Parents, Beware: Your Math Anxiety May Be Contagious

If you’re not a fan of math, it may be time to stop helping your kids with their homework.

A study published this past summer by researchers at the University of Chicago showed that math anxiety is passed from generation to generation.

“Math-anxious parents may be less effective in explaining math concepts to children, and may not respond well when children make a mistake or solve a problem in a novel way,” Susan Levine, a psychology professor and one of the study’s lead researchers, told UChicago News.

The study, “Intergenerational Effects of Parents’ Math Anxiety on Children’s Math Achievement and Anxiety,” involved 438 first- and second-graders and their parents or guardians. Researchers measured the children’s achievement and anxiety level in math at the beginning and end of the school year. Parents were given a questionnaire measuring their own math anxiety, and were asked how often they helped their kids with homework. The study revealed that those students whose parents tried to offer substantial help with homework, despite their own reported discomfort with the subject, learned less math and were more anxious about the subject by the end of the year than those students who had less help from anxious parents.

What the Research Says

The study is the latest from the University of Chicago to focus on the effect of adult attitudes about math on children’s achievement in the subject.

In 2009, the same research team studied 17 female first- and second-grade teachers from a midwestern elementary school, and found that those who had high math anxiety were most likely to pass it on to their students by the end of the year. Interestingly, the newly math-anxious students were all girls.

“Female teachers’ math anxiety negatively relates to girls’ math achievement and also to girls’ gender ability beliefs at the end of the school year,” the study’s authors reported. “If this link between teacher anxiety and student math achievement occurs because teachers influence girls’ gender ability beliefs and this, in turn, has an impact on girls’ math performance, the relation between teacher and student should be mediated (or accounted for) by girls’ gender ability beliefs.”

Two years later, the team released “The Role of Parents and Teachers in the Development of Gender-Related Math Attitudes,” a report that, like the most recent study, concluded that just as teachers could help or hinder children in math, so could parents.

For example, parents who believed boys are naturally better at math than girls were more likely to encourage their sons than their daughters to pursue the subject. If their daughters did do well in math, they would praise them for their effort and not for their intelligence. Boys, however, were praised for their intelligence and not their effort.

This latest study may finally have given us some further answers about parental influence on their children’s relationship with math. But what can a math-anxious parent do, apart from not helping kids (of any gender) with their homework?

How To Handle Math Anxiety

To start, avoid negative self-talk.

“We often don’t think about how important parents’ own attitudes are in determining their children’s academic achievement,” psychology professor Sian Beilock, the study’s other lead researcher, told UChicago News. “But our work suggests that if a parent is walking around saying, ‘Oh, I don’t like math’ or, ‘This stuff makes me nervous,’ kids pick up on this messaging and it affects their success.”

Finding outside help, like a tutor or an after-school math enrichment class, are also worthwhile options.

Nina Silver, a parent of two in North Carolina, decided to go with a tutor when her oldest started struggling with math. Silver’s own dislike of math, and her conviction that she was bad at it, had already had a big effect on her life when she chose to study law instead of medicine because it required dealing with fewer numbers. She ultimately married a doctor without any math hang-ups, and both her children seemed to share their father’s attitude about the subject — at least until her daughter Alexandra started middle school.

When Alexandra was placed in an advanced math class, she started getting anxious about keeping up, and begged to go back to the easier section. Silver considered it at first, partly because the whole family was already going through the stress of an impending divorce, but ultimately decided Alexandra should stay in the advanced class and get tutored.

“It made a world of difference — and straight A’s,” Silver said.

Wendy Thomas Russell, a journalist and author of “Relax, It’s Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You're Not Religious,” was never fond of math, partly because her small-town school did not have a great STEM program.

“Now I'm anxious about giving my kid anxiety. Need Xanax stat!” Russell tweeted jokingly when the parental anxiety study hit the news.

But Russell needn’t worry, because she, like Silver, has done what she can to help her daughter Maxine cope with math, in this case by encouraging her to take an after-school class that addressed the skills with which Maxine was struggling.

But both moms have yet another option: They can overcome their own math anxiety. There are a number of websites, often affiliated with colleges, that offer tips to reduce apprehension toward the subject. Usually, these sites are aimed at students who need to take math classes to fulfill requirements. But relaxation methods like doing deep breathing and meditation, or visualizing yourself succeeding, can apply to many stressful situations — including helping kids with their math homework.

There are also books that address this issue, including “Conquering Math Anxiety,” which comes with an online study guide. “Overcoming Math Anxiety,” which was first published in 1978, was written by former Wesleyan University provost and women’s studies professor Sheila Tobias, who wanted to help adults, particularly women, adjust their attitudes toward numbers.

“There are certainly cures for math anxiety,” Tobias wrote in the introduction to the 1994 edition. “In the short run, these involve changing attitudes and exploding myths about who can do mathematics and how mathematics competence is measured; in the long run, they require changing popular perceptions about mathematics.”

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For more from A.K. Whitney, check out these articles about coping with the Common Core State Standards for math and Your Kids Will Love Doing Math This Summer (If You Do Too).