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Why Your Kid Might Wind Up Bad at Math

Photograph by Twenty20

I was never much of a math kid. It wasn’t that I struggled with math, but I really didn’t get fired up about it the way some kids did. It was something I had to do because it’s part of life, but I never really loved it.

My husband did. To this day, he still gets a sparkle in his eye when the kids talk math. He loves numbers, equations and solving problems. He loves measurements, following directions and memorization. He's a professional musician and, as it turns out, music and math make a great combination.

Fortunately, our kids inherited his love of math. They approach the subject differently, but they both enjoy their math classes and feel confident in their abilities to complete their their homework. Cue the giant sigh of relief. I recently learned that this could have gone either way.

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A new study released by the University of Pittsburgh shows that parents who excel at math produce children who excel at math. The study, which sampled 54 children and 51 parents, explored intergenerational transmission in math capability. Researchers found that the performance levels for early school-age children on standardized math tests could be predicted by their parents’ performance on similar tests. They also found that a child’s intuitive sense of numbers is predicted by the parents’ intuitive sense of numbers.

This is a small study, and 46 of the parent participants had at least a college degree. All had at least a high school diploma. With small studies, the results don’t always represent the larger population, but they can help researchers understand where to go from there. With this study, researchers hope to identify key factors in successful learning of math to help shape education.

Not a math lover? No worries. I’ve found many ways to instill a love of math in my home that don’t involve any complicated equations. Even I get into it. If the “math” is fun, I’m in.

1. Baking

My kids have been in the kitchen with me since they were toddlers. Baking is a great way to introduce numbers and measurements in a fun and tasty way. Sometimes it’s hard to step back and let kids take the lead on baking projects. As a partially reformed control freak, I know the feeling that arises when the flour explodes just about everywhere, but letting them do the measuring and checking of the recipe helps them practice following directions and math skills.

After years of cooking with me, my 9-year-old is apparently now looking to replace me. She finds recipes, sources ingredients and cooks meals while I watch and provide assistance only when she asks.

They also found that a child’s intuitive sense of numbers is predicted by the parents’ intuitive sense of numbers.

2. Building

Legos are the obvious easy building choice for young kids, but I love to challenge mine to use their brains for designing and building things independently. When they wished for a mini-golf course in the backyard, for example, I encouraged them to create one on their own.

Together they drew up plans for different holes (a windmill, a slide, a pirate ship) and got to work using things from the recycling bin and a lot of tape. They did quite a bit of measuring and had to problem-solve when their plans didn’t work. They were proud of their finished product and played mini-golf all day!

3. Lemonade stand

We all know that kids love to open lemonade stands. What we sometimes forget to do is teach them about the cost of running the stand vs. the amount they might make from selling the lemonade.

Instead of simply handing over the ingredients and telling your kids to make a sign, challenge them to find a recipe, source ingredients and make sure they will make enough to cover the costs and turn a profit. This might mean walking around the neighborhood to find the best place to hold the stand and checking a couple of stores for the best prices on lemons and sugar.

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Practical math can be great fun for kids and their parents. It removes the pressure of getting the right answer and gives everyone a chance to work on math skills while doing something entertaining.

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