Suddenly a light bulb went off. “That’s it?” I thought. “That’s all there is to it?” I was furious at my former teachers for not teaching me and at myself for having been taken in by the idea that it was too hard. Why had teachers insisted on going over and over rote formulas? Why hadn’t they taken the time to explain the logic of numbers?

Oh, I didn’t instantly turn into some kind of math genius. My talents generally do tend more to the social sciences. But my fear of all things numerical lessened considerably. I could look at problems as challenges instead of traps. It was enormously freeing at the time and gave me the confidence to master the skills I later needed to do and understand research in my field.

My old high school friend on Facebook had a similar experience: “…It wasn’t until I was almost 30 that a friend who was a math genius showed me an easy way to look at math and I started to change my attitude. Today I wish I had paid more attention to learning math as it would help me greatly with my interest in some of the new physics.”

Yes, one good teacher or one good explanation can turn things around. Better yet would be to never have all those anxieties and self-defeating attitudes inculcated into our girls in the first place.

How to help girls avoid or defeat math anxiety

  • Don’t give in to negativity yourself. If you are the mother of daughters or the teacher of girls and you still have lingering doubts about your own competence in math, deal with it. It’s never too late to learn to appreciate it and to develop math skills. Take a math class. Find a sympathetic tutor. Remind yourself that the negative messages you got growing up were just plain wrong, wrong, wrong. Everyone doesn’t have to learn higher level calculus (although you could) but everyone absolutely should be confident about basic functions: addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, fractions, and percentages. We use those skills daily. Knowing the basics will at least let you offer positive support to your kids during the first few grades when they are laying down the foundation for math success.
  • Understand that everyone (yes, even girls) is born with an aptitude for math. All little kids want to learn how to count and use numbers. They like being able to tell you they are “this many” years old or that they have “that many” dolls or rocks or shells. They like to sort things in different combinations and figure out what goes with what. This kind of play is the basis for number competency. Our challenge isn’t how to teach enthusiasm for math but rather how not to extinguish it.
  • Get your kids involved with number games and practical applications from a young age. Play number games with little ones – like asking them how many fingers you are holding up. With older kids, show them how to figure out a 15 percent tip or what 20 percent off means to the cost of something on sale. Activities like doubling a recipe or figuring out the measurements for a home project show them how math is applied. Make these kinds of problems into a routine part of the conversation at home and the kids will learn to be matter of fact about them in school too.
  • Treat math homework like any other subject. Don’t give the message that it is harder than reading assignments or making maps. It’s not. It’s just different.
  • Engage with your girls about the reasoning behind the problems. Math is one of those subjects where challenging ourselves is what counts. When working on homework, encourage your daughter to work on problems that don’t come easily. Talk through how she is approaching the problem. As one of my Facebook friends said: “I always appreciated being told what the math I was learning could be used for. When I didn’t know I was far less inclined to do it.” Another young woman appreciated her father’s involvement: “If I had any problems, my father would teach me. He wanted me to understand the reasoning behind solving each problem.”

Yes Girls Can

Girls can, and do, learn math. When we adults are positive and enthusiastic about the subject; when we are delighted when the mystery of a problem gets solved; when we show our girls how math fits into our lives every day, they will take our lead. We don’t want to waste another generation of girls’ talents and achievements in something so essential to success in life. I’ll know we’ve made it when Barbie says “Math is so much fun!”