We talk numbers a lot with the kids. Counting, addition, subtraction; things like that. We rarely use examples – sometimes we’ll say, “if Henry has 4 apples, and Eleanor takes away 2 apples, how many apples does Henry have?” but mostly we don’t. I don’t really know why – I think perhaps because they frame questions to us without examples – and they respond well to either scenario.

[Sidetrack: I’m a little bit obsessed with the Numberphile videos on YouTube, which you should also check out. Especially this one. And especially all of them.]

Recently, we have been casually talking about multiplication – you know, “3 plus 3 is 6, and that is two threes, right? So another way you can say that is 2 times 3 is 6.”

Their eyes widen and their brows lower in confusion, and what I think is genuine worry for me. “Mama,” Henry said this evening when I explained this blog post, “2 and 3 makes five. Also, 2 and 2 is four. And watch this!” And then he showed me this little trick where he holds up both his index fingers, and bops his hands together, while simultaneously putting down one of his index fingers and putting up his second finger on the other hand (so he transfers one raised finger from one hand to the other… it makes more sense to see it than to describe it).

I remember so well and so strongly the feeling of utter confusion when numbers went from being super sure things to seeming like they were unfixable. I have never been able to hold numbers still in my mind, and I can’t imagine them – I can do math in my head that I’ve memorized, like figuring out the tip is always pretty much the same – so when this idea that you could talk about two threes, which was also three and three, came about, I felt like every person in the “before” of an informercial – completely inept. Numbers and the people who are good at numbers are fascinating to me, because the rules genuinely seem both rigid and fluid. Both inflexibly set and capricious.

When math gets beyond the point where you use it to describe apples, that is basically where my confidence in my abilities end. I’m trying not to let that happen with the kids; I don’t know if it’s learned or not, but I figure I can at least help them see that numbers aren’t boring – and getting to see Bob’s work also helps with that. Whenever we can, we put the question back on the kids, “Well, Eleanor, what is 40 plus 40? What’s 4 plus 4?” I think probably it would help to have those neat little Montessori bead sets that teach base 10, but on the other hand, I also don’t want them to shy away from trying their best to hold numbers in their minds. So far, they don’t have any qualms with it, and I’d like to avoid them feeling like the rug is pulled out from under them, like I felt every day in math.

It seems like such a small thing, to have them feel comfortable with numbers – and really, it’s a basic educational right – but it opens up a lot of doors. And I don’t mean, like, in their futures. I mean, when we play card games, they know who won a round, because they know the highest number wins. They know that if they’re on square 22 and they spin a five, they can either walk their token five spaces, or they can count up “twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty-seven!” and jump right to that spot (this is mostly an Eleanor skill; Henry prefers to walk). They can use their even/odd skills (can it make two even piles? If so, it’s even) to try to gain an advantage in taking turns (again, mostly Eleanor, who usually figures things out to work to her advantage). They can count out all the pieces they need when the instructions call for “4x” of a particular piece (this one is Henry with his Lego instructions).

It’s really interesting to revisit the most basic math with them, and talk about it endlessly as they gain comfort and confidence in it. One day, I expect them to be more capable in math than I am, even if they don’t retain a fascination for it (which is fine, everyone’s interests are their own to obsess over), and as they pull ahead of me, I look forward to learning more from them about how they see and think about numbers.

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