My six-year-old daughter enjoys addition but not subtraction. When we walk together, I like to give her some "mental mathematics" questions, such as "What is 13 plus 33" and she enjoys answering them. However, she always asks me to give her addition problems only. So she will refuse to answer the question "What is 21 minus 6".

I have discovered a "trick" that works for her: I will ask the question "What is 21 plus negative 6" and she will give me the answer 15. But still, she will not do 21 minus 6.

Is it normal for her to dislike subtraction while enjoying addition? Is there anything that I can/should do about it other than converting a subtraction problem to an addition problem?

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    $\begingroup$ I'd say don't worry about what's normal. If she likes to think about negative numbers at 6, she's doing great. (Go down to a more 6-year-old level if you want to get at subtraction, and see if she likes figuring out how far apart the ages of different cretures are: "saqual is 21 centrues old and taqual is 31 centuries old, how far apart are their ages?" BUt only if she's having fun!) $\endgroup$
    – Sue VanHattum
    Commented Apr 7, 2022 at 2:07
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    $\begingroup$ If she's six years old, don't worry about it. The idea that all children at a certain age ought to be learning some specified thing (One size fits all!!!!) is stupid and dishonest. If she's understanding what you say she's understanding, then she's doing very well. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 7, 2022 at 6:31
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    $\begingroup$ She must be an algebraist. She realizes the lack of associativity in subtraction makes leisurely discussion of subtractions a dangerously ambiguous practice. Like 6 minus 4 minus 2, is it zero or is it 2 ? In contrast, addition makes for good conversation, unburdened by the need to make some adhoc order of operations rule... $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 8, 2022 at 5:21
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    $\begingroup$ @JamesS.Cook I think you meant zero or four. $\endgroup$
    – J.G.
    Commented Apr 9, 2022 at 8:29
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    $\begingroup$ I’m voting to close this question because this seems like a question about adolescent psychology and not mathematics education $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 11, 2022 at 20:42

2 Answers 2


Since the learning proces begins with popping up more and more fingers (numbers) and especially when enhanced by helping and encouraging, it is kind of normal to me at least. Subtracting is a new strain and it does not add much of new abilities; it demands though more work\remembering. It might be an idea to bring this technique up when challenging emotions; then sometimes leveling them is the better way to cope with negative experiences. And there are games in which it makes sense in diminishing possibilities in order to get the upper hand

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    $\begingroup$ Generally speaking, answers here should be more than just gut opinion, and should be backed up by some kind of research or experience. Do you have any sources which support your assertion that "subtracting is a new strain and does not add much of new abilities"? Can you justify the statement that it "demands...more work/remembering"? $\endgroup$
    – Xander Henderson
    Commented Apr 11, 2022 at 21:10
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    $\begingroup$ This question had no answers for 4 days, so I appreciate the attempt to help out by offering an answer. Thanks, Kees. $\endgroup$
    – Sue VanHattum
    Commented Apr 12, 2022 at 19:47
  • $\begingroup$ For examining the effect of subtracting, try to do the alphabet backwards (what we haven't learned). Everyone will examine the "strain"and it does not add any new knowledge and why I would call it a strain. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 13, 2022 at 11:48

It's certainly normal for people's skill at addition to be much stronger than subtraction, and for the preference and comfort level to follow suit.

From a paper by Tom Macintyre and Ruth Forrester, "Teaching Mental Calculation - how successfully are strategies being learnt?", Edinburgh Centre for Mathematical Education (ECME), University of Edinburgh:

Addition tasks are clearly completed in a much more confident manner than the subtraction items, with over 80% of the study group with at most one error on the items. Subtraction items appear to have presented a much bigger challenge to the pupils, with over 50% having 3 or more of those questions wrong.

Daniel Willingham observes one possible reason why that's the case (from "Is It True That Some People Just Can't Do Math?", American Educator, Winter 2009-2010):

Addition and multiplication facts are easier to memorize because they are commutative; that is, 3 + 4 is the same as 4 + 3, and the same is true for 3 x 4 and 4 x 3. That is not the case for subtraction and division. Even well-educated adults from countries with excellent math education will sometimes calculate subtraction and division facts, rather than retrieve them from memory.


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