4 Surprising Reasons Why Your Girl Thinks She’s Bad at Math

Your beautiful, gap-toothed 6-year-old daughter comes home crying from school one day, saying she’s bad at math.

She’s only 6 years old! She’s barely been in school long enough to know what math even is, and already she’s decided she’s bad at it? How is that even possible?!

Frustrated face (little girl is bad at math)

4th-5th grade used to be the danger age for girls deciding they’re bad at math, but this scenario is starting earlier and earlier…in first grade or even kindergarten.

Do girls just naturally have a harder time with numbers, or is something else going on here?

Let’s take a look at the 4 biggest reasons your girl thinks she’s bad at math, and some simple steps you can take to change it.

Reason #1: Math Mistakes Make Her Think She’s Not Smart

Mistakes in everyday life are a normal and necessary part of learning.

We take for granted that a baby will fall down over and over again before she learns to walk. We know that a toddler says things adorably wrong until she figures out how language works. It’s just part of the process.

But for some reason we’ve got this crazy idea that math mistakes are different. Our girls think a simple addition mistake somehow proves they’re bad at math.

I recently played a math game with 8-year-old girls. I noticed that whenever they made a mistake, or even just needed a little time to figure out a problem, they would squirm with embarrassment or make a joke to cover it up.

After about 10 minutes of this, I paused the game. “Listen,” I said, “I’m noticing you’re all acting embarrassed when you don’t know the answer right away. You’re not SUPPOSED to know the answer right away. It’s ok to take a minute to think about it.”

They all looked at me in astonishment. “Really?”

I could feel this collective sigh of relief. The energy totally changed when they realized I expected them to make some mistakes–and I wanted them to take the time they needed to figure out the math.

These girls’ experience is not unusual. Left unchecked, a girl’s fear of mistakes can spiral into a cycle of shame and insecurity about whether she’s smart enough to be good at math.

Reason #2: Hidden (and Not So Hidden) Messages About Girls and Math

Girls see stuff like this all the time:

Girls are bad at math t-shirt

Embedded in images like these is the assumption that boy brains are more mathematically inclined than girl brains.

It seeps into our psyche, and many of us end up sort of believing it without really knowing why. Your daughter hears stuff like this all the time:

  • The dad who told his struggling daughter after a math test, “It’s ok, babe, you don’t have to be good at everything.”
  • The women at a restaurant laughing over paying the bill, joking about how they’re all soooo bad at math
  • Your child’s teacher, announcing with surprise: “She did even better than the boys on the last math test!”
  • Mom leaving homework help to dad because she says she’s terrible at math
  • Jokes and memes like this one:

Cartoon: Tracey is a woman (so she's bad at math)

It doesn’t take long for girls to pick up on the subtle (and not so subtle) messages that girls are not supposed to be good at math.

Toys subtle messages: girls aren't as smart, girls are bad at math

Books send girls the message boys are smarter, girls are prettier

She might internalize the messages as true, so the first time she starts to struggle, she assumes it’s because she’s not a math person.

Or she might fight the stereotype, pushing herself to always be the fastest and never make mistakes. But when math gets harder and her perfect scores dip a little, she starts to doubt herself and wonder if she’s not as smart as she thought she was.

In either scenario her math anxiety goes through the roof. She feels stressed and frustrated, with a feeling that she can’t quite measure up.

The fault line appears when girls believe that some people are good at math and others aren’t–and “everybody” seems to know that math is not for girls.

Cartoon message: girls suck at math

Reason #3: Memorization Has No Meaning For Her

I believe these messages would never gain a toehold into girls’ psyches in the first place if girls could learn math in a way that really worked for them.

Too many girls experience math as meaningless rules and random facts that have nothing to do with real life.

Little girl bad at math

Girls want and need math to make sense, which is just one of the reasons memorization is so frustrating for them.

When girls have learned the facts and rules, and still don’t understand the “how” or the “why”, they think that means they can’t do math.

Not to mention, memorization is pretty pathetic as a learning tool.

Studies have shown that learners typically forget as much as 80% of what they’ve memorized–usually within just a day or two. This is part of a predictable phenomenon called the “forgetting curve”.

That means if your girl works for hours or even days and learns all of her times tables, most of those facts will fly out of her head in a matter of hours–but she’ll have no idea why.

Your girl thinks learning is supposed to be forever. When she forgets facts she memorized just yesterday, she thinks there’s something wrong with her…and assumes she can’t do math.

Reason #4: Speed Tests Make Her Anxious

Speed tests routinely bring girls to tears.

Child stressed and anxious because she's bad at math

We mistakenly think timed drills will make our kids more confident and help them do math faster. But the tool we think will help them actually backfires.

Here’s what’s more likely to happen as a result of speed tests:

  • Your girl learns that speed is all important, so she starts making random snap guesses instead of taking the time to think a problem through
  • She feels embarrassed about her mistakes, and may hide her work from you or stop trying
  • She feels stupid if others finish before her
  • She becomes stressed and anxious
  • Her mind freezes up, making her forget the facts she already knew
  • Anxiety makes her solve problems more slowly and make more mistakes

Speed tests don’t even work for the kids who do them perfectly. Jo Boaler, professor of Stanford University, found that the girls who got 100% of answers right felt the most anxious, saying they were “scared” when asked to take the test.

Speed tests reverse the progress that we’re hoping to see–virtually guaranteeing our girls will become more anxious, uncertain, and disillusioned with math.

How to Raise a Girl Who Feels Excited and Confident About Math

Here are 7 simple, powerful things you can do as a parent that make a HUGE difference in helping your daughter become a confident math learner:

  1. Play math games. Games are often the one thing a math-anxious girl can do without triggering fear and avoidance of math, because mistakes “don’t count”.
  2. Don’t tell your girl she’s smart. (She thinks “smart” means she has to be perfect.) Instead, praise her for working hard or sticking with a tricky problem.
  3. Ask, “Was that too easy, too hard, or just right?” This question helps her let go of the need for perfection and challenge herself a little.
  4. Give her all the time she needs. Tell her you are not interested in speedy answers, but that she take the time to do her best work.
  5. Add the word “yet”. If she says she can’t do it, say, “You can’t do it YET.” If she says she doesn’t get it, say, “You don’t get it YET.”
  6. Work with her math strengths. Take the quiz to discover your daughter’s superpower and learn some simple ways to help her love math.
  7. Learn together. Don’t say you can’t help her because you’re bad at math. Instead say, “I’m learning too. Let’s figure this out together.” 
Kelli Pearson
Author: Kelli Pearson

Kelli Pearson at Artful Math brings creative math experiences to kids who are underwhelmed by worksheets and tired of feeling like they’re bad at math. With a playful spirit and down-to-earth BFF vibe, she helps kids tap into their powerful brilliant selves and learn math with joy.

2 Comments

  1. Anisha topcu says:

    Hi, my daughter is struggling with maths and she calls Herself dumb, I’m finding it hard to make herself feel better as she is not dumb but needs more practice. Can you help make it fun for us,

    1. Hello Anisha, I’m so sorry your daughter is struggling with math! I’ve found the best way to help a child who needs practice and thinks they’re bad at math is with low-pressure math games. Play makes their brain more open to learning, and they start to think math is fun.

      My favorites are the dice and card games in Miss Brain’s Cool Math Games, available on Amazon or in the Artful Math Shop.

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