Thursday, March 7, 2013

Algebra Regrets

You know when students, high school age in particular, stop learning in class because they don't believe they will ever use that information in their adult life? Well, they're wrong. I know because I couldn't help my eight year old with her math homework the other night.
Granted I'm not gifted with numbers. I know this about myself. That is why I am not at all offended when hubby insists he should be the one to balance the checkbook. We both know if I do it we'd be one month away from financial ruin.
I could try and blame my poor math skills on Ms. Saia. She was my Pre Algebra teacher my freshman year of high school. I distinctly remember asking for help but never understanding her explanations. So, I wrote math off as one those totally unnecessary skills I'll never need anyway.
In hindsight it’s obvious I should have kept working to solve x+y=z. Instead I found myself sitting, twenty years later, nursing a cup of decaf coffee at 7 o'clock at night looking completely inept to my daughter. It was not my finest moment and I silently cursed my fifteen-year-old self.
So together we sat, stuck somewhere between embarrassment and a tenacious resolve, attempting to figure out how to equally divide a gallon of juice between eight friends with only cups and pints.
I'm not sure who was more near tears, my daughter or I.
After unsuccessfully attempting conversions on paper I decided visuals were in order. I pulled a gallon from the refrigerator and lined up measuring cups. We reread the problem and used our props. However, instead of finding a solution we only got thirsty. Stumped we took a break to nibble on milk and cookies.
The snack didn't help, not really. When we finally came up with an answer I was certain it was incorrect. But too frustrated to rework the problem we just moved on.
Finding the next answer equally as difficult, we fudged our way through but I was pretty sure the answer we came up with was wrong. I knew I was at a crossroad. Either we would continue working, knowing full well our efforts were futile or trudge forward hoping there would be some credit for trying.
Fearing I was on the verge of ruining my child's ability for all things math forever, I called it quits. I just couldn't continue to pretend to know what I was doing. I said, "We're done! These answers aren't right and I don't know how to help you. I'll write your teacher a note and she'll understand we tried." My daughter, overly relieved, trotted off to play and I nursed my coffee and rubbed my temples.
If only I would have paid better attention! I am (arguably) a successful grown woman with a pretty impressive skill set. Why in the world couldn't I figure out basic liquid conversions? This is elementary math we're talking about people. It's not rocket science!
Later that evening, after the kids were tucked in bed I retold the story of my math ineptness to my husband. He thankfully held his tongue, didn't laugh at me and promised to look over the homework himself. Sure enough, he was not only able to understand the question he effectively taught our daughter how to get the answer.
I understand that I'm not able to be good at everything all the time. Each of us has areas that are stronger than others. That's okay, but as I look back I just can't help to think that if I'd have put in the full effort as a student I would have rocked that third grade homework and totally impressed my kid.
I guess, the next time my kids struggle I’ll recall this embarrassing moment and remember to encourage them in all their efforts. When you’re young it’s never a good idea to quit trying. Who’s to say that tough assignment or new skill is insurmountable? Maybe a little hard work and gentle encouragement is all that is needed. I want to teach me kids not to be afraid to work hard. I want them to learn sticking with it can have positive payoffs.
The next evening, when my daughter needed homework help she bypassed me completely and went straight to her father. I pretended to be offended but she was quick to pat my hand and say, “It’s okay, Mom. If I ever need help with words or talking I’ll let you know.” Well, at least she knows I am good at the important things. Why? Because I’m the mom and I said so! That’s why!

This article appears in the Saturday, March 2nd, 2013 edition of The Daily Review Atlas, a GateHouse Media company as a part of my Practical Parenting weekly series. Stephanie is a Parent Educator for the Monmouth-Roseville School District. She hosts BabyGroup, Parent Meetings and Family Fun Nights for local parents. She can be reached at

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