How to give your kids help with maths homework

... or, three easy steps to talking with your kids about $\sec(x)$1

If there's one question parents dread more than "Where do babies come from?", it's "Can you give me some help with maths homework?"

There are many possible reasons for this. The most common one I hear is "they teach it so differently from when I was at school." Another is "I don't have a mathematical brain."

Sorry, I don't have a sexual brain

Can I be harsh for a moment? It's my blog, I'm going to be harsh. These excuses - and they're excuses - usually boil down to "I don't care enough to put a few hours into working it out." Can you imagine saying to your child "I'm not going to tell you about sex because it's changed so much since I was a teenager" or "Sorry, I don't have a sexual brain"?  It might be embarrassing, you might have to do a little delving into the textbooks, but to pretend you're incapable of helping your offspring figure out what they need to do is to let them - and yourself - down.

Now, that might sound a bit like hard work. It'd be nice if you had time to sit down with a GCSE coursebook and remind yourself of the maths you haven't used since you were 162, and I still had to look up my circle theorems when I went back into tutoring. But making the syllabus useful is another rant entirely. - but you may not, or you may not want to. So, how can you help with maths homework if you're not 100% sure of the background? There are a few ways.

1: Stop talking it down

One is to change the language you use to talk about maths homework. Avoid phrases like 'maths is hard' or "I don't have a maths brain". Maybe it is for you; maybe it is for your child. But the more you impress on them that "this is something so difficult that mummy and daddy won't even talk about it with me", the more they're going to think "this is really hard and I can't do it." And the more they pick up on your excuses as a way to avoid learning themselves.

2: Be a cardboard Trae

I know, I know, it's all very well saying "Don't say this!" and "Don't say that!" What are you meant to say instead? I'm getting to that, give me a second. A really simple question that often works wonders - not just when giving help with maths homework - is "Can you explain it to me?" This rocks on several levels: it shows an interest in the problem, it shows confidence in your child's intelligence, and it challenges them to think about the question in a different way.

Tangent: What's A Cardboard Trae?

When I was a researcher in the US, I had a go-to guy for problems I couldn't fix. Let's call him Trae, because that's his name. My computer would spit out the wrong answer and I'd reach for the phone and whine "Trae, my code doesn't work, can you come and help me?" In retrospect, he probably had better things to be doing; however, I outranked him and he's the kind of man who can't say no to appeals for help. Oh, and I'd bring him good whisky whenever I went home. Trae would trudge up from the grad student office at the other end of the building while I tried to figure out how to explain the problem to him.

I'd say "hi," start yammering on, and before he could suggest anything, I'd find the problem and the solution. Trae would eventually suggest something: "Why don't you just get a cardboard Trae you can explain things to? It would say just as much and save me from having to come all the way up here." I never did.

3: Figuring it out with them is the best kind of help with maths homework

I'm not asking you to become a maths genius overnight. You don't have to be able to glance at the question and say "Well, obviously $\tan(37^\circ)$ is about 0.75, so the adjacent side must be 15cm. Duh!" I'm asking you to show your child the same encouragement and support with maths as you do with everything else, even if you feel out of your depth. Just changing your outlook from "I suck at maths" to "we're smart, we can figure it out" can be the difference between your student hating maths and finally getting it.

And if you're really, genuinely stuck? Spent half an hour giving them help with maths homework and you're both getting cranky? Give me a call. We're smart. We can figure it out.

* Featured image is adapted from a photo by jonoakley, under a Creative Commons licence (cc-by).


Colin is a Weymouth maths tutor, author of several Maths For Dummies books and A-level maths guides. He started Flying Colours Maths in 2008. He lives with an espresso pot and nothing to prove.

  1. I realise this is at risk of becoming a one-joke blog. I promise not to use the same joke in the next post []
  2. That's not just you, by the way. I worked as a professional mathematician for nearly a decade []


4 comments on “How to give your kids help with maths homework

  • TeaKayB

    Too right!

    It’s about time parents stopped with the schizophrenic “maths is bad and pointless and rubbish, yet we’ll still whinge if you don’t teach it to my kids” attitude.

    STOP acting like not knowing how to do maths is a good thing.

    STOP telling your kids that maths is pointless.

    START taking some responsibility for your offspring’s education: We can only do so much, especially if you train your kids to fight against us every step of the way (which many of you ARE doing, every time you refuse to help them with maths homework, tell them you’ve never used any of it* since you did it, or that teachers in general are failures)!

    * You use SO many of the skills you picked up in your maths classes every day without even realising it. Every problem you solve (it doesn’t even have to explicitly involve numbers) has had the seeds of a solution laid down by what you learnt at school in your maths and science lessons. If I could go back in time and erase every maths lesson you ever had, you would be stuck in the mud today, and you wouldn’t even know why.

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I teach in my home in Abbotsbury Road, Weymouth.

It's a 15-minute walk from Weymouth station, and it's on bus routes 3, 8 and X53. On-road parking is available nearby.

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