How To Talk To Your Kids About Math (And Why You Need To)

03/24/2015 01:41 pm ET | Updated May 24, 2015

When I started elementary school my mother, like all mothers, began asking me "what did you learn in school today?" I was always eager to share, and did. I talked about the things I was learning in all of my classes. I even remember some of those conversations -- like the time I told her about cumulus clouds. After that, I remember mom pointing them out to me regularly, and we'd bond over the ensuing conversation... yes, about clouds. Then middle school came. The concepts got more serious -- governments and their roles, Greek tragedies, etc. -- but she still asked her question, I still answered, and we still bonded over those conversations. It seemed that no matter what the subject was, I could always enjoy a nice discussion about it with my mother. That made me happy; it also made me want to keep learning. But on the horizon was one subject that would eventually drive a wedge between us: math.

The trouble started in eight grade with algebra. I found the subject truly exciting (I'm a math professor now), and would come home eager to share my enthusiasm about parabolas, factoring quadratics and graphing polynomial functions. The problem was that algebra was (is) my mother's "math limit," the math level at which she stopped understanding math. Every time I tried to talk algebra with mom, she'd tense up and change the subject. I could see that the whole thing made her feel insecure. So, sometime during that year, we reached an unspoken agreement: the question "What did you learn in school today?" would now exclude my math class. And that's how my mother stopped talking to me about math.

My experience isn't unique. There are millions of parents around the world whose individual math limits prevent them from talking to their children about math. As a math teacher, I find this deeply saddening on so many levels. For starters, it means that at some point, math becomes "off limits"; it becomes a subject that parents feel like they can't help their children with no matter how hard they try. Put another way, a "math wedge" appears. And to make matters worse, this wedge only grows larger with time: first comes the abstraction of algebra, then the proofs in geometry, then the matrices, and then... the dreaded calculus. It's no wonder that by the time kids are in high school, tutors have replaced parents as the homework helpers. The message this all sends? Very few people, including parents, can help with math. Only smart people get it, and since you don't, math is not worth your time or effort. (And... cue the national math crisis.)

But there's hope. There's a way that we parents can once again reclaim the all-encompassing nature of the question "what did you learn in school today?" There's a way that we parents can dispel the myth that only smart people do math. And there's also a way that we parents can combat math phobia. The approach requires work on the part of the parent, but hey, what part of parenting doesn't? Here's what I have in mind.

Start by identifying the concept your child is learning; let's say it's "parabolas." Jump on Google and do a quick search for "applications of parabolas." You'll likely get bombarded with everything from textbook snippets to videos to newspaper articles. It's a lot, I know. But here's what I want you to do: focus on the ones that you and your child can experience together (like the cumulus clouds). For example, it turns out that an object of sufficient weight (i.e., not a feather) thrown in the air follows a parabolic trajectory. That means you could take your kids to the park, throw the football around, and talk about the arc it makes as it flies through the air. Low-pressure bonding over math. Plus, it'll help your kids realize that math, despite what most of us think, is not always abstract, technical, and inaccessible -- sometimes it's right there in front of you, and this process can help you reveal all the cool hidden math around you (and your kids).

Alternatively, you could initiate a conversation about math at those moments throughout the year that make a natural connection to math. For example, March Madness, going on right now, is prime territory for discussing probability. And, since April is Math Awareness Month -- this year's theme is "math drives careers" -- you can draw on a whole month's worth of cool math topics, activities and interviews on the Math Awareness Month website. (For neat math-related topics (with videos!) year-round, check out Numberphile.)

Now, I encourage you to go a step further and not just discuss math with your kids, but explore math with them. For example, if after throwing around a football for a while you ask "why parabolas?" you'd be walking in the footsteps of Galileo. But even if you didn't ask that question, you'd already have initiated a math bonding experience with your child. She could reciprocate, for example, by teaching you what she's learned about parabolas. Between the two of you, you might even set up some neat experiments. For example, you could try predicting where the football will land based on the throwing angle.

This approach to re-introducing math back into the parent-child relationship will work for virtually all of the math concepts your children will learn throughout high school, and even through the first year of college (take it from me, the math professor). In other words, for just about every math concept your child will learn there is a simple, hands-on application that you two can explore together. Sure, finding it and setting up the exploration requires more work than, say, discussing your child's civics class and its worksheet on Obama's latest foreign policy move. But think about all of the positive messages you'd be sending to your child: despite it being tough, we'll get through it together; no matter how old you are, you can always learn something new; education isn't just about books, it has real-world implications and applications. Plus, with recent research finding that parents may be the most important factor in determining a child's interest in math and science, your efforts may produce a scientist sometime down the road. You don't have to do all of the work yourself either. There are many of us -- myself included -- who dedicate their careers to making mathematics fun, understandable and relevant. All that's needed is for us to join forces and decide, once and for all, that nothing our children learn should be "off limits" for discussion.

Oscar Fernandez is an assistant professor of mathematics at Wellesley College. He is the author of Everyday Calculus: Discovering the Hidden Math All Around Us, and also writes about mathematics on his website You can follow him on Twitter @EverydayCalc.