Heater, Mother of Lance

Clickety clack

Last night when I sat down to help Leta with her math homework I stared down at a whole bunch of words that made no sense to me whatsoever. Do you know how many times I’ve started a conversation with a parent whose kid is learning math the new way they are doing math these days, and we have simultaneously yelled, “WHY CAN’T THEY JUST CARRY THE ONE?”

Place value drawings.

Have you heard of these? (If you are a third grade teacher PUT YOUR HAND DOWN YOU CHEATER) I had not, so I had to google it. I had to google something in order to help my third grader with her math homework. Mom, I am so sorry the Internet wasn’t around when I was in elementary school. How…? I mean…? It must have been awful.

All those paper cuts from encyclopedias.


While I took the time to figure out place value drawings and how to use them to solve multiplication, I told Leta to go practice piano. She huffed and puffed and blew the house down and then said something about how she never gets to play after school. The reality is that when she got home yesterday I told her she had a half hour to relax, and then I got carried away on a conference call and it ended up being an hour. Sixty minutes. She had a whole hour to play. Last time I checked a whole hour does not equal zero, LOOK WHO IS ACING THIRD GRADE MATH NOW?

So I looked up from my laptop at the kitchen table and mentioned this, that she had been playing for an hour, and she mumbled, “Whatever, it was only ten minutes.”

Do what?

Did my child just “whatever” an adult? Where I come from kids who do that don’t normally live past adolescence and if they do it is with a noticeable limp.

So I stood up, looked at her sternly and out of instinct slipped into my Southern drawl when I said, “Do not ever talk back to me. Do you understand?”

She nodded while frowning, and a few minutes later I heard her playing scales. When she was finished she came back to the kitchen, still frowning, and stood at the opposite end of the table.

“Mom, I lied,” she said on the verge of tears.

“You lied?”

“Yeah, you asked if I understood you, but I don’t,” she explained.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“If I’m not supposed to talk back to you, how am I ever supposed to answer your questions? You’ll try to have a conversation with me and I’ll just be standing there with my mouth closed.”


“Oh, sweetie,” I said, and then I got up and walked over to where she was standing so that I could stroke her back. “I should have explained. ‘Talking back’ is an expression. It means that you were speaking to me in a tone that was disrespectful.”

“Then why didn’t you say, ‘Don’t talk to me in a tone that is disrespectful’? ‘Don’t talk back to me’ makes it seem like you don’t want me to say anything ever for the rest of my life!”

She has a point.

You guys, when she graduates from law school I’m just going to go nuts and sow whatever oats I have left because free legal counsel.

  • Daddy Scratches

    2013/01/17 at 1:43 pm

    My son is that literal as well. Keeps things interesting, doesn’t it?

    Also? I suck at third grade math.
    Him, last night: “Dad, can you help me with this question?”
    Me, after reading math question: “Ummm … no.”

    I’ll be over here trying on dunce caps if you need me.

  • Annabelle

    2013/01/17 at 1:51 pm

    You can blog about how that oat-sewing is going.

  • Amanda

    2013/01/17 at 1:52 pm

    That always confused me too when I was a kid! Like Leta, I took it to mean I wasn’t supposed to talk at all, but unlike Leta, I was not brave enough to challenge it. That’s a good kid you’ve got there.

  • Shannon McKarney

    2013/01/17 at 1:53 pm

    Yeah. LIke the time my brother and sister and I were at the dinner table acting like hooligans and my mother finally barks “shut your mouth and eat!” We’ve never let her forget that one.

  • kaptaink

    2013/01/17 at 1:55 pm

    I’m always surprised at how often what appears as poor behaviour or ‘not listening’ has the root cause of poor communication. At least Leta is good enough at communicating that she could explain her confusion. But just imagine all the other kids out there too young or simply incapable of expressing their confusion in words. Thanks for sharing because this is a great story.

  • Roxanna Sarmiento

    2013/01/17 at 2:08 pm

    She certainly makes an excellent case.

  • issascrazyworld

    2013/01/17 at 2:09 pm

    I’ve never quite understood new math. Somehow I doubt I ever will. My oldest just gets it and I’ve made it her job to help her sister when need be. I just do. not. get. it. Effing new math. WHAT the heck was wrong with old math?

  • Sara Halliday

    2013/01/17 at 2:09 pm

    Apparently I never understood what “talk back” means…

  • Teeladog

    2013/01/17 at 2:12 pm

    I was at Lowe’s with my son a few years ago (he was probably in 3rd grade, actually) and he was bouncing around and kept touching stuff on the shelves. I turned around and snapped “Don’t touch anything!”. He looked at me….completely serious…and said “But, I can’t levitate”. I looked at him in confusion and he pointed out that he was touching the floor. All I could do was laugh.

  • Lauren3

    2013/01/17 at 2:12 pm

    Dude you run a tight ship! In elementary school, upon returning home I would deposit my backpack just inside the front door, and then run around like a bat out of hell with my neighborhood friends for a couple hours. Then it was dinner. Then piano. Then the stupid homework. And I can tell you that place value drawings weren’t around yet in the early 90s either.

  • Devon

    2013/01/17 at 2:22 pm

    This sounds like it was written about me and my mom. Except I’m 26 and still having these conversations.

  • shambolicliving

    2013/01/17 at 2:24 pm

    WHY CAN’T THEY JUST CARRY THE ONE!!! Two kids now in highschool, maths drove me crazy because they do it WRONG. It makes so much more sense the old way.

  • americanrecluse

    2013/01/17 at 2:35 pm

    I just adore your kid, in a non-creepy internet stranger sort of way.

  • MaryBeth Butler

    2013/01/17 at 2:45 pm

    I Googled it and now my eyes are bleeding. Thankful that my youngest is 23.

  • Annie

    2013/01/17 at 2:49 pm

    I teach 5th grade, and guess what? Still using place value drawings! For multiplying and dividing decimals! Makes you want to bang your head against the wall. The future of standardized testing is being able to draw and diagram solutions to math problems, as well writing a lengthy paragraph explaining how you got the answer, instead of just producing an answer. I miss the days of scan-trons.

  • Angela L Delgado

    2013/01/17 at 2:49 pm

    Definitely teared up reading about how you banished your kid from talking ever again.

    Way to go, Heather.

  • Jen K

    2013/01/17 at 2:55 pm

    Aww, I was Literal Girl too. I used to sit and wonder if my mom could actually knock me into next week, or what I would look like skinned alive. (Southern parents and grandparents have the best threats) Once, my dad told me to speak up, and I proceeded to direct the rest of my statement to the ceiling.

    I have a sixth grader and frequently wikipedia her homework. They try to tell you your kid should only have like 30 minutes of homework a night but I don’t think they are considering the time we spend looking at each page, puzzled, then asking our significant other, calling a teacher friend, or downright asking the kid what the hell we’re looking at.

  • Marin

    2013/01/17 at 3:38 pm

    Ha! I was just talking to a third grade teacher about this very subject last night. I told her I couldn’t figure out the math pages my kid brought home in Kindergarten last year. And this year, I don’t understand how to explain the way they want the problems solved. My friend told me to just wait until she hit third grade. It is hard for her to not do the carry the one explanation because she can’t. Ugh. And I do accounting for work. I made it through Calculus in high school. How can I not help my 6 year old with math? I have never felt so incompetent than when trying to help my first grader with her homework. I feel bad for the teachers!

    And I love the talk back thing. We are getting to that point with my 4 year old. Man she can be mouthy. LOL!

  • Marilyn Shipley

    2013/01/17 at 4:08 pm

    She is lovely.

  • nic

    2013/01/17 at 4:31 pm

    this read was the best part of my day.

  • Danalan

    2013/01/17 at 4:49 pm

    I only use place value drawings for binary.

  • brook

    2013/01/17 at 5:40 pm

    my sister was telling her older son not to talk back to her when the younger son piped up “i’m not talking backwards – I’m talking forwards” !!

  • Tree of Knowledge

    2013/01/17 at 6:12 pm

    She is going to be an English major and then go graduate school, and you know it. This kind of close reading of language and focusing on levels of meaning combined with her love of reading is leading her straight to the dark side. (so says an English professor)

  • Tina Beveridge

    2013/01/17 at 6:15 pm

    OK I had to google those drawings. It is exactly the same concept as “carry the one” but you remember how when we were in school, they had those blocks they could put on the overhead to show you visually what was going on when you carry the one to a new column? Yeah schools don’t have money for that crap anymore, so this shows the kids how to do it on paper.

  • Hanna

    2013/01/17 at 6:32 pm

    I actually teach future teachers this stuff, and there are good reasons to do it this way. For one thing, it’s (hopefully) teaching them general problem-solving skills that they’ll be able to apply to other situations. For another, it (should) help the students learn it. There have been a lot of developments in neuroscience in figuring out how people learn in recent years, and it makes sense that we should be designing curriculum to take advantage of this knowledge. In this case, we know that people learn better when they understand the reasoning behind the thing they’re memorizing, when they can connect it to previous knowledge, and when they have visual representations. We also want students to have a strong fundamental understanding of numbers and arithmetic so that they can succeed in algebra, which is a huge leap in abstraction from basic algorithms like “carry the one”, but less of a leap from skills like being able to translate between numbers and visual diagrams.

    That said, it’s definitely a huge problem when parents don’t have the resources to help their kids with this stuff. I’ve been thinking about the need for such materials recently, so I’d be curious to know if you managed to find what you needed.

  • Hanna

    2013/01/17 at 6:40 pm

    (p.s. Can you tell that I am in the midst of starting a new semester and thinking about how to get my students, those future teachers, on board with the idea that they themselves need to learn math at a much deeper level than they did as kids?)

  • momo5n4

    2013/01/17 at 6:50 pm

    Too funny! And you are right, kids around here (Memphis) do not “whatever” their mom’s without being prepared to duck and run!

  • Ali

    2013/01/17 at 6:52 pm

    What about the way they teach reading now? “Closed syllable exceptions” says my SECOND grader. The hell? To compound my sense of stupidity, my minor in English was useless and only The Google knew the answer.

  • Laura

    2013/01/17 at 8:18 pm

    Oh, yeah, we hear “whatever,” too and respond accordingly. Daughter sometimes claims she can’t tell when she’s being rude/mouthy/talking back. She’s in 3rd grade, but we haven’t seen the place holder things yet.

  • MarinkaNYC

    2013/01/18 at 5:05 am

    Spoiler alert: she’s going to talk back to you again and the math isn’t going to get any easier. Ask me how I know.

  • Kathleen Salvador

    2013/01/18 at 6:27 am

    if you google “place value drawing” you see a picture of Leta. 🙂

  • Becky

    2013/01/18 at 9:08 am

    Heather, I thank you for sharing such poignant stories with us again. I know you’re kind of upside down and inside out right now, but, IMHO, it’s brought the soul back to your writing. Hugs from a fellow “survivor” of PPD and divorce.

  • teapotlady

    2013/01/18 at 9:40 am

    When my pre-teen kids were bickering in the back seat of the car, I would yell, “do you want me to pull this car over and beat your butts on the side of the road” To which, they would crack up laughing, picturing me pounding their butts up and down on the roadside. KIDS! That was over 20 years ago, and they still laugh about it.

  • Laura

    2013/01/18 at 10:43 am

    The Internet is now wondering why the search volume for “Place Value Drawing” has sky-rocketed. All those “Place Value Drawing” advertisers are very confused and out some money.

    Love reading out times like these – your family is just great.

  • Jen Wilson

    2013/01/18 at 12:54 pm

    She is brilliant. That’s pretty much it. When I tell my five-year-old not to talk back, she yells at me that I’m not being very nice to her (which quickly spirals to more yelling and her having a spank and/or a time-out in her room to figure out how to be respectful). Although she went all literal the other day when my husband asked her to hop like a bed and she was all, “Hop? You mean like a bunny? OK!” at which point she hopped, quite literally, to her bed.

  • Bill

    2013/01/18 at 6:35 pm

    My parents were big on the “don’t talk back” thing and I left home when I could and never returned. They raised me to “think for myself” but resented it when I did! My kids could and can talk to me on any subject. That was the lesson learned.

  • missteach

    2013/01/18 at 8:21 pm

    Did you also explain to her that not only is ‘talking back’ an expression, but that ‘backtalk’ is a noun? Also from the south, I’m 60; my mother is 87; and I still wouldn’t dare backtalk….well, hey..it’s a verb, too, isn’t it?

  • Sharona Zee

    2013/01/18 at 9:53 pm

    did you tell her you were “fixing to” help her with math? that might clear things up 🙂

  • Kristin

    2013/01/20 at 8:55 am

    Seconding the “new math” experiences – I have a fourth grader, just a couple of months older than Leta. One thing for sure – Ella can do math in her head like a whiz. It’s like a foreign language to me, but math is her favorite subject now, which is shocking because she’s such a voracious reader. And thank goodness for Google.

Heather B. Armstrong

Hi. I’m Heather B. Armstrong, and this used to be called mommy blogging. But then they started calling it Influencer Marketing: hashtag ad, hashtag sponsored, hashtag you know you want me to slap your product on my kid and exploit her for millions and millions of dollars. That’s how this shit works. Now? Well… sit back, buckle up, and enjoy the ride.

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