Managing a Mathitude

Arithmophobia is common in our society. Many adults have been traumatized by their mathematics education, and they accidentally pass those feelings to their children. In reality, math is a set of rules applied systematically. Once those rules are understood, even algebra and calculus aren’t scary. Since people expect math to be hard, it is. Indeed, learning the practices and systems of upper mathematics is a job. But it isn’t more unpleasant than other tasks that we, as adults, must complete.

I have a (possibly unpopular) opinion about “mathitudes.” We’ve dealt with them so often that my husband and I coined a term for it. Mathitudes are not appropriate behavior. I don’t like everything I do daily, but if I have a terrible attitude about any task, my unbecoming conduct spreads to others in my household. Sometimes, I’ll fall into that and have to get myself out of it. 

I have a kid who “hates math” because he has to *gasp* write things down. But we request/require that he work on his attitude. He doesn’t have to like math or doing the dishes or anything else we ask of him, but he needs to do them to the best of his ability with a good attitude because we are raising an adult who can do what is required, not a child who only does what he wants. 

If he’s choosing a good attitude about his least favorite subject, I might reward that. I could make him a cup of tea while he works, scratch his back, offer to scribe a long problem, or be companionable since he likes company. But a bad attitude is usually met with extra chores. “Take a break from your math and take out the trash” (or mow the lawn or clean the tub… something physical). This task is not a punishment as much as a distraction. It truly needs to be done, but it isn’t torturous. He knows he’s coming back to the math, but one of us will be able to be with him to make sure he understands how to work through the day’s topic and encourage him along the way, either with tutoring or just as a calm, non-anxious presence. 

He doesn’t need that kind of coaching every day anymore, but it’s because we’ve taught him over several years to take captive a thought that leads him astray so that he can stay the course on a difficult task that feels unpleasant. That’s a life skill that we must teach. My sons are all in high school or university, but we started working specifically on their attitudes a while ago. We all have moments of a bad attitude, but aim to move through those moments, not camp in them. 

Isn’t that what a difficult task requires? We must choose to be in the moment and take care of the job, whether it’s a marathon diaper change, a clogged toilet, or public speaking. Adulting is about getting the yucky job done and moving on to more pleasant tasks. When our students are in high school, we should teach them to do the next right thing, even if it is unpleasant.

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