Mothers who discuss simple arithmetic with their preschoolers at the dinner table can improve their children’s grasp of math. That’s according to a new study by researchers at Chile’s Pontifical Catholic University and at University of Michigan.

The study is part of a broader effort to bring the kind of focus on early literacy to mathematics, says co-author Pamela Davis-Kean, associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and director of its Center for the Analyses of Pathways from Childhood to Adulthood.

“I think many researchers thought of math as ‘taught’ rather than something that is also based on early interactions, as we know occurs with literacy and reading,” she says.

The study — of which Davis’ former student, María Inés Susperreguy, an assistant professor at the Chilean school, is lead author — tracked 40 families over a three-day period and recorded their conversations. The mothers filled out surveys about their education and household income, and then a year later they evaluated their children’s math skills.

The study, Davis admits, is small and not representative. “We had a higher-educated group of mothers, because we had a hard time recruiting those with high school or less education,” she says. But the study suggests that parents do tend to talk about math and numbers in the home, she says.

“When there were more of these conversations — controlling for education and other factors — children did better a year later in math achievement,” Davis says. “Higher-educated parents seem to already be doing these activities, and it would be good to consider ways to make this easier for mothers (and fathers) with lower levels of education to incorporate these in their daily conversations.”

A ‘common sense’ study

At the simplest level, Susperreguy and Davis’ study confirms what is “common sense,” says Laura Bilodeau Overdeck, the founder of Bedtime Math, a nonprofit which sends daily math problems to parents to share with their kids.

“When kids hear subject matter from their parents, whom they often want to imitate, it leads to good outcomes,” says Overdeck, a board member at the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. “Just as reading a bedtime story leads kids to read for pleasure as adults, talking about math can lead to ‘math for pleasure’ — a phrase we don’t hear very often.”

At Bedtime Math, Overdeck has found that parents who are less comfortable with their math skills, or have “math anxiety,” are less likely to discuss numbers with their kids. Those parents tend, she says, to be less-educated and lower-income.

Overdeck’s nonprofit tries to “win parents over to math” through “playful math riddles that parents can do with their kids.” That, she says, includes math problems about ninjas, flamingos, chocolate chips, and “anything kids really love.” Susperreguy and Davis’ study, she thinks, points in a similar trajectory.

“We need to catch kids and inspire a love of math in them before they encounter it in school,” she says.

Parent-tested

Miriam Gedwiser, a New York-based mom of three and a former math teacher, talks about math a lot with her 6- and 3-and-a-half-year-old children. (Gedwiser, a “lawyer on break” who is currently an adult educator, also has a 13-month-old.)

“I taught kids in high school, who were still struggling with what division really is. The idea is for my kids to be able to do these things intuitively and later attach the correct words,” she says. “I want them to develop numeracy and mathematical intuition, helping them understand the relationships between numbers and how different operations work.”

Gedwiser questions the study’s focus on talking about math at the table, though. “I find the focus on mealtimes weird. I don’t think that’s when most of our math talk happens. Cooking, yes,” she says. “Sometimes it happens at meals, but more often it’s about how many blocks are left until we get home, or how old will I be when brother has his bar mitzvah. Things like that.”

One recent night, the number 50 came up in a conversation, and Gedwiser’s 6-year-old daughter noted that “It doesn’t have a half.” Figuring that her daughter probably meant a half that ends in zero, she inquired further. “She retracted, thought a bit and said ‘25.’ I asked how she did it, and she said it was like money.” Her daughter had mentally translated the figure into two quarters and then divided by two.

Gedwiser recognizes, however, that she tends to have more non-meal time with her kids than many parents do, or she might feel differently. Still, Gedwiser says she is “pretty confident” that talking math with her kids will make a difference in the medium term.

“I guess we are nerds, and we think numbers, in addition to their instrumental value later in life, are good ways of understanding the world, so we want to clue the kids into that,” she says.

Although Gedwiser says her daughter is naturally smarter than average, she thinks the 6-year-old would probably not have the grasp of math that she has if Gedwiser and her husband didn’t talk in such a clear way about arithmetic to her.

“Every parent who understands numbers should do it,” she says. “I worry that telling people, who don’t understand numbers, to do this will lead to incorrect and/or unhelpful math talk. Though I guess counting and ‘How much is two more than that' is something basically everyone can do.”

Further context

With the caveat that the study is small in scope, Davis says she and her colleague were surprised that most of the conversations between moms and children took place during mealtime. Parents asked their children "Do you want one piece or two pieces of bread?” and said things like “Can you give your brother half of the ice cream?” or “You need to eat two pieces of broccoli before you leave the table.”

It’s important to note, she adds, that most parents self-reported not using numbers or math when talking to their children, even though they were in fact using math without realizing it. “By recording them throughout the day, we see that parents do use numbers and concepts, like fractions, more than they might report.”

Future research will focus on fathers’ conversations with their kids, Davis says. “In future studies, we will try harder to get the consent of the fathers and other caregivers, as well as siblings, to get a better idea of how everyone participates in socializing academic skills in families,” she says.

For her part, Gedwiser thinks cautious optimism is appropriate. “If the advice is being implemented in a checklist sort of way, skepticism is warranted,” she says. “I see this kind of talking as a way of enhancing my relationship with the kids, talking about things in more sophisticated ways, and helping them understand the world. It’s not primarily about making sure they get a good grade on the calculus AP.”

Menachem Wecker is an art critic and religion and education reporter based in Washington, D.C. His book "Consider No Evil: Two Faith Traditions and the Problem of Academic Freedom in Religious Higher Education" was published in July by Cascade Books.