November 2016 - Midlife and Thriving
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November 2016

The Healing Power of Math at Midlife 

By | Family, Kids, Mirror | No Comments

midlife mathI never imagined that math could be such a powerful force for healing childhood wounds. Especially given the scars from mathematics I’ve carried since middle school.

Scars of childhood

When I was in 7th grade I hated math … or I should say, I hated my math teacher. He was the high school football coach and he “motivated” his students off the field just as he did on the field: intimidation, yelling, and public humiliation. I was the focus of his wrathful attention on more than one occasion because I couldn’t understand what he was teaching.

His tactics of humiliation and public shaming had the opposite effect of his intention, if in fact his intention was to impart an understanding of mathematics.

Math became a trigger for me as a child and young adult. I found myself often demotivated, frustrated, or checked out in math classes. I had the emotional scars of being “not good at math” and it showed up from balancing my checkbook to learning calculus. Fractions haunted me when building our remote cabin in McCarthy, Alaska.

It took me quite some time to regain my confidence in my math abilities. I had to learn that my experience wasn’t really about me, but how the subject was presented and how I was (or in this case wasn’t) motivated to learn.

Okay, Allwright, sorry about your mean middle school math teacher, but are you going somewhere with this trip down memory lane?

Repeating the patterns (wounds) we’ve experienced

That old math trigger was tested recently. My oldest son is taking an online pre-algebra class and he began to fall behind. He would complain when I pressed him about his progress … it was “too hard” and he didn’t “get it” and he wanted to drop out.

So one weekend I sat down with him and we begin to review his work and the roadblocks keeping him from success. Shortly after we began our work together his self-defeating whining began. I started to feel frustration and disappointment rise within me from my perception of his lack of motivation and drive to succeed.

Suddenly something felt oddly familiar as I sensed my anger rise. I noticed a familiar tone … a “You’re gonna sit there and get it done or else” voice began to bubble up. You know the one … it sounds like an old football coach yelling in your face that you’re going to do it until you get it and you’re going to like it.

The power of choice – a new perspective

In that moment I witnessed how I was about to repeat the same do-it-or-else pattern that I had suffered. I observed how I was beginning to project my old math teacher and was about to impart to my son a similar soul-crushing math experience that I had.

So I stopped, took a breath, and then another, and shifted from a soon-to-be-boiling-over father to a curious and loving dad. I shifted my focus from the trigger (the math) to my response to the trigger (frustration and a sense of shame). I recognized in my rising anger my own fear of his potential failure and the possibility that he might experience the same mathematically challenged childhood that I had.

By observing what was coming up inside of me in the moment I saw through what stuff was mine and I was able to get clear on what was real. The reality was that my son needed me and it was my job to be present. He needed my patience and calm so that he could stay focused, engaged, and enthusiastic about learning.

From this new perspective I could see things from a completely different vantage. I could see what he didn’t understand and why he was frustrated.

From this new perspective of curiosity I could see and evaluate what he wasn’t getting. I was able to be present with what he needed to succeed and what I needed to shore up in the places he wasn’t understanding.

From this new perspective teaching him was fun! I realized it was about teaching him the strategy, not necessarily the content. I was able to show him that math wasn’t hard or complicated. Sure, it was complex, but complex things are made up of multiple simple steps. And with this new perspective he can figure out anything.

And so in one sitting of pre-algebra I was able to:

  1. purge (and find compassion for) an old spirit from mathematics past
  2. support my son in keeping alive his love of math (and hopes of one day becoming an aeronautical engineer)
  3. forge a deeper bond with my son
  4. and most importantly, be the kind of loving father and supportive man that I aspire to be

Who would have thought that math could be so powerful?

Have you ever had a transformational math experience? How about greater awareness of triggers and sabotaging self-talk? Share your experience in the comments below!