I have a confession: I gave my oldest a calculator when he was four. But I did not give my second child a calculator when she was four. In fact, she is now almost 6 and it was only when her older brother found the calculator the other day that it occurred to me that I should give her a chance to play with it, too.
This is partly a first child/second child matter. I didn’t think to get her a calculator because I had already thought to give a child of mine a calculator, and my brain had checked the “done” box on that one.
But it’s also because my oldest has always shown a very obvious interest in numbers and patterns and is therefore very easy to give a calculator to, or a math problem, or a math game. My youngest is…not. At least, not always. My son has already been identified by his teachers as a “math person”, but my daughter is very different from her older brother and I worry that she will be identified just as early as someone who is not a math person. I am especially aware of this because I see how easy it is for me, a parent who believes deep within my soul that every child is a math person, to nevertheless give different math opportunities to my older child (who is practically begging me to do math with him) than to my younger child (who would rather just do her own thing, thank you very much).
“Do you want to play a math game with me?” I ask my older child, and he says, “Yes!” and drops whatever he is doing, and we play the math game.
“Do you want to do play a math game with me?” I ask my younger child, and she doesn’t even look up, but just smiles knowingly into the pages of her sticker book, confident that I cannot make her play anything she does not want to play, and we don’t play the math game.
The problem is that if a child is particularly interested in or receptive to mathematics activities early on, they will likely get more opportunities to do math, to do more interesting and open-ended math, and to experience more positive feelings around mathematics. If a child tends to show less interest in math over other activities at an early age, or takes longer to learn some of the skills we think of as foundational, that child will probably be given fewer opportunities, more basic skills practice, and a less interesting mathematics experience overall.
I can’t (and shouldn’t) force my daughter to do math with me. But I’ve also learned that with the right approach she’s really receptive to doing math and talking about math and exploring what it means to do math. She actually loves to play math games when she’s in the mood (Tiny Polka Dot is our current favorite), and she solves problems in interesting ways. Doing math with her just looks different than doing math with my son, and it requires me to be more a little more conscious about looking for opportunities and helping her build a positive view of mathematics and her own ability to do math.
So here’s my advice (and it’s advice for myself, too):
Give your kid a calculator. Give one to the kid you know will love playing with it, and give one to the kid you’re not so sure will love it. You may be surprised to see what they do.
Show interest in how your child thinks about math. Show as much interest in the child who is using the commutative property to solve a complex multiplication problem, as you do in the child who is counting on their fingers, because all children’s thinking is interesting when you really stop and listen.
Find math activities that encourage creativity and multiple approaches. These types of activities allow any kid to shine by sharing their unique ideas. Right now my son is enjoying the game Proof!, which gives us a chance to combine numbers in interesting ways. My daughter loves the activity “Foot Parade” (we’ve also created our own version called “Alien Parade” where there’s no limit on the number of feet you can create). And both my kids love the book How Many? by Christopher Danielson, which is an open-ended and interactive counting book that we never get tired of looking at.
My own children may or may not decide that math is their thing, but as a parent I hope to give them the gift of knowing that it can be if they want it to, and to share ideas with other grownups who want to do the same thing for the children in their lives.