They want a smart kid. They don't want to be "those" parents.

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  October 4, 2011 06:00 AM

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Barbara,

My son is 18 months old, and very bright, though I admit extreme bias in this case. My husband and I were judged to be very bright as well, but we suffered in school when it came to math. We want to give our son the best start in life without being overzealous parents who torture their child with flashcards practically from the womb.

What can we do to help promote an understanding of, and a love for math without making it tedious? What we are doing so far is reading him counting board books, singing songs involving numbers, and doing the "2, 4, 6, 8, who do we appreciate?" cheer for him, which he adores. Is there anything else we can do? At what point do we add some formal activities or toys? We don't want to become "those parents" who's zeal has squeezed the fun out of learning.

Thanks in advance!
From: MP, Framingham, MA

Dear MP,

Admirable goals you've got, but be careful. It's easy to become "those" parents.

Don't make the mistake of thinking that because he loves the "2-4-6-8" cheer, he's learning concepts about numbers. He loves it because you're engaged together, because you're making it fun. A child who hears "Goodnight, Moon," every night might "read" along. Does he really know anything about reading? Not exactly, but he knows something about literacy. He knows that books go from left to right and, if you point to the words as you read, he will learn that you start to read at the top of the page and go to the bottom.

Similarly, incorporating numbers into his life in a fun way is a terrific pre-math skill: counting out the beans on the plate, or the toys on the floor, or the fingers on his toes. Would I do it at every meal? No. Not at every play time, either.

As for toys and activities, if what you're asking is when is it time for "Baby Einstein" and the whole slew of computerized materials that promise "smart" children, my answer is never. If you're asking about tired and true, hands-on toys and activities -- toys with inter-locking parts and toys that open and shut (which teach about cause and effect), take your cues from him. It's time to introduce new toys or activities when it's clear he is tired of or has mastered the existing ones. And remember: less is more. (See "Hothouse Kids" by Alissa Quart, although if you're going to read only one book, make it "Raising Lifelong Learners," by Lucy Calkins.

And oh, wait! I almost forgot: blocks! Probably the single, most-important pre-math toy around.

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12 comments so far...
  1. As your child gets older I would also suggest playing board games that involve math. Growing up, I played countless hours of Yahtzee with my dad. The game involves lots of adding and some basic multiplication to keep score and gave me lots of of practice with math. I wouldn't say I loved math, but I found it to be a useful tool and was usually quicker to pick up new math skills than my classmates.

    Posted by Marie October 4, 11 10:11 AM
  1. I think I had the same thoughts once, but now with our nearly 3 year-old daughter, it has been so easy to instill an appreciation for talking about numbers, art, nature, similar/different, etc. (as well as an appreciation in shoes!). She is curious, and I'm a talker, so she picks out so much - we count things all the time, she points out things in the world that match, we pick one plant each week in the summer and on walks look for that plant in other yards (one of her favorites was the crepe myrtle we saw in Texas in July, then again in South Carolina in August - oh wow!). It is a lot of fun for both my husband and I, and I think it helps us notice a few more things around us in the adult world too (like the kitties we see on the way to preschool each day!). She just started a new pre-school and we were told right away that our girl knows her numbers and colors and letters and that she loved sharing this information with enthusiasm, so we were assured that we're going down the right path. Have fun!

    Posted by Jennifer October 4, 11 11:25 AM
  1. Blocks and more blocks. Sets of blocks of different sizes and shapes. Lincoln Logs. Sorting toys. Stacking toys.

    Count in funny ways. First little piggy..., second little piggy...and so on.

    And, don't worry so much. If you come home with three chocolate chip cookies, and you and he share one, half a cookie to each, and then you tell him you're saving one for Daddy, he'll know you still have the third one, and he'll ask for it. That means he has the concept of counting and subtracting, he just won't be calling it by those terms.

    Having had a bad start in math and then become very good at it, I feel that the single best predictor of math skills is how well they are taught. So, if your kid is this bright, maybe the best thing to do is start figuring out how to get him into really good schools. You yourself probably use math all the time when figuring out recipes and trying to get the canned goods with the best contents for the lowest price; you just don't think of it as math.

    Posted by Favorite Auntie October 4, 11 12:14 PM
  1. Couldn't agree more--do some counting with him but don't turn everything into a lesson. Sometimes they need to just do things without being walked and talked through it.

    Having him count apples or oranges into the bag at the grocery store is a good one, as is counting steps as you walk up them. Blocks are also good for patterns--stack up or line up blue, red, blue, red, etc.

    Posted by di October 4, 11 02:54 PM
  1. Counting the stairs as you walk up and down is a good early "'math" game; also give your child an egg carton and 12 objects-as he puts an object in each section he will be learning one to one correspondence. Change the objects, color, size etc.,and help your child count how many of each different item you have. Have your child use a pair of tongs to transfer items from one carton to another to develop fine motor skills. Buy a bag of inexpensive different color poker type chips; sorting the disks into bowls of the same color as the chips is fun and also developing early math skills. Have Fun! Count things as you go about your daily routine, "Oh look mommy has two red socks..you have two blue socks!" Draw a checkerboard type grid on a piece of paper and give your child some stickers; younger children will pile the stickers together but he will eventually put one sticker in each grid square.

    Posted by prschl teach October 4, 11 03:59 PM
  1. Blocks, yes, absolutely - and also pattern blocks: angles, area, fractions, congruence. Talk often about more and less, bigger and smaller. Do lots of estimating: with time, volume, weight, quantities of objects. When he's a little older, involve him in grocery shopping and cooking: money, weights and measures, temperature. Not as formal math, but as a part of day-to-day activities, so that he develops a comfort and instinct for math-thinking.

    Posted by alien57 October 4, 11 04:29 PM
  1. You could also avoid the use of phrases such as

    "Math is hard"
    "You never use math in everyday life"
    "We suffered in school when it came to math"

    I'd really encourage you and your husband to broaden your own horizons when it comes to math, science and engineering -- and you don't even have to do equations! Read up on:
    - famous mathematicians, scientists, engineers or inventors
    - history of technology
    - read the science and technology sections of the New York Times, or the Scientific American website. Or HowThingsWork.
    - when he's old enough, trips to children's museums / science museum

    Plus all the toys and so on that have already been mentioned. Blocks, legos, sandboxes, cooking, helping fix things around the house -- anything that lets him create with his hands.

    Also, when he's two you are going to get about a billion "Why" questions. Some of them will involve math in some way -- so be sure to answer it.

    Posted by J October 4, 11 08:32 PM
  1. I was a little confused about which sorts of "those parents" you were worried about turning into! The moms I used to run into at gymboree who were turning everything into a lesson and holding out the flashcards or the moms I now run into at high school meetings who love to let you know how brilliant their children are!! Your question does seem a bit tongue in cheek, as you fully admit your obvious bias, but I do caution you to be careful--a person who thinks their 18 month old is "very bright" can easily turn into both of those kinds of mom unintentionally. Development is very variable at this age--he might be ahead of the curve in some things and so seems "better" at them than other 18 month olds. Also, there are lots of very bright people around (even ones who are not great at math!) but true geniuses are very rare people and I think its important not to get too focused on thinking your child is "gifted" and needs some sort of extra special intervention. Also important is not transferring your frustrations and fears to him, living vicariously through your children is easy to do, but you need to avoid it at all costs. He may do perfectly well in math, even though you didn't. And in the end, he may be good at it, but not very interested in it. Nothing wrong with that.

    As Barbara pointed out, 18 month olds don't conceptualize this sort of thing, so I would not worry too much about formal instruction. Others have offered great suggestions. I used to spend time working math into everyday thinking as others have suggested--grocery store is great for this. We also read every night. When he can understand math concepts, I would spend some time "estimating" which is a big focus of math now (so you know if you answer is in the ball park). Math instruction in school is much different than it was in my day of "new math" (What the heck is base 8 anyway?) and I really agree that it is the quality of formal instruction is very important. I will say it seems to me that a person who "gets" math is born not made. Doesn't mean you can't learn it, but some people just get the concepts with little instruction. This is really important to remember in middle and high school when students can take honors and AP classes.

    I think you are already a step ahead by being interested in what he is learning and encouraging him to be interested in the world around him. Continue this with a committment to quality education in a community that values education and he'll go far. If he does turn out to be a genius? What you're doing now will be plenty of help for him!

    Posted by ash October 5, 11 09:47 AM
  1. As an engineer and someone who always enjoyed math from a young age, I think that one of the biggest things you can do is simply be positive about it. Like J said... never tell your child that math is hard. I grew up with two grampas who were engineers and an aunt and uncle who were both engineers. I saw that people who I knew and loved were able to these math intensive jobs and loved doing them. It made it approachable. Playing with blocks teaches spatial reasoning. Counting is good, but that isn't teaching math. When you think about math and science skills, it is the interest and reasoning skills that really matter and will make the difference later on in life/school. Talking about the valuable things scientist and engineers do in our society is another key thing. "look at this amazing computer/phone/car/toothbrush" someone designed and engineered it. Teach your child about all the things in our lives that needed to be invented and the hard work that went into them. One of the hardest things about math/science is that it is not immediately rewarding. Learning to do multiplication does not mean you are ready to design the latest sports car. It is one of many stepping stones. To instill appreciation of all the skills one must acquire and to reinforce why it is important by pointing out all the things in the world that depend on math and science.

    I work with high school students a lot (so definitely a different age category) ... but one of the things that we teach is how to take something apart, learn how it works, adapt it to something they need. Learning about how things work naturally teachs math/science. If you want to build a toy car out of legos, you learn that you need enough wheels to be stable, that it can't be top heavy, etc. With the older kids, we get into how motors can work, and how by changing the size of the gears we use we can change the top speed or increase the torque to get up steep inclines. They are learning about ratios, diameter, velocity, etc. But its in a context that is fun to them.

    Posted by bostongrl October 5, 11 01:13 PM
  1. I suggest counting out his cheerios with him for a week, enough to keep him well nourished. After that, have him do it on his own. He gets to eat what he can count. If he cannot count, he cannot eat. Hunger is a strong motivator, and mark my words you will have a baby einstein in no time.

    Posted by Frank October 5, 11 03:56 PM
  1. You already ARE those parents! Have you considered that your baby's favorite subject may BE math and he may struggle with English or History?

    I never met a child who excelled at all subjects - have you?

    And let us not forget that excelling at school subjects is not, in the long run, the key to happiness. Being a well rounded individual with empathy, a sense of humor, and good self esteem is.

    Pounding an 18-month old with math flash cards is not conducive toward those ends.

    By the way, I was an A student who always struggled with math - my brain just didn't work that way. What do I do for a living now? I'm a pension analyst. Yes -- math and formulas all day. And I love it.

    Posted by cosmogirl October 6, 11 11:40 AM
  1. Flash cards? Ugh.

    Early mathematics builds very naturally. Simple counting is the start. Then move on to adding two groups ("put them together"). Subtracting (especially fun when one is "subtracting" pieces of fruit from the cutting board). Even numbers come in pairs. Do they really need any more than that before first grade?

    My youngest begs for "homework" pages, perhaps in imitation of his brother? He has taught himself simple addition and subtraction which he executes with reasonable consistency. Never made any particular effort to teach him, though, beyond defining the symbols.

    Let kids learn. They do it quite naturally as long as we don't interfere.

    Posted by TF October 6, 11 09:24 PM
 
12 comments so far...
  1. As your child gets older I would also suggest playing board games that involve math. Growing up, I played countless hours of Yahtzee with my dad. The game involves lots of adding and some basic multiplication to keep score and gave me lots of of practice with math. I wouldn't say I loved math, but I found it to be a useful tool and was usually quicker to pick up new math skills than my classmates.

    Posted by Marie October 4, 11 10:11 AM
  1. I think I had the same thoughts once, but now with our nearly 3 year-old daughter, it has been so easy to instill an appreciation for talking about numbers, art, nature, similar/different, etc. (as well as an appreciation in shoes!). She is curious, and I'm a talker, so she picks out so much - we count things all the time, she points out things in the world that match, we pick one plant each week in the summer and on walks look for that plant in other yards (one of her favorites was the crepe myrtle we saw in Texas in July, then again in South Carolina in August - oh wow!). It is a lot of fun for both my husband and I, and I think it helps us notice a few more things around us in the adult world too (like the kitties we see on the way to preschool each day!). She just started a new pre-school and we were told right away that our girl knows her numbers and colors and letters and that she loved sharing this information with enthusiasm, so we were assured that we're going down the right path. Have fun!

    Posted by Jennifer October 4, 11 11:25 AM
  1. Blocks and more blocks. Sets of blocks of different sizes and shapes. Lincoln Logs. Sorting toys. Stacking toys.

    Count in funny ways. First little piggy..., second little piggy...and so on.

    And, don't worry so much. If you come home with three chocolate chip cookies, and you and he share one, half a cookie to each, and then you tell him you're saving one for Daddy, he'll know you still have the third one, and he'll ask for it. That means he has the concept of counting and subtracting, he just won't be calling it by those terms.

    Having had a bad start in math and then become very good at it, I feel that the single best predictor of math skills is how well they are taught. So, if your kid is this bright, maybe the best thing to do is start figuring out how to get him into really good schools. You yourself probably use math all the time when figuring out recipes and trying to get the canned goods with the best contents for the lowest price; you just don't think of it as math.

    Posted by Favorite Auntie October 4, 11 12:14 PM
  1. Couldn't agree more--do some counting with him but don't turn everything into a lesson. Sometimes they need to just do things without being walked and talked through it.

    Having him count apples or oranges into the bag at the grocery store is a good one, as is counting steps as you walk up them. Blocks are also good for patterns--stack up or line up blue, red, blue, red, etc.

    Posted by di October 4, 11 02:54 PM
  1. Counting the stairs as you walk up and down is a good early "'math" game; also give your child an egg carton and 12 objects-as he puts an object in each section he will be learning one to one correspondence. Change the objects, color, size etc.,and help your child count how many of each different item you have. Have your child use a pair of tongs to transfer items from one carton to another to develop fine motor skills. Buy a bag of inexpensive different color poker type chips; sorting the disks into bowls of the same color as the chips is fun and also developing early math skills. Have Fun! Count things as you go about your daily routine, "Oh look mommy has two red socks..you have two blue socks!" Draw a checkerboard type grid on a piece of paper and give your child some stickers; younger children will pile the stickers together but he will eventually put one sticker in each grid square.

    Posted by prschl teach October 4, 11 03:59 PM
  1. Blocks, yes, absolutely - and also pattern blocks: angles, area, fractions, congruence. Talk often about more and less, bigger and smaller. Do lots of estimating: with time, volume, weight, quantities of objects. When he's a little older, involve him in grocery shopping and cooking: money, weights and measures, temperature. Not as formal math, but as a part of day-to-day activities, so that he develops a comfort and instinct for math-thinking.

    Posted by alien57 October 4, 11 04:29 PM
  1. You could also avoid the use of phrases such as

    "Math is hard"
    "You never use math in everyday life"
    "We suffered in school when it came to math"

    I'd really encourage you and your husband to broaden your own horizons when it comes to math, science and engineering -- and you don't even have to do equations! Read up on:
    - famous mathematicians, scientists, engineers or inventors
    - history of technology
    - read the science and technology sections of the New York Times, or the Scientific American website. Or HowThingsWork.
    - when he's old enough, trips to children's museums / science museum

    Plus all the toys and so on that have already been mentioned. Blocks, legos, sandboxes, cooking, helping fix things around the house -- anything that lets him create with his hands.

    Also, when he's two you are going to get about a billion "Why" questions. Some of them will involve math in some way -- so be sure to answer it.

    Posted by J October 4, 11 08:32 PM
  1. I was a little confused about which sorts of "those parents" you were worried about turning into! The moms I used to run into at gymboree who were turning everything into a lesson and holding out the flashcards or the moms I now run into at high school meetings who love to let you know how brilliant their children are!! Your question does seem a bit tongue in cheek, as you fully admit your obvious bias, but I do caution you to be careful--a person who thinks their 18 month old is "very bright" can easily turn into both of those kinds of mom unintentionally. Development is very variable at this age--he might be ahead of the curve in some things and so seems "better" at them than other 18 month olds. Also, there are lots of very bright people around (even ones who are not great at math!) but true geniuses are very rare people and I think its important not to get too focused on thinking your child is "gifted" and needs some sort of extra special intervention. Also important is not transferring your frustrations and fears to him, living vicariously through your children is easy to do, but you need to avoid it at all costs. He may do perfectly well in math, even though you didn't. And in the end, he may be good at it, but not very interested in it. Nothing wrong with that.

    As Barbara pointed out, 18 month olds don't conceptualize this sort of thing, so I would not worry too much about formal instruction. Others have offered great suggestions. I used to spend time working math into everyday thinking as others have suggested--grocery store is great for this. We also read every night. When he can understand math concepts, I would spend some time "estimating" which is a big focus of math now (so you know if you answer is in the ball park). Math instruction in school is much different than it was in my day of "new math" (What the heck is base 8 anyway?) and I really agree that it is the quality of formal instruction is very important. I will say it seems to me that a person who "gets" math is born not made. Doesn't mean you can't learn it, but some people just get the concepts with little instruction. This is really important to remember in middle and high school when students can take honors and AP classes.

    I think you are already a step ahead by being interested in what he is learning and encouraging him to be interested in the world around him. Continue this with a committment to quality education in a community that values education and he'll go far. If he does turn out to be a genius? What you're doing now will be plenty of help for him!

    Posted by ash October 5, 11 09:47 AM
  1. As an engineer and someone who always enjoyed math from a young age, I think that one of the biggest things you can do is simply be positive about it. Like J said... never tell your child that math is hard. I grew up with two grampas who were engineers and an aunt and uncle who were both engineers. I saw that people who I knew and loved were able to these math intensive jobs and loved doing them. It made it approachable. Playing with blocks teaches spatial reasoning. Counting is good, but that isn't teaching math. When you think about math and science skills, it is the interest and reasoning skills that really matter and will make the difference later on in life/school. Talking about the valuable things scientist and engineers do in our society is another key thing. "look at this amazing computer/phone/car/toothbrush" someone designed and engineered it. Teach your child about all the things in our lives that needed to be invented and the hard work that went into them. One of the hardest things about math/science is that it is not immediately rewarding. Learning to do multiplication does not mean you are ready to design the latest sports car. It is one of many stepping stones. To instill appreciation of all the skills one must acquire and to reinforce why it is important by pointing out all the things in the world that depend on math and science.

    I work with high school students a lot (so definitely a different age category) ... but one of the things that we teach is how to take something apart, learn how it works, adapt it to something they need. Learning about how things work naturally teachs math/science. If you want to build a toy car out of legos, you learn that you need enough wheels to be stable, that it can't be top heavy, etc. With the older kids, we get into how motors can work, and how by changing the size of the gears we use we can change the top speed or increase the torque to get up steep inclines. They are learning about ratios, diameter, velocity, etc. But its in a context that is fun to them.

    Posted by bostongrl October 5, 11 01:13 PM
  1. I suggest counting out his cheerios with him for a week, enough to keep him well nourished. After that, have him do it on his own. He gets to eat what he can count. If he cannot count, he cannot eat. Hunger is a strong motivator, and mark my words you will have a baby einstein in no time.

    Posted by Frank October 5, 11 03:56 PM
  1. You already ARE those parents! Have you considered that your baby's favorite subject may BE math and he may struggle with English or History?

    I never met a child who excelled at all subjects - have you?

    And let us not forget that excelling at school subjects is not, in the long run, the key to happiness. Being a well rounded individual with empathy, a sense of humor, and good self esteem is.

    Pounding an 18-month old with math flash cards is not conducive toward those ends.

    By the way, I was an A student who always struggled with math - my brain just didn't work that way. What do I do for a living now? I'm a pension analyst. Yes -- math and formulas all day. And I love it.

    Posted by cosmogirl October 6, 11 11:40 AM
  1. Flash cards? Ugh.

    Early mathematics builds very naturally. Simple counting is the start. Then move on to adding two groups ("put them together"). Subtracting (especially fun when one is "subtracting" pieces of fruit from the cutting board). Even numbers come in pairs. Do they really need any more than that before first grade?

    My youngest begs for "homework" pages, perhaps in imitation of his brother? He has taught himself simple addition and subtraction which he executes with reasonable consistency. Never made any particular effort to teach him, though, beyond defining the symbols.

    Let kids learn. They do it quite naturally as long as we don't interfere.

    Posted by TF October 6, 11 09:24 PM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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