My son thinks I hate him. I think any 11-year old boy who has a mom who makes them do math or reading in the summer months might think his mom hates him.
There are three words you hope you never hear when you’re a mom: “I hate you!” and “You hate me!” It will rip your heart out every time. But I imagine that we are all destined to hear them at some point in time. I’m not sure why those words seem to come out when you’re trying to do what is best for your child, but they do.
Here we are, four weeks into summer vacation and the math battle doesn’t seem to end. My son has always been told he is good at math, a real natural. Maybe one day I’ll express my frustrations with how and what he has been taught, but that is not the point of this column. But as we sit here at the table (currently), he hates doing math. Or, as I am finding out, anything that presents a challenge to his being.
On one particular morning about a week ago, I gave him about 10 mixed fractions to multiply. He sat down and breezed through them, handing me his paper about 10 minutes later. I checked his work to see if he had the processes down and if his answers were correct, and I found that about seven problems were incorrect.
In order to help him, I had to brush up on my mixed fraction multiplication, as I hadn’t multiplied mixed fractions in about 25 years. Once I reminded myself how to do the math problems, I sat down to teach him. He grabbed the paper in anger and said, “I already know!” I’m not going to recount the yelling match, the tears and the anger that happened over the next 1.5 hours, but let’s just say it was ugly. Like really, really ugly.
It seems that every time we sit down to do 10 math problems, the same topics come up: he gets frustrated, thinks he already knows everything, doesn’t want to correct his mistakes, doesn’t want to learn-but insists that I am not sitting beside him to walk him through all of the steps.
Again, I’ll leave my additional comments out of this. But as I laid in my hammock with the cloth wrapped around my body so that I could hide from the world, I thought about how many times in my life I have used mixed fractions. I learned how to multiply them in junior high, but I can’t say that I’ve used that skill any other time in my life.
I began to think about all of the skills throughout my education that I do not use in my everyday life. He’s right when he says, “Mom! In real life we just use a calculator to divide whole numbers or decimals!” He’s totally right. When I think about all of the formulas I learned throughout my education, all of the facts I’ve forgotten, all of the languages I’ve never used, it seems like the whole system is arbitrary.
Teachers don’t teach us how multiplying fractions actually applies to our lives and students just learn to score well on a test.
I didn’t make my son do math problems for five days because I, too, have questioned the point of making him do these tasks. And today, when we sat back down to divide decimals, he threw the same fit and gave the same reasons where he explains to me how it doesn’t matter: there is a device or a tool that will do that for us.
I was hoping he would say that. I told him that I cannot think of a time or reason in my life where I needed to multiply two-thirds by three-fourths. I honestly cannot make up a circumstance where I need to do that. But, I am happy that I was taught to and learned how to do that skill.
I told him that doing the math during the summer isn’t about math; it’s about the learning processes so that he can build himself into the human being he is meant to be. He may never use these skills again in his life, but he also does not have eyes, a mouth, ears, fingers, feet and a brain only to type something onto his phone so that a computer can tell him what the answer(s) is.
We are not teaching our kids much if we pass on the cavalier attitude that there is a machine that will do the work for me. We are actually selling each student and our human race short by succumbing to this idea that there is something out there that’ll do this task for me. I can pursue bigger and better things.
I have never, ever seen someone accomplish greatness or able to pursue bigger and better things without conquering the basics first. Never. He has those tools within himself because he is also capable of figuring out the answer or solution to a problem. I will not sell him short.
And maybe my teachers didn’t lay all of this out for me when I was a student, but I want him to know that I am not going to ask him to do something that will not help him grow. And growing means being challenged.
For fellow parents out there, struggling with the same fight this summer, I thought I’d give you the list of skills my son is gaining by multiplying fractions this summer so that you, too, can share it with your child.
I will not give up with the math-even though I really just want to cry while he does it every day. It is important that he realizes the potential within his little body, even if he continues to not see the value in multiplying fractions.
Routine: He is developing a daily routine where he knows a non-threatening challenge will be put in front of him that he will need to conquer. He has to sit (yes, sit) at the table until he finishes that challenge. Through this he is learning that there is a task in front of him that he must focus on until it’s completion. This is a skill he will need in life.
Listening skills: When I hand him the worksheet, I ask him if he has been taught how to do that type of math problem. He always says yes, so then I let him go at it. It’s not long before he gets frustrated because he’s never seen that type of problem before or because he didn’t take his time and got half of them incorrect. I will always try to talk to him about how to do the problem, and when he’s ready I teach him about the process and skills needed to complete that problem, and then I let him move forward on his own. It is only when he is ready to listen that I teach him because otherwise, it’s just a fight.
I believe there is no better skill to have in life than the ability to listen.
Problem-solving skills: Because I am not sitting right next to him or in front of a group of his peers walking them step-by-step through a problem, my son is required to recall those basic math skills he learned in school to figure out how to conquer a problem he may or may not know how to do. It is important that he knows that I am not going to sit next to him while he does his work because it is his work, and he does not need a guide to complete it. He can figure out the steps and processes to complete that task.
Nothing in his daily adult life will be handed to him. He will be given a task, whether it is to paint the walls of his house or to turn in a report on the work he has accomplished, and he will have to recall his past knowledge then build on it to get the task done.
Mistakes: Like I said, he will get through 10 problems, missing at least five problems. He gets good grades at school, so I’m not sure what’s going on there, but here, he has little to no idea what he is doing. But I look at his work and his answers, circle what is incorrect and hand it back to him to fix. This makes him more upset than anything else.
In life, though, he’s not going to be perfect at anything he does. He will get about 50-percent of his work correct, and he will have to strap his boots back on to correct or come up with a different solution for the problem.
Having him correct his homework teaches him perseverance.
Focus and Good Attitude: When I hand him the paper with the problems on them, I remind him that the sheet will not take long if he just focuses and has a good attitude about what he is doing. Isn’t it that way with most things in life? If we just focus and have a good attitude, they are always more pleasant?
Building Block and Processing Skills: If my son does not learn what 2+2 equals then he will not understand what it actually means when he multiplies 2×2. When we take the time to learn different material at different times in our lives, our brain is making connections, getting stronger, learning how to process. When he just resorts to a calculator or a computer at every turn, then he misses the opportunity to build those connections, to strengthen himself.
Challenges: Maybe part of the problem is that I am having him sit down with a piece of paper and a pencil to do math. I think that in itself is a challenge for my son. But whether it is sitting down and focusing (which he CAN do) or being challenged with a new math concept, being challenged give us the opportunity to figure out that we have the innate ability to do something new. It helps to spark our creativity and curiosity and gives us confidence when we work hard and accomplish something.
Gratitude: Our education is not just something that ends when we receive our diploma. We are constantly observing, learning, changing and growing. I think that if the educational system taught us that we can actually take these skills, apply them to our lives and use them to reach our personal and professional goals, then we might find the information more useful.
I told my son that the people who developed the phone, operating system and calculator that he loves so much probably took the division of decimals and knew that they could apply that skill set to something else they may learn or develop later. I told him that people who go on to develop objects or systems are people who enjoy learning.
I know that it means nothing to Americans that we have an educational system where all of us have (some) opportunity to learn until we are 18 years old, but there are many, many places in this world where that opportunity does not exist or only exists for a short while. My son (or my daughters) do not realize how blessed they are to have this these resources and this opportunity.
And if nothing else, I’d love for my son know that it is a blessing to have a mom or a teacher who will provide challenging opportunities for growth. If we all walked through life seeing that every single opportunity is indeed a blessing, then we’d all be much more content.
I imagine that he won’t realize this until much later on in life, but I am not making him do these things because I hate him or don’t like him. It’s actually the exact opposite; I do it because I love him with all of my heart. I don’t want him to spend two hours on a few problems; I want him to be outside playing like 11-year old boys should. But I can also see that he has some growing to do, and it’s my job to see that he grows.