One-To-One Correspondence Despondent – Learning to Count, Or Not

Summary: Making your kid count jelly beans when they don’t understand one-to-correspondence is a great way to make yourself feel stupid.

It’s something we take for granted, and we can’t recall ever not being able to do it, but without it it’s impossible to do any sort of math or even tell time. I’m talking one-to-one correspondence of course.

In a nutshell, one-to-correspondence is the understanding that numbers correspond to objects. When someone says “one” you should have a clear picture of just one object. Not two, not three – just one. If you add another, you know that is now two and can clearly picture two and only two objects.

Now just because a kid can count to ten, or even a hundred, doesn’t mean they know what ten is, or they can count a hundred objects. You can recite your numbers from route without any understanding of what it means. This is generally how kids first learn their numbers – with route memory.

Years ago my daughter was having trouble with her one-to-one correspondence. I personally felt she was a bit behind on this concept and my expectations also matched developmental averages. She also tended to get frustrated easily when learning was imposed upon her, so I was starting to think she was just being mentally lazy and really did understand her one-to-correspondence. I figured it was just a matter of incentive and concentration and her behavior was not a true reflection of her capabilities.

So one day out of frustration I get up and grab a jar of jelly beans from the treat cabinet.

“Here’s the deal, you can have as many jelly beans as you can count”


“Yes, really. If you can count it you can have it.”

So she grabs one bean and sets it on the table.


She grabs another and sets it next to the other one.

“Two, three..”

“Nope. That’s just two. Try again.”

We put the beans back and she grabs one and set’s it down.

“One, two…”

“Nope. That’s just one. Try again.”





“Three, four…”

“Nope. That’s just three. Try again.”

We do this a couple of more times and at each attempt get’s no farther than a three count. She starts to cry.

“I don’t want to do this anymore.”

She gets up and walks away, tears in her yes, and so defeated she doesn’t even take the three jelly beans she earned.

It was then I realized that she really didn’t understand her one-to-one correspondence. She wasn’t being lazy, she wasn’t taking shortcuts, she was truly incapable of understanding the concept at this age.

Boy did I ever feel like the biggest asshole daddy on the planet at that moment.

It also gave me one of the most important parenting lessons of my life and I refer to it to this day. A child can only do what they can do. No more, no less.

The trick is knowing the difference of when to back off and accept, or to push and challenge. Unfortunately, you many not know until you until you’ve made an ass of yourself.

File Under: Parenting Failures in One-to-One Correspondence – Knowing When to Back Off  and Accept Your Child’s Behavior or Abilities

4 Responses to “One-To-One Correspondence Despondent – Learning to Count, Or Not”

  • Project Fatherhood Says:

    Excellent post, I personally find myself sometimes frustrated when my kids to perform in a way that I think they should. Forgetting that each of us learns differently. As if them not getting it is a direct reflection on me as a parent or an indication that I have poor genes or something…geez!
    .-= Project Fatherhood´s lastest blog ..The Blond Bombshellsex symbol and relationship expert! Who knew =-.


    Sharoon Reply:

    Lovely post! I have a toddler and getting him to understand simple concepts are sometimes hard. I tell myself as he gets older, things will get better. I guess it continues, but the challenges are different. Thanks for the perspective.


  • Justin Says:

    This post rings ture to me in ways I did not expect. Not only with my own daughter, who is still too young to do all the things I want her to do, like play soccer and solve multi-variable calculus equations, but also with my students.

    By 9th and 10th grade, they should not only be able to do what I ask them to, but be bored by the simplicity of it. They can’t and they aren’t.

    While they are not my sons and daughters, I am responsible for a level of their education and I need to remember your sage advice. They can do what they can do, no more, no less.

    I need to find a balance between accepting that and pushing them to the next step.
    .-= Justin´s lastest blog ..My Daughter- The Girl With One Living Great-Grandfather =-.


    Straight Dope Dad Reply:

    Thanks for your comment. It really is a tough balancing act. Push too soon and it backfires. Push too late, or not at all, and the child misses opportunities for advancement. Most of the time my judgment is sound and it pays off, but occasionally I really miss the mark.

    A common one in Santa Cruz is dads pushing their kids into surfing too early. At first it goes great, until the big wipe out that scares the kid so bad that they don’t try surfing again for another six or seven years, or not at all.

    I’ve heard this story so many times it’s almost right of passage around here.


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