On Parent-Child Math Relationships

When I think back to high school, I don’t recall particularly negative things about my relationship with my parents around math class. Up until my senior year, I figured out how to get by (even being a lousy student) with top grades in my math classes. I often received grades I didn’t earn, but because those grades were good, my parents stayed off of my back around math.

Chemistry was a different matter entirely. I took honors chemistry in my 10th grade year, and my father was a research chemist at an elite university. Maybe partly because of that background, this became my hardest class. It was also the one that brought out the worst of both my father and I, and ended up straining our relationship for the next several years.

It was just assumed that I would live up to my father’s reputation by students around me. I’m not sure exactly what my teacher thought of me, or my father, but I always had this impression that he probably thought of my father as an elite Harvard snooty scientist, and probably looked down on me for that. Who knows – maybe I was wrong then, and this teacher didn’t even notice or think twice about me. (He was also the coach of the state champion girls’ basketball team, and I always felt like that came before teaching chemistry for him).

Nonetheless, my home life was pretty difficult that year. There was a regular cycle of my father yelling, me cowering, more yelling, tears, shame, and stubbornness. For nine long months, we fought and fought and fought. It didn’t make me study better. It didn’t make me try to appease my father’s wishes, or spend more time on the class. If anything, it gave me more incentive than ever to not do what he wanted. After all, what did he know about me? About the life of a 14 year old high school student?

I really don’t remember what it was, but towards the end of the year, I did turn things around in my approach, and surprised my father by acing the final. (In fact, he ended up going in and arguing with the teacher about something that got marked wrong and shouldn’t have.) And yet, I wasn’t at a point where I could be grateful for his actions. It took a long time to accept what he had done as an act of caring. In fact, all of the fights that we had came from a place of caring, but when caring interacts with conflict, and especially when there is a passion, it can become explosive.

It took several years before my father and I fully reconciled, but by the time I reached my mid-twenties, he had become my closest friend. I think back to a quote he often recited (and apparently was incorrect in attributing it to Mark Twain):

“When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”

The last ten years of my father’s life were the ones where we were able to share a lot. We traveled together, backpacked together, and I even got to teach him number theory by going through Davenport’s The Higher Arithmetic. I often wonder how things would have been different between us if we had both reacted differently during that year I took chemistry.

My father and I, backpacking through the Austrian Alps in 2005.

I used to think that my story was not all that common, before I started teaching. Then I started hearing some stories about the moments that so many students had when sitting at the dining room table, suffering through a homework assignment, with frustrated parents. The mathographies that I had students write earlier this year highlighted some of the rifts that open between kids and their parents over math class. They also confirmed for me something that I’ve often told students. While I love math, and I want them to love math, relationships are not worth losing over math class and homework. This isn’t to say that parents should stop caring, or stop asking, or even stop offering to help with math. It just means that help can mean working with the school community to lift a student up and support that student in their education. With two daughters of my own, now, this is a lesson I have to remember as they continue to grow and go through their own schooling path.

I often tell my students that there are some things more important than math class, and I’ll listen if something outside the classroom is affecting their ability to succeed in my class. This year, I had a similar message for parents at back to school night. Relationships between parents and their teenager kids are naturally difficult. Adolescents are going through many changes, discovering their independence and their boundaries all over again, testing adulthood, and lots of other things that are very hard for parents to grapple with. Adding fights over math and math homework to the mix just isn’t worth the possible repercussions.

Tonight, as I anticipate a World Series with the Red Sox coming up next week, I do have great memories of during in the Fenway bleachers with my father as he taught me how to pencil in every strikeout and hit and run in the scorecard. I have memories of sitting in the university cafeteria, playing with math puzzles on paper napkins (with pen of course).  Those are the kinds of math memories worth holding on to.