According to findings published in Learning and Individual Differences, a secure bond between father and child is particularly important for children’s development of coping skills related to mathematics. The longitudinal study found that the father-child bond predicted children’s math anxiety one year later, while the mother-child bond did not.
The term “math anxiety” is used to describe fear and apprehension surrounding math and can occur in children and adults alike. Math anxiety can arise in response to any situation that requires mathematics — from solving a math problem at school to calculating the tip at a restaurant.
Previous studies have uncovered parental factors that play a role in the development of math anxiety among children — for example, parents’ use of math at home with their children. There is also evidence that that the quality of the parent-child relationship influences math anxiety among children, but until now, no study had teased apart the specific roles of the mother-child versus father-child bond.
A team of researchers led by Min Ma felt there was reason to believe that fathers play a stronger role in children’s math anxiety compared to mothers. For one, fathers tend to have a higher self-concept in math and tend to engage in more math-related activities with their children compared to mothers. This could mean that children are more likely to pick up on the importance of math from their fathers, by watching their fathers use and enjoy math.
Ma and colleagues conducted a longitudinal study among children and parents recruited from an elementary school in Chongqing, China. The study involved an initial assessment and then a follow-up one year later. At Wave 1, children were in the third and fourth grades, and at Wave 2, children were in the fifth and sixth grades.
At both waves, the children and their parents completed questionnaires that assessed math anxiety. Children additionally completed measures of learning anxiety and social anxiety and answered a series of questions assessing the strength of their relationships with their parents. Scores from standardized math achievement tests administered at Waves 1 and 2 were used as indicators of children’s math abilities.
An analysis of the data revealed that a poorer father-child bond at the initial assessment predicted worse math anxiety in children one year later. This was after accounting for various factors that might influence children’s math anxiety — such as parents’ math anxiety and children’s learning anxiety, social anxiety, and math abilities. Interestingly, the mother-child bond was not a significant predictor of children’s math anxiety.
When reflecting on these findings, the researchers turn to an approach called the control-value theory of achievement emotion. The theory says that a person experiences positive achievement emotions (e.g., enjoyment of an activity) when they feel in control of their success and when they feel the value of the activity is high. Fathers likely convey the value of math to their children through their own self-concept in math, which boosts children’s positive emotions toward math. A positive father-child bond also might increase children’s feelings of autonomy and control in the face of math struggles, providing children with important coping skills that alleviate their math anxiety.
The findings have implications for interventions aimed at reducing math anxiety in children. “Programs targeting the father–child relationship in mathematics could focus on home-based practices,” Ma and team write, “such as doing emotion connection activities, providing mutual support, ensuring more time with children, and developing common interests and hobbies, which could strengthen the father–child relationship and might alleviate the level of math anxiety in children.”
However, the authors note that future studies will be needed to test their speculations, particularly regarding the role of value and control appraisals in the parent-child bond and how this may influence children’s math anxiety.
The study, “Longitudinal prediction of children’s math anxiety from parent-child relationships”, was authored by Min Ma, Danfeng Li, and Li Zhang.