Should my kids be counting on their fingers?

Jan 24, 2012 at 1:00 p.m. ET

Plenty of children learn to count by using their fingers (let's be honest -- a lot of adults still use finger counting on a daily basis!). Is this a harmless habit or one that they should eventually break?


Finger counting is definitely useful in the early stages of learning math, but does a reliance on this handy manipulative hinder them from truly grasping more difficult mathematical concepts? Although there is no consensus on whether finger

counting is a hindrance or a help, parents can make educated decisions based on the opinions of experts (and, of course, their own observations).

No short cuts

Most kids will say that using their fingers to do simple math just makes the whole process easier, but easier isn't always better according to Marilyn Curtain-Phillips, a high school math teacher and author of Math Attack: How to Reduce Math Anxiety.

she says. "I believe that mathematics has so many complex steps that for a child to get stuck counting their fingers leaves them at a large disadvantage."

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A Handy Tool

Many educators (and parents) disagree and encourage their students and kids to take advantage of this handy manipulative.

says Amanda Carman, a former teacher and co-founder of Excited2Learn. "Fingers help children to form a solid foundation and understanding of the basic mathematical concepts." Advocates of this method of learning say it helps build confidence and prepare kids to tackle more advanced math.

Read about 5 tips to overcome the fear of math >>

When to give it up

Finger counting may (or may not) be appropriate for kids, but most experts agree that it's necessary to make a transition at some point.

"It's often the case that children who have a harder time learning mathematical concepts utilize their fingers, as well as other manipulatives, for much longer than the typical child," says Carman.

"Rather than seeing this as a problem, it should be seen as a result of difficulty with math." Parents can help their kids transition by building their confidence with math facts and lessening their reliance on finger counting.

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Math anxiety

Paying close attention to how your child uses finger counting can determine whether this tool is adding to math anxiety or building confidence.

Whether you view finger counting as a crutch or a tool, few disagree that getting kids comfortable with numbers is a serious indicator of long-term success in mathematics.

"Parents should show their children how math is used in many pleasant ways from cooking, traveling, sewing, art, shopping, etc.," says Curtain-Phillips. "Parents should not tell their children that they were no good at math or dislike math. This type of negative talk can lead to math anxiety."

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