Support versus Coercion

Don’t people sometimes need external motivation to accomplish things they do want to accomplish?

A friend gave the example of exercising. Lots of us find that we keep up an exercise program if we have a buddy to do it with. I know it is true for me that there are many days I’ll go for a walk or to the gym because I’ve told someone else I’d meet them there and, if I hadn’t, I’d probably have flaked. So, isn’t it human nature to need some external motivation to get us to do even things we really do want to do?

However, my actual desire to exercise is internal. Nobody is “requiring” me to exercise. It is something that I really want to do for myself, but there is a certain amount of inertia that I have to overcome in getting going to do it. It isn’t
someone else trying to make me do something that “they” think is good for me, against my will.

Some of that inertia may be human nature, but a big chunk of it is because we, ourselves, were so often coerced into doing things that other people thought were “good for us” that we built up resistance. Again, exercise is a good example. How many of us can remember the feeling of sheer joy of moving our bodies, of being truly “in” our bodies, when we were little? When did we lose that? Could it have anything to do with forced physical education?

We don’t always do the things we “want to” do (or think we should do). I have a stack of books I want to read, but I sometimes sit and play games on my computer, and then later wish I’d spent that time reading. Why don’t I do the things that have a higher priority to me? Am I lacking in self-discipline? How will my kids learn not to procrastinate or flake?

Would forcing our kids to do things we think are good for them help them do a better job of making their own choices?

I don’t think so.

Instead, we can provide support for the choices our kids make for themselves.

THAT is a really good description of unschooling, but how do we tell the difference between “providing support” for something our kids do want to do and pushing or coercing them? I think it is something we learn through trial and error and being very sensitive and observant.We may sometimes nudge or even push something a little when we think our kids are a little fearful, for example, of doing what they really do want to do. When we do it, we are very very cautious and we pay close attention to what affect our support is having. We watch to see if it is encouraging our child, are they becoming more eager? Or, are they doing it a bit grudgingly? Are they becoming actually resistant? If we give a little push and they get started and they’re INTO it and obviously it is something they were wanting to do – then we know that we provided “support.” If they keep resisting, they moan and groan, you know that they’re not interested and you’re not providing “support,” you are coercing them into doing something they’re not interested in doing. After a while, you can fine-tune your awareness, and you’ll provide just the right amount of support with confidence that it is just what your children want and need.

Example: I knew, deep in my heart, that Rosie would love martial arts and yet she turned down all offers to sign her up. I thought that what was holding her back was not wanting to be embarrassed in front of a group at not being able to do it well. I finally pushed a bit – I said, “Please just try a class and see how you like it. One class. I think it is very likely you’ll love it, but if you don’t, that is fine.” She LOVED it! She now has a black belt and is an instructor at her studio. That’s support. If she’d not liked it and I’d kept making her go anyway, that would be counterproductive  coercion.


Kahlil Gibran from “The Prophet”

Then said a teacher, “Speak to us of Teaching.”
And he said:
No man can reveal to you aught but that which already lies half asleep in the dawning of our knowledge.
The teacher who walks in the shadow of the temple, among his followers, gives not of his wisdom but rather of his faith and his lovingness.
If he is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind.
The astronomer may speak to you of his understanding of space, but he cannot give you his understanding.
The musician may sing to you of the rhythm which is in all space, but he cannot give you the ear which arrests the rhythm nor the voice that echoes it.
And he who is versed in the science of numbers can tell of the regions of weight and measure, but he cannot conduct you thither.
For the vision of one man lends not its wings to another man.
And even as each one of you stands alone in God’s knowledge, so must each one of you be alone in his knowledge of God and in his understanding of the earth.

Getting Past Your Own Math Anxiety

If parents can examine and work through their own anxiety related to math and recognize it’s  source, they can get over it at least enough to not pass it on to their children. It very likely can be traced back to a particular incident that happened to you in school. Did you miss school because of chicken pox and come back to discover the class had moved on without you? Did you feel lost and confused and just never could catch up? Was there a subject that confused you and you always felt “dumb in math” after that? The culprit is most often either fractions or algebra. You very possibly really do not want to even think about your own feelings about math. Avoidance is the most common result of math anxiety. You may think you aren’t even math-anxious, but math just never really comes up in your life. Those are the thoughts of a math-anxious person, though. Math is everywhere and there is no chance at all that you’re not living a life immersed in mathematics. You may not want to see it, because you associate it with shame, fear, and misery, but you are living in a mathematical world.

An example of mathematical thinking that you almost certainly engage in on a regular basis:

You’re at the grocery store, cart loaded, and you’re ready to check out. What do you do? You eyeball the lines at each checkstand, noting how many people are in each of the lines. You also note how full each of their carts is. You notice that some checkstands have baggers helping out while others don’t. You might even notice the rate of speed the checkers seem to be working. You quickly take in all that (mathematical) information, estimate the effects of all those variables in your head, and choose the line you think will move the fastest.  This is not just mathematics; this is sophisticated and complex mathematics that includes solving systems of simultaneous equations and incorporating probability-of-error estimates. Yet you do it almost effortlessly.

So, I hope you realize by now that you’re clearly a math genius. (As long as we don’t put it all down on paper, right?) Seriously, you HAVE a “math brain.” I could give you many other examples of how you do higher-order mathematical thinking all the time in your daily life.  The fact that you doubt your own math ability, that you think of yourself as “not good in math,” is a result of what was done to you in the name of teaching. You should be royally pissed off that it was done to you, but what’s the point of stewing in those juices now? You’re a parent and your children need you to move on! You can do it.

Start with thinking hard and maybe writng/blogging/talking to someone else about your own school-math experiences. Sharing these experiences with others very very often releases us from the old emotions, the fears, the shame, the self-doubts, that we’ve buried for years. Turns out you were NOT the only one feeling this way and turns out it wasn’t your fault at all, it was the teaching methods! They messed with you!

So – share and express and that’ll help you recover. You’ll still have a lot of negativity associated with math, it might not turn you into a math-lover, but letting go of the old baggage will free you for the next step.

Enjoy math with, for, and through your children. Yes, you get a second chance. Don’t let on to them that you’re anxious about it. Act like anything involving numbers, measurement, patterns, or anything else “math-like,” is just about the most fun and interesting thing you can imagine.

Many parents with a bit (or a lot) of math anxiety don’t even realize how they stiffen up and withdraw when their children innocently draw their attention to something math related. Make a conscious effort to do the opposite. Smile warmly when your child asks a question that just might involve some math. Touch, hug, cuddle! Read math-related stories for fun, just like you read any other stories. There are lots of them, but you just might be avoiding them (maybe not even noticing as your eyes skim past any book that looks like it might contain some math).

Play a lot of games. Don’t say, “I don’t like games,” because that is very likely your math anxiety talking. There are lots of different kinds of games and saying, “I don’t like games” is a bit like saying, “I don’t like music.” Seriously? You don’t like any of it? Games are, by nature, fun. The point is to have a good time. So they are very conducive to experiencinig some math in a friendly, warm, happy atmosphere. This is good for YOU (well, for your kids, too, but they aren’t the ones with the problem).

Use a little self-discipline. Recognize your own urge to avoid math and replace it with a conscious decision to have some fun with it, instead. You might need to work on being aware of the math that is everywhere, for a while (don’t point it out to the kids). This is part of your recovery and eventually you won’t need to think of math as a separate thing, it will just be part of the world, interconnected with everything else.

Again, I want to repeat that it seems to REALLY help people to share the stories of their own negative math experiences.  If you’d like to share yours in the comments to this post, you’re welcome to do so.

My Math-Related Goals for My Children

When we first started homeschooling, all I knew was that I didn’t want to do to my children what school did to almost everyone – create math anxiety.  Most people in this country have some degree of math anxiety – anything from a little math avoidance to outright break-out-in-a-cold-sweat phobia. Clearly, school-math isn’t working out very well for most people.  So – what to do?

My first and overriding principle was to try to at least do no harm. It would be better for them to end up not knowing any math, but free enough of anxiety to be able and willing to learn it.

So – here were my three goals for my kids:

(1) not create math anxiety in them,
(2) support any interest and talent they may express in advanced mathematics,
(3) help them be able to use math in real ways in their own lives.

Math Anxiety Test

This is clearly not intended to be scientific or diagnostic – but will, I hope, help you think. It is a variation of a math anxiety test intended for college students that I found on the website.

Rate your answers from 1 to 5; add them up and check your score below.

(1) = Disagree, (5) = Agree.

1. It makes me cringe to think I might have to go to a math class.
2. I am uneasy about doing math in front of other people.
3. I am afraid I won’t be able to answer my child’s math questions.
4. I try to avoid situations where I might have to do math.
5. I understand the math now, but I worry that I won’t when my child gets older.1
6. I tend to zone out when the subject of math comes up.
7. I fear math tests more than any other kind.
8. I don’t like to have to think about math. 1 2 3
9. Sometimes I think I understand it, but later I don’t. . 1 2 3 4 5
10. I’m afraid I won’t be able to homeschool my older child because I’m not good in math. 1 2 3 4 5


40-50 Sure thing, you have math anxiety. You don’t have to live with it forever, though.
30-39 No doubt! You’re still fearful about math. You CAN get over it.
20-29 On the fence!.
10-19 Wow!

Math anxiety is a negative emotional reaction to mathematics which causes resistance, avoidance, stress, and even panic. It is possible to avoid passing math anxiety on to your kids and even to get over it yourself.

%d bloggers like this: