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COMMENTARY: Parents must make sure their kids believe they can learn

There is an emerging education trend I’ve noticed that I hope will sweep the nation: Asking the adults in children’s lives to not bad-mouth themselves about math.

The first time I noticed it was several years ago at an orientation for parents at my younger son’s middle school. The principal was explaining that the math standards on the statewide achievement test were going up and that it might be noticeable in work that was coming home at night.

“Please encourage your children,” the administrator pleaded. “If you find that you are unable to help with the homework, know that we will have extra supports available for any students who need them. But please don’t say that you are not good at math. Or that math is ‘hard’ or you don’t understand why it all has to be so complicated.”

More recently, an administrator at one of my local high schools had the same message for teachers: Don’t go around saying you’re not good at math. As a former algebra teacher, it was music to my ears.

It was a potent reminder that childhood scars can be perpetuated by well-meaning parents looking to empathize with their children. And maybe this message is getting out.

In an essay titled “Does Math Have the Power to Heal?” on the website of The Good Men Project, Michael Allwright recently wrote: “When I was in 7th grade I hated math. … I found myself often demotivated, frustrated or checked out in math classes. I had the emotional scars of being ‘not good at math,’ and it showed up from balancing my checkbook to learning calculus. Fractions haunted me when building our remote cabin in Alaska.”

When Allwright’s son started struggling with math, he realized he was about to “impart to my son a similar soul-crushing math experience that I had.” Instead, Allwright took a deep breath and “was able to show him that math wasn’t hard or complicated. Sure, it was complex, but complex things are made up of multiple simple steps.”

Alas, such enlightenment is not universal. Just last week, I sat in a faculty meeting and heard the words, “Math is so hard.” It’s not that people who make such statements are necessarily wrong — it’s that these declarations are not at all helpful.

In her book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” professor and researcher Carol Dweck — whose writings have become influential to education practices — investigates the difference between those who believe they can learn and those with a fixed mindset who believe they have certain traits (like being good at sports or bad at math) that are unchangeable.

“No parent thinks, ‘I wonder what I can do today to undermine my children, subvert their effort, turn them off learning, and limit their achievement,’” Dweck writes. “Of course not. They think, ‘I would do anything, give anything, to make my children successful.’ Yet many of the things they do boomerang. Their helpful judgments, their lessons, their motivating techniques,” and, I’d add, their attempts to relate, “often send the wrong message.”

In her book, Dweck says that praising intelligence or talent “has the opposite effect. It makes children doubt themselves as soon as anything is hard or anything goes wrong. If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning.”

Being a teacher is a hard job but it’s actually second only to being a parent.

We carry emotional baggage about our own schooling, relationships with our parents and their expectations. This is layered over the dreams we have for our own kids, making it challenging to always be positive and constructive.

But take it from a teacher who desperately wants to teach your kids to love learning: Don’t put yourself down as a learner. And whatever you do, don’t say you were never any good at a particular subject. Just smile and assure your kids that there are plenty of adults around who are ready to help.

Esther Cepeda’s email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.

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