Mom: Have you graded the home works yet?
Teacher at School Whose Name you Would Likely Recognize: The homework that was turned in today?
Mom: Yes. The homework on two-digit subtraction. Problem number seven was 83-29. Have you graded it yet?
Teacher at School Whose Name you Would Likely Recognize: No, the children turned in that assignment two hours ago.
Mom: Then you haven't graded it yet.
TASWNYWLR: No. I have been teaching.
Mom: May I have the homework back? I made a mistake. Er, I beg your pardon. Of course I meant "he."  He made a mistake on problem number seven.
TASWNYWLR: No. You may not have your son's homework back. If he made a mistake, he will learn from it. I will help him. There is no reason for you to correct problem number seven.
Mom: Your impertinence is exceeded only by your insensitivity. Don't you realize how a B in mathematics will affect my son's chances of admission at Harvard medical school? I will speak to the head of the Board of Directors of the school immediately. I will endeavor to have you fired. Indeed, from this moment forward, I will make it my life's purpose to see to it that you never work in education again.
TASWNYWLR: You do know that this is fourth grade?
In fairness I should point out that the dialogue of the mother in her last speech is exaggerated. In actuality, she does not use the words "impertinence" or "endeavor" as she is unaware of the meanings. And of course mom would not speak in those terms to the teacher. In real life, mom would just go ahead and punch the teacher in the nose while shrieking about how the teacher had irrevocably damaged her son's self-esteem.
Let us take our leave of our characters. The teacher will ponder yet again why she spent all that money earning a graduate degree when she could have done something both more profitable and more meaningful with her life. Selling automatic weapons to psychotic insurgents will come to mind as a possible missed opportunity and career choice. The mother in our vignette will seek out another teacher with a key to the classroom. She intends to enter the classroom clandestinely and steal the homework so that she can make the correction to problem number seven.
It might seem that no editorial comment is necessary on the dialogue above. Indeed, it might seem that no editorial insight is possible. Yet I will try to be sympathetic to the snowplow mom.
Because, in fact, I get it. I understand. Parents are concerned. Our world is uncertain. Anxiety reigns outside our homes and within our walls. We all want our children to be the ones who go to college, who get good jobs. The unpleasant irony of course is that parents will not be allowed to do those jobs for their children, even if they do show up--as is increasingly the case today--at the job interviews of their children.
What is the motivation of mothers--less often fathers--doing homework for children? There are many explanations none of which is particularly complementary to mom.
  • Mom has nothing else to do. Mom should get a hobby. Mom should leave Junior alone.
  • Mom is avoiding her own issues. It is easier to ignore her own struggles with substance abuse or a bad marriage while in the throes of two-digit subtraction
  • Mom had troubles of her own with arithmetic and doesn't want to see Junior suffer in a similar way.
None of these explanations is pleasant. None of these possibilities takes into account the pesky "direction of the causal arrow." It is possible that mom doing homework for Junior has made Junior less capable of doing homework on his own? But just because two people attend the same party does not mean that they arrived in the same car. Or as we used to say in graduate school, correlation does not imply causality. Maybe Junior has dyscalculia. Maybe he has mild cognitive impairments. Maybe he just isn't that bright. It is possible that Junior cannot master two-digit subtraction. Maybe he isn't old enough. Maybe he lacks the proper background.
So there is a plausible rival hypothesis that can be added to the list above. Is it mom's hovering that has resulted in Junior being unable to complete schoolwork on his own? Maybe it is Junior's inability that has caused mom to become over involved. Wherever mom's over involvement comes from, let us hope that it gets sorted out quickly. It would be better for all concerned for a fair and impartial assessment to be conducted of Junior's ability.
I was touring colleges in Colorado earlier this month. In touring the United States Air Force Academy last month for example, I did not notice any mom's arguing with the instructors. Not one. Nor did I hear even one of the cadets suggesting that he or she would prefer not to wake up at six in the morning and do push ups in the mud before running three miles up a hill in full combat gear. I listened pretty carefully while at the facility and not once did I hear a student say, "No, thank you, Sargent!" Nor did I catch the phrase, "My mom will do that for me, Sargent!"
Every time parents consider doing a science fair project for their children, I would ask them to think about whose interests are being served. And to think about whether or not doing schoolwork for your children is sustainable. Unless you are ready to take on multivariable calculus down the road, the time to get away from doing homework for your kids is even before two-digit subtraction.

4 thoughts on “Subtraction

  1. Ross E. Heller

    As usual, good stuff, David.

    But, for what it’s worth, it’s Sergeant.

    And math was never my strong suit either. And for the record I even flunked French in High School. But my wife and I still managed to communicate with the locals the one time we went to France.

  2. Martin

    The last paragraph is the key. Some parents would prefer to live the whole life
    for their children, as they are so much more experienced at it and seem so much
    more able to do it. Maybe not just homework but also essay-writing and exam-taking
    as well as job interview and going out on dates for (or with?) them. Lots of problems
    come up in life beyond subtraction of two-digit numbers. A child could get hurt,
    or make the wrong decision, or simply not know what to do. The parent has been
    through this before (maybe makes mistakes she wishes she could correct in her
    own life that could be corrected via the child’s). But, as you say, that might involve
    doing pushups in the mud or humping a 90 lb pack on a 12 mile hike. Or doing
    multivariate calculus or worse. But for now, while the problems are easier, it seems
    easier just to take care of them. Won’t work out in the long run. And maybe the
    child deserves, even has a right, to live his/her own life?

    Good blog entry.

  3. Sandy Furth

    Your blog brings back memories – my grade four class. I had a student who was extraordinarily gifted and the entire schedule was based on him (school was K-12). He was several years ahead in math and therefore went to grade 8 math class. I had to teach grade 4 math at the time he went to his middle school math class. First, his mother was not in the least bit grateful that the schedule revolved around her son. Then she felt that he did not receive enough attention regarding his reading ability. He was conceptually on target, phonetically… perhaps above grade level, maturationally probably where he should be. Granted, this student probably could do multivariate calculus, but he needed to be a kid at the same time. Mom was having none of letting this kid be a kid. I will tell you, today, this tale of a fourth grade something is an anistheliolgist. Certainly not a surprise, but I do wonder if his mother went to university with him.


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