It Turns Out You Can Infect Your Kids With Math Anxiety

by Leigh Anderson
Originally Published: 

Music was a source of huge anxiety to me as a child. I loved singing and wanted to be good at it, but my sense of pitch was dreadful. Nonetheless, I soldiered through voice and piano lessons, croaking back melodies that teachers sang to me, trying to improve my ear. I ended each lesson literally sweating with anxiety. Why couldn’t I do something as simple as sing back a major scale? The moment the teacher plunked out do-re-mi and looked at me expectantly, I’d feel perspiration start to prickle: I so wanted to get it right, and I so rarely did. I actually “heard” my anxiety as a roar; it drowned out everything else about the lesson. I gave up on music and didn’t touch an instrument for about 20 years.

My son took his first violin lesson the other day, and the first thing the teacher did was sing a scale and ask him to sing it back. He didn’t understand and at first refused (he’s 5—he refuses to do a lot of things) but gradually worked up his courage to croak back the notes to her. From the kitchen, I realized I was sweating in sympathy. But he didn’t especially seem anxious. He seemed a little confused, but calm enough. Afterward, he sang the songs to me with glee.

It turns out that parents can “infect” their kids with anxiety about certain subjects, namely, math. Katrina Schwartz, writing for KQED’s Mindshift blog, reports on a new study that shows that parents who have high levels of of “math anxiety,” and who frequently assist with math homework more than two or three times a week, can pass that anxiety on to their kids.

Studies of how fear influences achievement show that my “roaring” feeling about music is how a lot of people feel about math. According Schwartz, “In math-anxious children, the part of the brain tasked with handling negative emotions was overactive, whereas the math problem solving parts of the brain were diminished. The children’s fear was interfering with their ability to use problem solving skills.”

The more frequently math-anxious parents helped with homework, the worse it got. This makes sense: If slogging through a problem set means your heart is pounding, you’re grinding your teeth, and sweat is beading your brow, your kid isn’t exactly going to be like, “Math is fun! I hope after this Mom and I can calculate aircraft take-off trajectories, just for kicks.” No, if your child is picking up on your furious frustration, chances are they’re also going to be furious and frustrated every time they see the words “order of operations.”

This is a particularly acute problem right now, because kids aren’t learning math the same way that we learned math. The Common Core standards introduced a new kind of pedagogy, a teaching method that is supposed to be more intuitive than the rote ways in which we learned. So we can’t necessarily help them in these new methods, and we may find ourselves puzzling over what seem to be overly complicated methods.

What are we supposed to do, then? One solution may be to just leave your kids alone when they’re doing math homework, or have them get help from the teacher or a tutor. Another is to teach yourself the new methods: The lead author on the study noted that educators and researchers should make materials available to parents so kids can get effective help at home.

I recently started taking music lessons again and found that being older, combined with hiring a compassionate, nonthreatening teacher, has pretty much eliminated my anxiety. I’m still worried that it will come back and that my son will catch it. Basically, I’m afraid of being afraid and then him being afraid too. I want us to play songs and sing together without too much worry about getting everything exactly right.

I imagine that math might take the same path; I found math a stressful subject too, and my anxiety did overwhelm the “learning” part of my brain. Who knows, my son may find other subjects difficult, not necessarily music and math. But I hope that no matter what his challenges are, he’ll be able to work through difficult subjects calmly, without letting the roar of fear drown out what’s fun about learning.

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