“I’m Just Not Good at Math;” How False Beliefs Could Shape Your Child’s Future

In keeping with our monthly theme of self-image and how it influences goal achievement, this post will follow the same principles we’ve been exploring, but from a slightly different perspective; that of child-rearing. Now, I must make it clear that I am not a child psychologist, nor am I an expert on developmental psychology, however, the ideas I present in this post are supported by research and hold across populations. The way we encourage our children and respond to their performance (in school and other activities) has a significant impact on the skills and strengths they will grow to develop and identify with in adulthood. This post will present evidence of this theory as well as strategies to reinforce child behaviour in a more effective manner, that will better serve them in the long-term.

We are what we believe

We have stressed this idea several times this month as it is imperative to the notion that self-image directly influences our likelihood of success or failure. Nobody can act in ways that are inconsistent with their self-image. An excellent example of this is the third-grader who feels hopeless in mathematics. He scores poorly on a few tests, and his parents and teachers conclude that he “has difficulty” or that “he just doesn’t have a mathematical mind.” These ideas are then transferred to the child who adopts the notion that he “just isn’t a math person.” This self-concept becomes a part of who he is and becomes reinforced with each poor test performance. Once it has solidified, no amount of tutoring will help improve his grades; he isn’t good at math, and that’s okay. Because the student in this example identifies with being poor at math, it will actually be physically impossible for him to behave in ways that are inconsistent with this idea he holds of himself; this would contradict the theory and result in much internal conflict. Instead, the student will settle for passing and “getting by in math” whilst focusing his strengths on other subjects. In order to avoid such beliefs from forming in the first place, instead of arriving at premature conclusions from a few poor test grades, it would be more beneficial to consider the unsatisfactory performance as grounds for improvement. Instead of using language such as “you’re just not a math person,” phrases like “you didn’t do very well on this test, let’s have a look at it so you could do better the next time,” foster a more positive and self-efficacious self-image. The goal is to use language that does not characterize or define the child; “you aren’t the best at math,” but rather neutral language that has only to do with their present moment performance; “you didn’t do very well on this math test, next time you’ll do better.” That is; the child may have failed the math test, but they are not a failure, nor are they necessarily “bad at math.”

The myth of being ‘a natural’

We often hear of individuals excelling at any particular task without much effort or previous experience. We call these people “naturals,” highly talented, or attribute their success to “beginner’s luck.” The truth however, according to much research on deliberate practice and the performance of elite athletes and other exceptional performers (see research by Daniel Coyle), is that this notion is essentially a myth. It has been found that true success and exceptional performance is the result of practice, and lots of it. In fact, the quality of performance increases exponentially with the amount of practice invested into the given activity. Where I am going with this is the following; it is incorrect and unfair to recognize a child’s failure on a math exam as a function of their inherent disabilities or disadvantages, and not the effort they put into their studies. Surely we’ve all heard of the popular stereotype that “Asians are good at math” because that’s just how they’re wired. But what few of us know is that children in Asia learn math extremely differently than children here in North America. Teachers introduce them to mathematical problems before theoretical explanations, and they complete (literally) hundreds and hundreds of problems together as a class, and then again and again for homework. They learn the problems by heart and the extent of their practice is essentially ceaseless. Every child spends the same amount of time on their math homework, regardless of how they score on their tests, and no child is told they are fundamentally inferior to another with regard to their mathematical capabilities; they all must do math, and they all must do well on their exams. Granted, children have a lot on their plates these days, with other courses, sports, their family and social calendars, etc., so I am not suggesting that endless hours of math homework in any way resembles a realistic solution, I am only making the point that with enough deliberate practice, focused effort, and the right attitude towards the self in relation to the task, success and even excellence are inevitable.

Highlight your child’s strengths, but don’t dismiss their weaknesses

It is so important, as parents, teachers, and mentors, to praise our children and reinforce their successes however big or small. We live in a society however, where children’s strengths are magnified, and their weaknesses ignored. This, in theory, sounds like an excellent strategy for protecting their self-esteem and encouraging them to pursue the things they are good at, but it isn’t as beneficial as we may think. Let us use the example of our struggling math student again to illustrate. When a child repeatedly performs poorly in math and the conclusion is made that they simply aren’t mathematically inclined, many parents have the tendency to reconcile this by affirming that their child alternatively excels in some other subject, sport, or activity. “He isn’t good in math but he’s the best soccer player on his team, “she isn’t great at math, but she writes like a young Hemingway.” Again, it is wonderful and imperative to praise children and reward them for their strengths, but this kind of dismissal of their poorer performance sends the message that it’s okay to fail at something as long as you’re good at something else. In theory, and in life, this could ring true; I’m not the best cook, but that’s just fine, because I am exceptional at keeping our apartment tidy, and my partner is a brilliant chef, for example, but, when it comes to children who are developing, their ideas and self-image being shaped each and every day, there is a danger that comes with “deciding” that they aren’t good at something. It teaches them to just forget about it, leave it behind, and avoid the negative feelings associated with poor performance, alternatively focusing solely on something they have shown marked aptitude in. The point I am trying to make is this; if your child shows poorer performance in a given area, to the extent that it is something meaningful and worth ameliorating, pay attention to it, nurture it, work on it, truly invest in it, and then see what kind of results begin to surface. You might find that your child still writes like a poet, but is also (not stellar) but proficient in math.

Math was picked on in this article because it is so often the subject that children dislike, but these concepts can be applied to any topic, from manners to defiant behaviour, self-esteem to reading capability. I hope it has been helpful in explaining that anyone can excel at anything that is important to them. When it comes to children however, they sometimes need a little extra guidance and support from the big people.