How to Help Your Baby Become a Math Genius (Or Not)

Raise your hand if your don't want a brilliant child. Honestly. Ensuring our child's good health, happiness, kindness and compassion may well be our highest priorities, but wouldn't we do all in our power to have the brightest, most talented, top-of-the-class kid? Or, at least, one who doesn't have to struggle too hard to make the grade?

And here is where it gets really unfair. If we didn't have enough issues to puzzle out as new parents with bleary-eyes and sleep-starved brains (like diapering with cloth or disposable, making breast or bottle feeding work, bed sharing or crib sleeping, and interpreting our baby's cries), we are then presented with a torrent of persuasive, conflicting advice about how to help our babies become the quick thinkers and successful, highly motivated learners we hope they will be. No matter what choices we make, we are bound to have doubts.

A mom commented (on my post Baby, Interrupted - 7 Ways To Build Your Child's Focus And Attention Span) that the information I share on my site has made her question the early learning programs she bought for her son. She asked what I thought she should do to utilize them. I suggested that she wait until her boy was 4 or 5, and then allow him to peruse the videos, flashcards, etc., if he was interested in doing so.

She replied:

"Hmm. Wait until he's 4 or 5 years? For the math thing the whole idea of doing it now is because baby's until 2.5 years are able to perceive true quantity and that makes it much easier for them to learn math. And when I look at how terrible I am at math, I don't want him to miss this opportunity...

I like the idea of taking the middle path - to teach him what will benefit him to learn at an early age, and to leave the rest alone on the floor for him to examine if he's interested.

Do you have any tips I should bear in mind to not affect his attention span negatively?"

This mommy's worries about math, since she has struggled with the subject herself, make total sense. After all, being a parent is our golden opportunity to do better, to learn from our mistakes and correct them for our child (therefore ensuring not only our child's success, but the evolutionary assent of our lineage!)

It is true that infants and toddlers begin to perceive quantity. They also learn fractions, addition and subtraction, even multiplication, division and geometry. In recent studies reported in Berkeley psychology professor Alison Gopnik's New York Times article "Your Baby Is Smarter Than You Think", babies as young as eight months old demonstrated astonishing capacities for "statistical reasoning, experimental discovery and probabilistic logic" that allow them to "rapidly learn all about the particular objects and people surrounding them."

But Gopnik warns, "Sadly, some parents are likely to take the wrong lessons from these experiments and conclude that they need programs and products that will make their babies even smarter. Many think that babies, like adults, should learn in a focused, planned way. So parents put their young children in academic-enrichment classes or use flashcards... " Instead, "Infants and toddlers need plenty of open-ended play time to be able to build the brain synapses necessary for higher learning abilities."

Babies relish the time to learn this way, naturally and organically, with joy, wonder, and all five of their senses. When infants and toddlers examine the patterns on a blanket or cotton scarf, mouth the shape of a teething ring, experiment with blocks, balls or plastic beads, stack cups, pour water, shovel sand, make mud pies, watch and interact with us or even just stare at corners of the ceiling they are stimulating neural connections that build a strong foundation for math and language skills.

Parents can help by giving simple acknowledgments. "Your bucket is 3/4 full." Or, "You gave me two blocks and you kept one."

But interrupting a baby's inborn desire to explore and discover to give a lesson in letters, numbers or reading is like painting a house before the foundation is built. It discourages him from working on what is really important, and wastes both our child's time and ours.

Over the years, I've enjoyed observing babies naturally practicing math skills. In one of my parent/toddler classes, a 2 year old boy spent much of the 90 minutes each week repeating the task of fitting little plastic dolls into the opening of a huge Arrowhead water bottle. I sensed him counting inside his head with quiet concentration as each doll 'plunked' to the bottom of the bottle.

One of my most flabbergasting moments ever as a parent was when my 4-year-old daughter was staring at a framed poster on our wall, "Les Animaux de La Ferme". There are three vertical rows of different breeds of cows, five in each row. After a minute or two my daughter proclaimed. "Five by three is fifteen!" (BTW, this same child just achieved a perfect score on her math SAT.)

Do we want our toddlers to learn how to use simple math and language symbols, or do we want them to truly understand mathematical concepts, develop their higher learning skills, be deep thinkers and creative problem solvers - discover who they are and what they are passionate about?

So, the short answer to this dear, caring mom's question is: Any time we interrupt what an infant or toddler might be working on to "teach" him, we discourage focus and attention span. Attempting to plant seeds of knowledge in our babies inadvertently plants seeds of doubt. How can our child believe that the activities he chooses are valuable, when we signal that we want him to do something more...or different?

The truth is we don't know where our children's talents lie, but if we trust our baby, allow him to explore and experiment, and choose activities he is naturally drawn to, he will utilize the gifts he has to the fullest, and with great confidence. He may become that math whiz we hoped for...or something even cooler.


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