The Child Who Hates Math (or any other subject)

A common problem among homeschoolers is what to do about subjects the child doesn’t like or doesn’t want to study. This tends to be more of an issue when the child had been in school for a number of years before becoming a homeschooler. Concerns about “keeping up” are part of this and math is the most frequently problematic subject, so I’ll use that throughout this article, but you could substitute any other subject.

Almost without exception, we parents have been “educated” (indoctrinated) by the system. From birth we have been taught that there are certain subjects that we all must know to a certain level at certain ages. We were told that children should know how to read well by 3rd grade and how to do algebra by 7th or 8th grade. We believed that it would be threatening to our future success to be “behind” our age-mates. It was humiliating to be in the “slow” class or to get below average grades.

Now our kids are being homeschooled and we are responsible for their education. We worry about them and their futures. We want them to get “good educations,” to be able to go to college if they want, to end up with good jobs. Our son was told by his schooled third grade peers that he’d never get a job. I always told him “Probably not. But you’ll have a great career.” And in fact, the only “job” he’s had was two weeks helping get Camp Woodward ready for the season. And he is a very successful entrepreneur (http://hifocused.com/).

Often this fear leads to children doing school at home — they have to keep to a schedule and do similar work to that done in school. For many kids, especially active ones who enjoyed the intense, if rather negative, social scene of school, it seems to them that they’ve gotten all the disadvantages of school and none of the advantages. They often start pushing to go back to school even when they had hated it when they went there. Parents don’t like the struggle of forcing their kids to stay home and do schoolwork so they start thinking maybe they should enroll their kids in school.

But there is another alternative. While the parents many recognize that it doesn’t work to try to make their kids do something unusual like homeschool, they might look at the possibility that it also doesn’t usually work to try to make their kids do something usual like math.

Yes, knowing math can be a useful thing, as can knowing how to cook or take care of our car or sew. We’d mostly agree that we would all do well to know at least the fundamentals: how to balance our checkbook, make a sandwich, change a tire, or sew back on a button. We may have an easy time accepting that our kids don’t want to learn how to make Hollandaise sauce or tune up their cars or make their own prom dresses or tuxedos, but when they don’t want to memorize their multiplication tables or learn how to divide fractions parents may set to fretting.

It’s helpful to recognize is that we don’t have to be good at everything. Just as we can buy our produce and clothes at a store or take our car to a mechanic, so, too, can we use calculators and have CPAs do our taxes. When we let others do those things in which, for now, we have no interest or for which we have no talent, we have time to pursue our own unique talents and interests.

The child’s interest may seem to have no obvious and immediate value to the parent. As one mother said, “All she wants to do is her little drawings.” Picasso’s mother might have felt that way, too.

The other thing to realize is that we each have our entire lifetime for learning. The child who hates math now may choose to be a doctor later and be willing to master any prerequisites. The child who does nothing but play sports may later apply the same concentration to academic subjects. Whatever happens in the future, however, putting off a hated subject for a few months or years isn’t going to ruin anyone’s life and may, in fact, release the dread of the subject. Our son spent about 4 months intensely studying for placement tests to try out high school when he was 15 (he’d never been to school before) and ended up testing twelfth grade plus in math and English. So a motivated student can catch up in a short time.

It is never an easy thing to step out of the mainstream. Many of us have been criticized by our relatives and viewed as weird for our lifestyle choices such as to homebirth, be vegetarians, live simply, or to homeschool. We are able to pursue these alternatives because we have freed ourselves from the propaganda of the medical establishment, the dairy industry or a materialistic society. But the largest bureaucracy in the United States is the Department of Education and freeing ourselves from the limiting beliefs it has instilled in us is a very big challenge.

Marilyn vos Savant discussed this in her weekly column in Parade Magazine, 15 February 1998. (Used with permission) (She is listed in the “Guinness Book of World Records” Hall of Fame for “Highest IQ.”):

Question: My 14-year-old son just does not get math. We have tried everything, including tutoring. He is a very visual and hands-on learner and is great on the computer. He also does well in English. But even when he really applies himself, he just cannot do math. Any suggestions? — J. Buchanan, Phoenix, Ariz.

Answer: If I were you, I’d forget about the math and concentrate on what your son can do well. Success is achieved by development of our strengths, not by elimination of our weaknesses. Name any successful person. Does this person have any weaknesses? You bet!”

Why not give it a try? Find out what your child’s passion is and support that in any way you can. Don’t bother for now with the subjects he or she hates. If she just wants to draw, get her lots of pens and paper. If he just wants to fish, get him fishing gear and transportation to the beach. If he just wants to play music, get him an instrument and computer program teaching it. Keep in touch with your child and any new interests and support those. Enjoy your own interests and share with your child any of those that he or she finds interesting.

After a few months, re-evaluate your approach. I’d like to hear how it worked out for you.

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