A math teacher’s advice for parents.

On a podcast last year, a lovely chap named Eric asked me what advice I have for parents.

I always stumble over that question. Advice requires specifics. What’s your kid into? What excites, bores, and terrifies them? Who are their heroes, best friends, and aspirational Disney characters? What math have they enjoyed, hated, and regarded with cold indifference? I need to know all that (and more) before I have any definite idea how to help.

A math teacher’s advice for parents.

But I do have advice of a sort.

To thrive in math, you need the know-how. Solving systems of equations. Writing geometric proofs. Manipulating spreadsheet formulas. All of the understandings and abilities that allow you to solve mathematical problems.

But you also need the want-to. Mathematics needs to satisfy a desire, a curiosity, an impulse. You have to experience mathematical work with a kind of satisfaction, as something more than demands and drudgery.

So where’s your kid at right now? Are they brimming with energy and excitement? Well, then buy a book of puzzles. Have them dive into deep problem solving. Get them going on Beast Academy. Anyone with enough want-to is ready to build the know-how.

But more often I see the other combination: precocious skills, without much intrinsic love for the subject. Such a kid may love math, in the sense that they love being good at it, but that’s a fragile love. The moment the success dries up, the love will too.

What to do with such a kid?

Try to build some joy. Watch Numberphile. Play sudoku. Read brilliant stick-figure-illustrated books (Randall Munroe’s, obviously). Find experiences of math that will develop an affinity for the subject itself, a joy that’s more robust, a want-to that goes beyond mere pride in their know-how.

Eric also asked me what turns kids off of mathematics, and this is what I told him:

It comes back to the weird tournament atmosphere that we’ve set up…. You have 25 students all about the same age. For bureaucratic reasons, it’s more efficient to put them all in one classroom, with one teacher teaching them the same thing…. So you get students who could be wonderful mathematicians but who instead feel like, “Eh, it’s not my subject. I’m not one of ‘the math kids’….”

But it’s an artificial scarcity.

When you get into the adult world, there’s a genuine scarcity of mathematical understanding and mathematical excellence. Every organization would love to have more people who know mathematics.

I try — with far more failure than success — to remind kids of this. The tournament atmosphere of school math has nothing to do with “math,” and everything to do with “school.”

Guard the candle of your want-to, and the know-how will carry you far.