lazy! So I started intentionally doing more arithmetic I encountered in my everyday life in my head, rather than the available spreadsheet or calculator. Then I started remembering all those cool tricks I had learned in 4th grade for making it easier. Now it’s becoming actually kind of fun (geek) and I feel like that exercise makes me faster at thinking about other things too.

But I had never thought about the classic barbie doll string pull “math is hard” impact – on kids, other women, etc of smart women making these kinds of comments and demonstrating this behavior. That’s a pretty powerful point.

24 July 2008 at 9:55 am |

I agree. And I have *no* idea if I ever say this. Hmm. Will have to watch myself. I’m mainly just fuzzy headed on a random basis (tied into sleep, mostly), so I usually blame any lack of skill on feeling fuzzy headed, not on ability. Still, I’m going to observe myself, and see.

Granted, we assume in our family that girls ARE good at math – too many of them use it professionally. My mom, my MIL, aunts all around… heck, my mom was a mathematical number cruncher for the first space shots. And I’ve made it clear to my kids at least two separate times that my temporary failure in math was a matter of trauma, and was recovered later.

Interestingly, my niece recently went through a bout of saying she wasn’t ‘good at math’. Her dad called bullshit on her – it turned out that her friends had teased her for getting answers right too often in Math class! AAHHHHHHHHH! Her dad (my brother) said, ‘this is then a choice – you are choosing to not be good at math. Understand that this is a choice and not something inborn. You are able, therefore if you fail to follow your ability, that is something you are choosing to do. So, ask yourself – are you the kind of person who will CHOOSE to be good at math?’ She thought about it, and decided to choose to be good at math. Knowing it was a choice, she could feel proud of it even if her friends didn’t like it. It was autonomous action, and hooked right into the pre-tween need for independent choice.

And just a few months later, she got Distinguished scores in math in her DSTP (standardized testing), despite having had relatively abysmal scores in class a few months before. So, um, yeah. Choice is a good thing.

Which is really what I think you are saying here – being good or not good at arithmetic is mainly a choice. Unless there’s a genuine underlying disability, that is. But most of the time, it’s just embedded messages, like the ones my niece was receiving, that it was better to not be good at math, or at the very least, acceptable. Those are messages we can choose to follow, or not follow. But it’s still a choice, once we reach a certain age (embedding the message younger makes it harder to choose freely, but it still ends up being a choice, eventually).

24 July 2008 at 2:11 pm |

This is a very interesting conversation…one I don’t remember having before with any of my friends. And I’m glad you haven’t been around when I’ve said “I’m no good at math.” But it’s not actually math…it’s numbers! I have a large vocabulary because I enjoy reading, I read a lot, and I recognize letter combinations and remember them easily. But numbers are a different story. I can remember some numbers (my Zip, my SSN, my PIN (with some effort since I don’t use it very often), but often can’t remember a phone number between reading it in the directory and dialing it. And, I’m always losing track of zeros. I did well in math at school, especially if there was a formula I could learn and apply in a given situation; but I never “got” math. There was no intuitive grasp of the concepts involved, or why the numbers work the way they do. Nobody ever said anything about math being hard and English being easy. English was taught at the dinner table; math wasn’t. I was expected to do well in every subject I took, and I was…and was my high school valedictorian, But when I went to college, I never took another math course. My business career was in advertising and marketing. I had to use a lot of basic math for that (usually using an established formula), but I always asked someone else to check my numbers. Now, when I’m on the Church Board of Trustees, trying to read and understand

the budget, I wish I had a greater grasp of numbers. I let myself believe that it’s because I’m getting older…but, really, I just don’t feel comfortable with numbers. (Thanks, by the way, for your kind comments).

24 July 2008 at 8:51 pm |

My mom was the person who introduced me to basic algebra in third grade when I became very frustrated by a bunch of homework problems we were supposed to solve by the “guess and check” method. I didn’t really understand what she was doing, but I was fascinated. She volunteered in my elementary school classes and always made a point of trying to be there for science and math. I was absolutely shocked a couple of years ago when she told me that she got off of the advanced math track in high school because she didn’t really enjoy the subject.

It never occurred to me that being female had anything to do with mathematical ability. I suspect my younger brother has a bit more innate talent for the subject than I do, but I’ve done better than he has in our college-level math classes because he hasn’t developed the necessary study skills.

24 July 2008 at 9:30 pm |

Wow, you all wrote so much!

Kristen, I’m so glad you exercise your brain with math! It’s like taking the stairs instead of the elevator, but for your brain!

Heather, thank you for pinning down my point for me. Yes, I believe that being good at arithmetic is a choice! That is exactly what I was trying to say, except I didn’t know it.

Doris, memory is totally different than calculation, in my opinion. Today I was looking directly at someone’s phone number and I still dialed it wrong…no chance for memory to fail, it was just like I SAW the wrong number…realized it as I dialed the last number and hung up so I could try again. Maybe you can’t add as fast now as you used to be able to, but you may not practice much, either. And I’m not always sure that going over a church budget needs any math…when I’ve done it I mostly have just looked for anomalies…like too many or too few digits in a number, or drastically different numbers from previous budget numbers. Don’t worry, you won’t have to serve on the board forever!

E.C., that’s cool that your mom introduced you to algebra. I never understood the whole “guess and check” thing. I remember my fifth grade teacher asking me to help another student with some math (it was long division) and I wasn’t doing it the way she had taught it, so I had a lot of trouble explaining it to someone else.

25 July 2008 at 6:10 pm |

On the memory and number patterns issue – I’m dyslexic, in the form that switches order randomly within sets of symbols. So I’ll see ‘saw’ as ‘was’, and 453 as 435, etc. It’s pretty constant, probably happens once per paragraph of text, and once per 10 items in mathematics.

But. I score really high in accuracy on keypad work (or did in the old days when I was working temp jobs), and when my brain is ‘on’ and I’m in practice, I’m pretty decent with math, and while I MUST use a spell-checker, I am a professional writer (I love the spell-check while you write function – I’m speedy with the backspace key!).

The biggest thing again for me was practice – including practice double-checking and triple-checking myself. I ended up more accurate with some of the math work than the average person *because* I didn’t trust that I got it right the first time, and always double checked as I went along. So sometimes what is a disability ends up being an asset. (got some of my temp jobs on my scores for the temp agency, and one of those ended up being what launched me into my career, so… I guess you could say I’m a professional writer *because* I’m dyslexic?)

27 July 2008 at 12:01 pm |

Hi.

I was in a movie store when a woman with her roughly 8-year-old son walked toward me holding a movie box cover and asked me, “Will you read the box for me? I can’t read.” At first I was shocked that an adult would announce her illiteracy in public, especially in front of her child who was old enough to understand what she meant, and old enough to know how to read, though apparently he could not, at least not well enough to read the box cover for his mother. I looked at her and realized she was probably a Rom (Gypsy). Perhaps because of their history as a persecuted minority often forced to live a nomadic life, Roma have a tradition of illiteracy and are perhaps the only culture in the world in which total illiteracy carries no stigma at all.

You’re right; “I’m not good at math” is a much more socially acceptable statement in America than “I’m not good at reading”. People who can’t read well are regarded as stupid or lazy or at best seriously undereducted, while people who can’t do basic math well are regarded as more or less normal. How does a child react when a parent says, “I’m not good at math”? I wondered how that Roma woman’s son reacted to his mother’s illiteracy and her apparent lack of self-consciousness about it; did the boy believe he did not need to learn how to read?

I read the movie box cover to her and walked away. It wasn’t my place to lecture a stranger. I just hope that boy knows how to read now.

Teawithbuzz, I got a smile out of your memories of our school.

29 July 2008 at 4:44 pm |

http://chronicle.com/wiredcampus/article/3191/girls-as-good-as-boys-at-math-study-finds?utm_source=at&utm_medium=en

29 July 2008 at 8:19 pm |

Thanks for the link, kpitter. I didn’t really mean for this post to be about women in particular (but it was women who made the comment about not being good at math.) I have certainly encountered men who “can’t balance a checkbook” (usually when approached for service on the finance committee or something similar). I noted that one of the commenters on the story in kpitter’s link pointed out that really, boys and girls are just as bad as each other in math as measured by the tests cited.

31 July 2008 at 5:07 pm |

sometimes I can’t focus on simple arithmetic or I get numbers mixed up in my head. I do actually have a BA in math tho…. strangely enough.

when I mis-compute a tip, or can’t add simple natural numbers together without pencil and paper… or even worse when I can’t concentrate enough to do it WITH pencil and paper… I just use the excuse that I used up all my math juice in undergrad.

I will admit, sometimes I amuse myself on long drives by calculating my current mph, and the distance I have yet to travel, and deciding how long it will take me to reach my destination, or calculating my fuel consumption or whatever.

sure, I can do long division in my head without paper and pencil, but sometimes adding up my mini golf card? forget about it.

1 August 2008 at 3:37 am |

actually come to think of it… it probaby has 100% to do with focus and background distractions. My math has no mojo when I can’t tap my math chi.

huh.