Thought of the Day: Does “I’m going to give you until the count of three!” contribute to Innumeracy?

When I was a child, my mom decided not to use the traditional “I’m going to count to 3” with me for discipline, because she was concerned that it might lead me to having a negative view towards numbers.  Instead she used “White, Yellow, Red”. And while it is quite circumstantial evidence with only a sample size of one, I grew up to love math, and not especially be into colors (despite being artistic).  Now as an educator who has studied a little bit about how the brain works, I think there is something to what my mom was thinking, and in fact this could literally be contributing to our nations problems with innumeracy and falling behind in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) from other nations.

At this point, I am only making a hypothesis.  Although it could be tested for correlation through a well-constructed survey, which would be a great dissertation for someone.  But, I think my hypothesis is reasonable based upon the fact that our memory is strongly influenced by emotion, and our emotions strongly influence our behavior.  And our brains are based nearly completely upon relationship.   So Pavlov conditioning does occur to a certain degree within each of us, and if we were conditioned as a child to always have some form of punishment (even if our parents tried to have it be more “positive”, like using time outs) when numbers are used, then it only is logical that we will continue to have a negative feeling towards numbers.

And to those who are naysayers to my hypothesis, who would say that “Not everyone who had parents count to 3, stopped liking math.”  And I would ask the naysayers, that if there is even one child who stopped liking math due to their parents counting to 3 before disciplining them, wouldn’t it be best to stop the practice, if there is an easy alternative?

But, I also concur, that there are of course people who had parents who counted 1 2 3 for punishment, who later became mathematicians and scientists etc. But in these cases, there probably was something else in their life that had math take on a more positive feeling.  As a case in point, my wife still does the count to 3 sometimes with my son (although I’m trying to convince her otherwise), but my son also loves to count to 3 before he starts running, and we have encouraged him to count since he was young, and he watches Jake and the Never Land Pirates where they are always counting.  So now at the age of 3 and a half, he commonly counts objects at least to 3 and sometimes up to 10 or a little above.

So what is an alternative to counting to 3?  While my mom used “White, Yellow, Red” (She didn’t want to use “Green”, as she didn’t want me to think that it was OK to do something by giving me a “green light”), I think that using colors could have unintended consequences similar to numbers.

So I’m a fan of using words that really should mean what we are trying to say, so using the 3 words: “Warning, Danger, Discipline”  will overall build the right connections to the right words, such that “Warning” and “Danger” will have a negative connotation in a child’s mind, which they should have this type of connotation, as it will help the child to know that a sign that says “Warning” or “Danger” is serious.   For the last word, “Discipline” is good because it not only flows well from “Danger” (since they both start with “D”), but it also is a clear word for the action you are about to take with the child.  And as a parent, you can choose the type of discipline, which I encourage time-outs or other non-corporal methods.

There is also the simple technique that Love and Logic suggests which is to simply use “uh-oh”, and make sure that as a parent you don’t express anger when you do this.

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