Witnessing the woes of math homework

Every week, I spend several hours in the waiting area of a large gym where my kids take gymnastics lessons.  The room has several large tables where parents and siblings can do their work while waiting for their gymnasts.

Many kids use this time to do their homework and by far the most common subject that I see them working on is math.  About half the time, the parents are helping them.  The kids rarely look excited but they are generally resigned.

Last week, I witnessed a scene that left me very disturbed. A mom was helping her daughter, who looked to be about 9 or 10, with math homework. The girl would alternate between crying, yelling, or even occasionally hitting the mom. She also kept repeating the following phrases, “I don’t understand this,” “You are wasting my time,” and “I hate you/this.”

The mom was generally much calmer than I would expect someone to be in this situation. Her most common response was, “Sweetie, you just have to memorize that this is the way you do it.” When she was explaining something, all I would hear is, “You have to put this here,” and “You have to write this there.”

At some point, the mom said, “It’s ridiculous that they’re having you do this. I didn’t have to do this sort of thing until college.” I don’t know what this specifically referred to, but later, I did overhear the mom reading a different problem to the daughter and it was definitely not anything beyond standard third grade level.

This all went on for over an hour. There were moments when I was very tempted to come over and offer my help, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it and wasn’t sure that it would be appropriate.

I know that math anxiety exists – I’ve seen it. I’ve also witnessed bad parent/child interactions. But this prolonged scene really staggered my imagination.

And now a few questions for the audience. How common is this? Are there many kids out there crying over math homework for hours? Is this hurting their relationship with parents who are trying really hard but for one reason or another are not able to help them?

And on a more specific note, should I have tried to help somehow in this particular case? Would you have?



About aofradkin

I enjoy thinking about presenting mathematical concepts to young children in exciting and engaging ways.
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9 Responses to Witnessing the woes of math homework

  1. Megan says:

    I wonder what the worst case scenario would have been if you had said something like “Hi, I’m Sasha. My kids are in the gymnastics class. I don’t know how helpful I’d be, but I just wanted to let you know that I’m a math teacher, and if you ever feel like you’d like my help while I’m waiting here, I’d be more than happy to try to help.”

    As a teacher I saw many students who struggled in math. But over the years I found that those students who sought out help always succeeded. Sometimes the barrier is just a matter of knowing where to look for help.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I really like Megan’s language and one suggestion I might add onto this, is to approach the mom when the daughter isn’t around if possible. For what it is worth, my second grade son is working on regrouping with subtraction (using traditional algorithm). Lately, there has been an emotional charge permeating our homework conversations. He is frustrated and annoyed. I feel it stems from him wanting to approach problems his way and the worksheets directing him to approach problems using traditional algorithms before he understands the notation. As a math teacher, I have tools that other parents don’t have at their disposal. I can calm him down by experimenting with approaches and make connections to support him. I’ve thought about parents like the one you mention above as we work through these HW situations. Through my first hand struggles with HW, I am beginning to emphasize with these parents at a much deeper level than I have ever have before. I’ll be following this important conversation as I too have many questions surrounding how to best help.


      • Oops, EMPATHIZE Not emphasize.


      • aofradkin says:

        Oh, I certainly felt bad for and empathized with both the girl and the mom (although I did not like the way the girl was treating the mom or that the mom was not trying to address the behavior in any way). I am fortunate in that I’m the one who assigns my daughter’s math homework, but we’ve definitely had tense moments with me trying to explain something to her when she really wasn’t understanding or just wasn’t in the mood.


    • aofradkin says:

      I think that in the worst case scenario I would have been told to mind my own business, which is not so terrible. But I couldn’t get my courage up to do it. I went through many possible opening sentences in my head, but all of them seemed somehow awkward. I also knew that I’d be very nervous if I did manage to start the conversation and I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to really help. All of these things stopped me, but a part of me does wish that I could have tried. Perhaps next time…


  2. Simon Gregg says:

    There’s a thing with parents trying to help; they sometimes don’t do it the way the teacher does, and that can be kind of frustrating for the child. This is especially so I suspect if the learning is very algorithmic, “you put this here and move that there”, because putting and moving the things to different places could upset everything. If the parent is relaxed enough and good enough at seeing what the teacher does this can often be avoided. Or if the teacher is able to approach teaching in a way that tells the students that many approaches and ways of thinking things through is a good thing.


    • aofradkin says:

      Yes, I’ve definitely seen and heard of many such situations of parents trying to help their kids, but like I mentioned in the post, it was the severity of the situation that really shocked me. I am guessing that the personalities of the people involved, as well as their overall dynamic, contributed to that aspect. That being said, I pray that I never cause anything close to such desperation and grief for any of my students.


  3. Katherine Lavine says:

    I see this happening all the time. I usually say, “Hi! I’m a math teacher. Do you want someone new to talk to about it? I love talking about math.” Sometimes they say yes. Sometimes they don’t. But it just kills me watching it. I agree with your worry about being the cause of such dynamics — how can I avoid being the person who creates such anxiety? I have a “one hour rule” (which I would reduce for younger students!) meaning I encourage students to stop working after one hour regardless of how far they got, emphasizing that no assignment of mine is ever worth more than one hour of solitary struggle. I give full credit for the assignment if I hear from the student the night before it was due that they spent an honest full hour on it and didn’t feel like they succeeded. I think getting students to a place where they believe I’m serious about that “rule” helps somewhat, but not completely.


  4. I think the interaction you witnessed is very common. The comments above are all spot on. And there’s another thing that wheedles it’s way into parent/child interactions all the time…all the baggage we bring to our role as parents. It is incredibly difficult to simply coach your own child through his/her difficulties because we have a lifetime of our own fears and concerns surrounding ourselves and our children. Even a math savvy parent can get caught up in the frustration that builds in that kind of relationship. I believe a great deal of self-awareness is required of a parent to be able to effectively help their own child…with anything. If you’re interested, I would be thrilled to get your feedback on my latest post that is related: https://mathymoments.com/2018/01/16/helping-your-kids-do-school-math/


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