When parents are wrong

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‘What I Wish Parents Knew’ is a series on issues parents should know, from a private tutor’s perspective.

It’s a typical Friday morning session with Brenda. We’ve been working on her maths together for almost a whole year now. While she’s made lots of progress, she’s still working on many fundamental concepts. Her grasp of maths isn’t intuitive, and her mother isn’t helping.

We are going over homework that I set last week. The first couple of questions are fine. Towards the end of the assignment, as the questions become a little trickier, it seems as if the wheels fell off her mental train of thought.

“What happened here?” I ask. (I find it works well to ask students to think about their own thinking – it’s a Habit of Mind called metacognition and encouraging students to build on that skill pays dividends later on in life.)

“Oh,” giggled Brenda nervously. “Mummy helped with those.”

While it’s very rare to see a parent actively try to hurt their kids’ education, good intentions don’t always translate into good outcomes. Brenda’s mother is in many ways awesome – you can see that she and Brenda have a great relationship and repartee. But Brenda’s mother is really terrible at numbers.

I had my first inkling that Brenda’s mother wasn’t so good at sums when she underpaid me for my invoice one month, then overpaid me. This was despite the fact that I sent her regular account statements. She once admitted that she “wasn’t really a math person” – but that didn’t stop her from helping Brenda with her homework.

I know she helped Brenda out of an abundance of love and goodwill. But the effect on Brenda was a double helping of confusion. Not only was she getting the wrong answers, she was making it harder for Brenda to grasp the concepts that we were working on by introducing unorthodox (and inaccurate) ways of thinking about it. And then it took double the time to sort out the problem during our tutoring session – first I had to unpick the logical tangle, and then teach the correct method.

What I really wish I could do was to tutor Brenda’s mother along with Brenda. If she would only sit down during the sessions, listen along and maybe even tackle a problem or two, I could help iron out any faulty ideas before she tries teaching them to Brenda.

If you’re reading this and thinking that maybe you might have done this once or twice for your kids, it’s not too late to undo the damage! Study more, read widely, learn all you can and – most importantly – make sure it’s correct, before trying to teach your kid.

If you don’t really understand a problem that your child is working on, it is totally okay to admit that you don’t know. In fact, it can be a boon. Show your child that you, too, are human and fallible, but that you can learn together. And then show them how to look up the answer themselves. Depending on the problem it could be a question for Google, or checking the textbook or 10-year series, or perhaps even just marking it for follow up with a tutor or teacher. (Then, call me.)


Troy Therrien is a maths and science tutor who believes that maths can be, and should be, for everyone. Find out more about him and his tutoring business at

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