Math-Anxious Parents Affect Their Children’s Math Achievement


Parents who have math anxiety may pass that nervousness on to their children, says a new study published in the journal Psychological Science.

Erin A. Maloney of the University of Chicago led researchers in the analysis of math attitudes and abilities of over 400 first- and second-grade students through the use of information from a larger, unrelated study. Melissa Dahl, writing for New York Magazine, reports that the children were tested two times on their math skills, first at the beginning of the school year and again at the end of the year.

They were also asked on the test how nervous math, and everything to do with math, made them feel. Parents took surveys to measure their math anxiety and how much they assisted their children with their math homework throughout the school year. The results were that kids with parents who were anxious about math learned less math during the year, and they were more likely to become anxious about mathematics.

The catch is that the kids became anxious only if their parents helped them with their math homework.

“Notably, when parents reported helping with math homework less often, children’s math achievement and attitudes were not related to parents’ math anxiety,” Maloney and her co-authors write in their paper.

The takeaway is that if parents are nervous about math to the extent that their kids pick up on their anxiety, it is probably a good idea for those parents to step away from the math homework table and find a tutor who loves math to help their children.

Psychologists Sian Beilock and Susan Levine, who were part of the team that developed the paper “Inter-generational Effects of Parents’ Math Anxiety on Children’s Math Achievement and Anxiety,” explained that previous research had found that teachers who were anxious about math had students who learned less math during the school year, writes Susie Allen of UChicagoNews.

“We often don’t think about how important parents’ own attitudes are in determining their children’s academic achievement. But our work suggests that if a parent is walking around saying ‘Oh, I don’t like math’ or ‘This stuff makes me nervous,’ kids pick up on this messaging and it affects their success,” explained Beilock, professor in psychology.

As a control measure, the researchers also analyzed reading performance, but found that it was not related to parents’ math anxiety. The relationship between parents’ math anxiety and children’s math achievement, the research suggests, stems more from math attitudes than from genetics. One solution may be developing tools to teach parents how to help their children with math in the most effective way. This could include traditional board games, math books, computer games, or internet apps.

The Telegraph’s Javier Espinoza writes that math-anxious parents “are breeding a generation of innumerate children.” Levine put it this way:

“Math-anxious parents may be less effective in explaining math concepts to children and may not respond well when children make a mistake or solve a problem in a novel way.”