November 26, 2016

Mike Ritchie

What to Say When Your Child Asks Why They Have to Learn Math

Why do I have to learn math?

Why do I have to learn math?

Every parent has had to answer this question at some point; Mom and Dad, why do I have to learn math? I’m never going to use it, it’s such a waste of time! More often than not, their children aren't satisfied with the answer - it's too abstract, or the benefits are too far down the road, and this can be difficult, especially if your child has already decided they don't like math. The key, as I'll explain, is to connect the skills you learn in math class to everyday life, and to try and find a way to make math a little more fun.

Math Makes you Everything

A good education, in my opinion, is one that teaches you how to think, rather than simply ‘what to think.’ This idea is the basis of liberal arts education – you’re taught a wide variety of subjects, and the complementary nature of many of those subjects opens up new pathways in your brain and helps you to succeed across disciplines. Math especially is an important subject for teaching ‘how to think’, which makes it valuable even if you end up never actually using math in your professional or personal life.

Think about how much of your daily life involves problem solving. You manage your schedule, shop on a budget, choose a route that avoids traffic, navigate friendships – we are constantly faced with problems that we need to solve. No matter what kind of problem you’re dealing with, you’re relying on certain brain functions, like logical and analytical reasoning, to help you make good decisions. And the more problems you’re faced with, the better you become at solving them.

The value of math lies in its ability to teach us problem solving. In math, you learn how a structured, step by step approach can help you arrive at the correct answer, and then you practice that skill over and over, and over again.

Problem Solving

There are a Lot of Careers That Require Math Skills

When I was young, the prevailing opinion among my classmates was that math was almost worthless except for when you needed to make change, or do some other kind of simple addition or subtraction. The truth is, math plays a role in a wide range of professions – here’s a few examples:

  • Animator
  • Game designer
  • Engineer
  • Architect
  • Fighter pilot
  • Ecologist
  • Lawyer
  • Computer scientist
  • Astronaut
  • Sports announcer
  • Roller coaster designer
  • Painter
  • Artisan coffee roaster

How to Answer the Question

Abstract answers to this question can be difficult for kids to latch on to, so if you say something like, “it’ll come in handy later in life”, they probably won’t be convinced.

The simple answer is that you have to learn math because it makes you better at everything else, and you’re getting those benefits right now. Ask your kid for an example of something they had to ‘figure out’ recently – maybe their bike wasn’t working properly, or they needed to resolve a conflict between friends, or anything else. Explain to them that when they’re solving any kind of problem, their brain is breaking that problem down into pieces and trying, step by step, to find the best possible solution. Math, you should say, supercharges that part of the brain!

Don’t Forget to Make Math Fun!

Math has gotten a bad rap with kids for awhile now, but it can actually be a lot of fun. The best way, in my experience, is to make it into a game. When I was in 3rd grade, my dad and I would play Math Dice against each other at the dinner table, and to me it was just like any other game. To improve at this game, I had to improve at math, and eventually I improved so much that I could beat my dad! Many classrooms around the country use Math Dice and other games to help students connect with math, and it really works – take a look at the short video below, of three 5th graders from Arlington quickly solving exponent questions from their teacher, without pencil and paper.

You can try versions of this game at home with your kids for free – just find a pair of dice and have your child try to add or multiply the numbers you roll together more quickly than you can. You can also play an online version of Math Dice for free on our website if you want a single player option.

Send us Your Suggestions!

We love to hear from parents and teachers about games they play to help make math fun for young learners. Leave a comment on this blog or on our Facebook page and tell us your game!