When a parent tries to impart knowledge to a child it can pose many unexpected challenges. My second grader keeps saying that she does not like math (I say “Maths” but she quickly corrects me, and in the circumstances, I do not want to point on that one is singular and the other plural). As I wrote a couple of months ago, we had some interesting times during the summer holidays trying to master some counting concepts. With as much patience and understanding as I can muster, I come forward with a range of comments which indicate that mathematics help us understand many things about how the world works and the way we live our lives. “Such as?” she often retorts. One afternoon, as we were heading home from school, I suggested that she see how long we would go without her needing to refer to something mathematical. “Ooh, I can go a long time!” she swung back at me. “Hmm. How will you know how much time has passed?” I asked. I looked in my car rear view mirror and saw the frown that came across her face in a flash as she realised that even if we had to guess about the time, we would have to do some counting.
We played with this notion for a few days, but no longer, because she got the point and I did not want to make it too annoying. But we had fun with conversations that had instead of numbers the term ‘blankety blank’. We giggled as it soon became clear that talking about many things would become very confusing if we could not put figures into the conversation.
My poor child had had enough of dealing with me on this subject, and I was happy to just help her as the need came along. So, what happens? One night at her swimming practice, lightning was striking and the head coach told all of the children to come out of the water, explaining the risk of electrocution. He got all the children to sit in the bleachers and began to give them some philosophical advice about what it takes to be a good swimmer. “Swimming is all about numbers!” Now, who told him to say that? I glanced over toward my daughter, but she was not looking my way. “It’s all about the times you post. You have to understand how to calculate what you need to do in a race, because it is you against the clock as well as against other swimmers. You have to do the arithmetic all the time.” His booming voice sounded as if it was coming from the thunderous clouds overhead. After the session ended, I walked out with my daughter and asked her what she thought about the coach’s comments. “I don’t believe him!” she snorted. Well, there you go.
So, moving along, one of her homework assignments this week involved calculating what coins were involved in making certain totals, based on clues: 5 coins; 2 are not nickels; total 46 cents. She decided to do the assignment in the car as we drove home. “Finished!” I heard her say from her back seat perch, and the question paper was quickly put into the back pack. Doing what I thought was the diligent thing, I said I would check the answers. Let’s put it this way. We had a long afternoon trying to unravel the puzzle of following clues and coming up with the right answers. We had no tears, but eking out a smile was not easy. Eventually, the problems were all solved–the last one finally resolved with some guidance from Mummy.
A group of parents were relaxing together last night and the mother of another second grade parents asked me “What about that math homework this week?” We then talked for half an hour about getting our respective daughters to come to grips with the subject. “Right is right. Wrong is wrong. Oh, what a time we had solving those coin questions,” she said. The shared observations made it seem that we were dealing with the same child. We needed that conversation, not least to remind us that our children are at a certain phase and the challenges they face in learning are often not unique. When we are alone with our own children, we forget all too often that we are not alone in dealing with the learning challenge.
Thinking is hard. Learning to think carefully is very hard.