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What I learned in algebra, and by counting to 10

I remember clearly that when my daughter was 16 months old, she could count backward from 10. Savannah would sit in her car seat while we were stuck on a freeway, reciting "10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1" as though she were an astronaut who could escape the traffic jam upon liftoff. My son, well past 2, counted: "1-2-3-fork."

Savannah loves numbers. Riley is much less interested in things mathematical. Ask him how old he is, and he'll say "Two" while holding up four fingers. When asked to count the members of our family, he'll say: "1, 2, 5, 7!" Maybe, including the fish.

When Riley was having trouble going to sleep the other night, I told him to count sheep. He looked at me as if I were crazy. (I've never understood the concept myself. I guess it's supposed to be so boring you'll fall asleep. But why? And why sheep?)

Counting when you're bored works when you're traveling, though. Many car games use counting: Count the out-of-state license plates, types and colors of cars, etc. On long trips my husband and I play "the cemetery game." You get one point for every animal on your side of the car. If you pass a herd of beasts, you get to count as fast as you can until you can't see them anymore. Sometimes I'll have all the grazing animals on my side, while my husband only passes a stray cat or a few chickens pecking the dust. But here's the rub: If you pass a cemetery on your side, you lose all your points and have to start over. It's one good reason to count sheep.

As children, we complained that we would never use math in "real life." My dad, however, was someone who did. He was a navigator on a submarine before computers or even electronic calculators. He had to do all the math on paper or in his head.

His skill and love for numbers rubbed off on me. My fascination with math began in seventh-grade pre-algebra. I loved that class. One reason was that my teacher, Mrs. Lipsett, was really cool and had different color hair every day. But the real reason was that I loved the way algebra worked, the way the numbers and letters combined into formulas that seemed to work themselves out. And when it wasn't clear, I had math-wizard Dad to help with my homework.

I gave up loving formulas in college calculus when the numbers went across two chalkboards and around the corner. Besides that, the teacher spoke English as a second (or perhaps third) language, and I couldn't understand him.

Lately, I've gone back to the basics: counting to 10.

When one of my children frustrates me for some reason, I count to 10 before I respond. Usually, during the numerical interval, I remember how sweet they are and I can answer with a degree of motherly civility.

"Where's my juice? Did you forget it?" Savannah asks, looking up at me accusingly.

The old me might have said: "Forget it! Now you're not getting any." But the new me looks down and counts 10 freckles on her nose first.

"What do you think would be a nicer way to ask me?"

She immediately looks contrite. "Mommy, would you mind getting me some juice, please?" It worked.

Counting to 10 before I open my mouth also shortens arguments and stops sarcastic comebacks (or gives me time to think of one!).

Savannah had a friend over yesterday, and they played puppy. This is one of my daughter's favorite games. She pretends she's an orphan puppy, and we have to choose her from the dog pound. Or she'll pretend she is Riley's owner.

Yesterday, everything was going fine; the dog pound was set up under the dining-room table. Before long, though, a dog fight erupted over who got to be the owner. Savannah opened her mouth to argue.

"Just bark to 10, sweetie," I said. "It works every time." And it did.