A Brief Introduction to Negative Numbers

5 06 2009

The other day I was helping the eight year old that I watch with her math homework. She was adding and subtracting two digits-ah the memories. Most of the problems were things like “89-57,” but one of the last questions was “47-65.” This eight year old was utterly perplexed and asked me to help. “Oh,” I said “It’s going to be a negative number.” But Zehra, the eight year old was no less confused. Negative numbers, how do you explain that to an eight year old?

Where do I know negative numbers from?

“Okay, do you know what a bank account is?” (Because that’s where I see negative numbers the most.) “No,” she said. Oh course, you’re eight, and not an Oleson so why would you know what a bank account is. So I had a new idea: “Imagine if you had four dollars, but you spent six, you’d have negative two dollars!” I was confident that this would explain the situation. “That’s ridiculous, how do you spend six dollars if you only have four?! It’s impossible!” That’s a really good question Zehra, but it happens a lot; especially by the Federal Government.  A simple question from an eight year old, employing simple logic tripped me up.

And it reminded me of a recent sketch from snl:


You’re right Zehra, spending six dollars when I only have four is ridiculous, but unfortunately not impossible. Welcome to the world of negative numbers.

Now who wants to go shopping?

– Mister Mary Sasson




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