Six Ways Parenting is Like Math

I know, I know, some of you are thinking, “There is no way parenting is like math! There is no easy formula to follow, and no variables to plug in that equal a perfect child.” 

You’re right.

And some of you are thinking, “Yes! Parenting is hard! Math is hard! I get it!”

And you’re right, too.

So if you’re both right, then what in the world am I talking about? 

Just hear me out… 

One of the things I love best about homeschooling is watching the light bulb come on when something “clicks” for one of my kids. This phenomenon is not unique to homeschooling- all parents experience this with their children in different ways. Maybe you are helping them with homework, or teaching them how to shoot a basketball, or even teaching them how to talk when they are little. There is something special about that first time they say your name, make a basket, or solve the math problem. Their eyes get big, their face lights up, and something special passes between you. Success! It is an amazing moment to share.

But those moments are rare, like finding a single pearl hidden somewhere among an ocean of oysters. It takes hard work, perseverance, and is often overwhelming. And in my experience, they usually come about the time I have decided to give up.

I find parenting to work much the same way. There are moments when they get it, when the hard work of character training and spiritual investment align in some sort of magical moment, and we get to high five each other for a job well done. But if your house is anything like mine, before the party’s over, another issue or growth area pops up, waiting to be whacked, and the challenge begins again. Sometimes it’s even the same problem, the one we were just celebrating- apparently prematurely.  What’s a parent to do?

Which brings us back to math. I’ll be honest- I like math, I really do. It has a rhythm and a reason to it; it is logical. It’s like doing a puzzle; you keep the big picture in mind, but mostly you figure out how to fit things together piece by piece, until the picture finally appears. Sounds simple enough.

However, in teaching math to my children I have found it is not always that easy. Sometimes they don’t catch the rhythm, and often they can’t see the logic. So here are a few things I have learned that apply to both parenting and math:

1.  It takes more than one time to learn a lesson.

I’ll be honest; this one caught me completely off guard. I assumed once a child learned long division and experienced the “light bulb” moment, we could check the box, right? No. Apparently kids can completely understand something one moment and then forget everything they know three problems later. It’s a real thing- ask any teacher in your life. It takes more than one time to learn a lesson, even when you learn it well.

The same is true in parenting. “Obey the first time” is an ideal, not a reality. I mean, do you always obey God the very first time every single time? I certainly don’t!  Believe it or not, we will have to teach our kids patience and kindness more than once. We know hitting their brother or talking back is wrong every time, but in their mind, that lesson requires multiple applications to every possible situation before it sinks in. It is not personal against us or limited to only our child. It’s just like math; it takes more than one time to master a concept, which requires… practice and repetition.

2.  Practice and repetition are necessary  for mastery

The idea is that the more you repeat something, the easier it will become. In math, there are two parts to learning basic “facts,” such as addition and multiplication. One must both understand the concept (2 cookies plus 3 cookies equals 5 cookies) and memorize the equation (2+3=5). The first one takes practice, over and over, to truly understand the concept, applying it to different values. The second one requires repetition of the same equation, again and again, until the answer is instinctive. 

How does this idea translate to parenting? There are certain concepts our child will have to repeat over and over again, with a number of different variables, in order to truly grasp the character traits involved. There is no substitution for practicing; we simply must be patient and consistent and understand it is a process. There are other truths they simply need to hear repeated over and over again until they become instinctive. These truths are foundational to the building of their faith and character, just as math facts are foundational to algebra equations. Choose them carefully and repeat them often!

3.  Getting frustrated and angry doesn’t help

Let’s be honest- frustration is inevitable in both math and parenting. However, an angry, yelling parent is not any more effective than a child throwing his pencil in frustration.

One day several years ago, I was helping one of my daughters with her math. I was frustrated because she had “forgotten” a concept she already learned (see #1), and she was not responding well to my extremely calm, patient, loving instruction (in other words, she was being a sassy pants and I was reacting like a pre-teen girl). I said something like, “You would never treat a teacher this way, would you?” and she yelled back, “No, because a teacher would never treat me like you are!”

Ouch.  She was right.

So when you find yourself getting frustrated– in math or in parenting- the best thing to do is…

4.  Take a break and try a different approach 

Sometimes the best thing for everyone is a little break. Take a time-out, move on to a different subject, walk outside- whatever it takes to catch your breath and calm down. And then when you are ready, you can approach the problem again from a different angle. 

As the saying goes, if we do the same thing over and over again, we’re going to keep getting the same result. If something isn’t working, whether it is a math problem or a character issue, try something different.  

Once I quit focusing on how I wanted her to solve the problem and started thinking about how she was trying to solve the problem, I usually saw a new way to approach it. The same is true in our parenting. We can solve a multitude of problems by simply shifting our perspectives. 

5.  Go back to the basics

More often than not, when my kids are getting wrong answers in math, it is because they have forgotten their math facts (see #2). Those foundational truths have gotten rusty and are no longer instinctive, causing them to spend too long figuring out a problem or guessing at numbers. A quick review of the basics generally gets them back on track with minimal interference from me. 

The same is true with parenting. When our children were really little and we suddenly found ourselves with sleep issues or attitude problems, a friend suggested I simplify our schedule and focus on structure, consistency, and my own attitude- the basics. The issues almost always resolved within a few days. 

As they have gotten older, we shift our focus back to heart issues- character, prayer, time in the Word, honoring others over ourselves… all those things we spent so much time “repeating” when they were younger. Okay, and cleaning a toilet often helps, too!

6.  If all else fails, ask for help

Even with our best efforts, sometimes we don’t have what we need to figure it out. In math, that means reaching out to a teacher or a tutor- finding someone who can see things we can’t and who can provide outside perspective we are not able to see or give on our own. 

More than once as a parent, I have been at my wits end, having tried everything I knew to try (usually that was my problem- I was trying to fix something that was not within my power to fix! But that’s a whole different blog post!). Assuming you have already spent time in prayer, the best thing to do is get help. Reach out to a friend whose parenting you respect and admire. Seek godly counsel from a pastor or staff member at your church, or ask them to help you find a solid, Biblical counselor who can give you perspective on your situation. There is no shame in asking for help. People get tutors, hire personal trainers, and visit professionals in various fields all the time. Your children are your greatest investment on this earth. Seek help if you need it!

So… no, there is no formula to follow that will give you a perfect child. And yes, math can be really hard and so can parenting! Both are true. Therefore, instead of wasting time worrying about them, maybe we can learn something from one that will help us with the other, trusting that God will meet us in our efforts to draw their hearts towards Him. 

“Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and He will give you everything you need.” Luke 12:31 (NLT)