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Blame Your Parents for Your Crappy Math Skills

New research finds that when parents with math anxieties try to help their kids, their efforts could backfire.
This clay figure really hates math. (Photo: Jimmie/Flickr)

This clay figure really hates math. (Photo: Jimmie/Flickr)

There's a seemingly constant stream of news about how bad Americans are at math, with much of the blame aimed at teachers and the sometimes confusing curricula they're supposed to teach. But, a new study suggests, parents' own anxieties about mathematics might have as much to do with kids' math abilities as teachers or the materials they're supposed to teach.

"Although the classroom is usually viewed as the primary vehicle for advancing academic achievement, parents also play an important role in students’ academic success," writes a team of psychologists led by the University of Chicago's Erin Maloney. "But what if parents are themselves anxious about the material their children are learning, as is often the case with math?"

To see how parents could pass their worries on to their kids—and hurt their test scores in the process—Maloney and her colleagues went into 29 elementary schools across the Midwest. The researchers had 438 first- and second-grade kids take standard math and reading tests at the beginning and end of the school year. During test season, the researchers posed a set of math problems ("There are 13 ducks in the water, there are 6 ducks in the grass, how many ducks are there in all?") and situations ("being called on by a teacher to explain a math problem on the board") to each child, who then pointed at one of five faces to indicate how nervous the problem or situation made them feel.

"What if parents are themselves anxious about the material their children are learning, as is often the case with math?"

To assess how adults' math fears might affect their children, the researchers tested both parents' and teachers' math anxiety, along with other measures of math ability, math teaching skills, and the schools' socioeconomic status. Finally, the team asked parents how often they helped their kids with math homework—an unexpectedly revealing question.

Remarkably, the more that math-anxious parents helped their kids with their homework, the worse the kids did on end-of-year math tests, an effect that in the worst cases cut students' progress in math nearly in half. Meanwhile, among low-anxiety parents, the team found that parents helping their children with math homework had little to no effect on the kids' test scores. That effect remained even after controlling for parents' education levels, teachers' math anxiety and ability, and other factors, such as a school's socioeconomic status—a good indication that parents were passing their arithmetic-specific anxieties on to their kids.

"In sum, enhancing students’ math performance will not be accomplished by solely focusing on teachers or curricula or by simply urging parents to be involved in their children’s math homework," Maloney and her colleagues write in Psychological Science. Indeed, the help parents give their kids could backfire. "These results ... suggest that many parents need support to effectively help their children succeed in math."

Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.