How to raise a tax master

A CPA and his eight-year-old daughter prove that early exposure to numbers, math and financial concepts can reap remarkable rewards.

About a month ago, Toronto CPA Lorne Weinreb was fielding media calls from the CBC, CTV, Toronto Star and even major U.S. talk shows interested in interviewing his daughter Carlie, a third-grade math whiz who teaches university students how to prepare tax returns — without the use of tax software or even a calculator.

Carlie’s mental math skills are extremely impressive: for example, she can calculate in her head the precise sales tax on any item up to $100. (On this CTV interview, it takes her mere seconds to correctly come up with $1.76 as the 13% sales tax in Ontario on a purchase of $13.55.)

How is this possible? Is Carlie a child prodigy with a genius mind? Her dad Lorne says no way. “My kid is totally normal. I was the first person in my family who went to university and I didn’t have any raw talent, just perseverance. We’re not Einstein stock,” he says with a chuckle. “I just decided I wanted to teach her things on an incremental basis.”

And teach he did. Once Carlie knew how to count to 10 — a milestone most kids achieve around age three or so — he got her to apply that knowledge by teaching her to tell time. He bought a bunch of large digital watches (children’s ones are too small for kids to see the numbers properly, he says) at the dollar store and taped over the last digit so all times would end in zero. Then he’d ask her throughout the day what time it was, so she could practice from the read-out: 1:10, 1:20, 1:30 and so on. From there they went on to analog clocks.

By age four Carlie was working on multiplication tables through skip counting. But it’s all done in bite-size pieces. So, for instance, today’s numbers might be 2, 4, 6 — and it’s a 30-second lesson, but repeated many times throughout the day. Once a child perfects that piece, it’s time to introduce the next morsel. The key is repetition, consistency and patience, says Weinreb. “Lots of parents want to rush it, but it’s all cumulative and you’ve got to go slow. Ninety-eight per cent of math is robotics.”

Eventually Carlie knew her times tables up to 13 — which is how she’s able to figure out sales taxes so quickly. Weinreb also thinks it’s important for parents to go into their kids’ worlds to find teachable moments. That might be a trip to the mall for an ice-cream or a visit to the dollar store for a toy or treat, where those math lessons can be applied to things they care about.

Today, Weinreb and Carlie spend about half an hour a day on income tax calculations. Meanwhile, Carlie’s six-year-old sister is able to fill out about three-quarters of a tax return. It’s humbling to think all of our kids could become tax masters, if we started teaching them the skills early enough.

It’s plenty of food for thought, especially with national Talk With Our Kids About Money Day on April 20. While having a day dedicated to financial literacy for children is key to raising awareness, it’s pretty clear that it can’t be something we parents only think about once a year.

Rather, if we build a day-to-day routine for our kids that incorporates numeracy, math and financial concepts from a young age, it becomes second nature to them. As Weinreb puts it: “It’s all about exposure.”

Keep the conversation going

As I wrote in February, Adam and I are still working on times tables, so I’m definitely going to follow Weinreb’s advice and try to slow things down and break it up into bite-sized pieces for him. I’ll let you know how it goes. What techniques have worked for teaching your kids math and money concepts? Post a comment below.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of CPA Canada.

About the Author

Tamar Satov

Managing Editor, CPA magazine
Tamar is a journalist specializing in business, parenting and personal finance. She blogs regularly in this space with advice and anecdotes on her efforts to raise a money-smart kid.