Saturday 17 March 2018

Raising a genius: 'If you have bright kids, you don't have to push them as they're self-motivated'

Most parents think their kids are exceptional - but having a truly gifted child brings its own challenges

Bright spark: Vanessa Fox O'Loughlin with her daughter Sophie (17). Photo: Caroline Quinn
Bright spark: Vanessa Fox O'Loughlin with her daughter Sophie (17). Photo: Caroline Quinn
Talented: Robert Bruce with mum Ally

Chrissie Russell

Boastful, throwing around (unfounded) accusations of cheating and far from humble - it wasn't the behaviour of kids that made Channel 4's Child Genius uncomfortable viewing, but that of their parents.

As 12-year-old Rahul Doshi was crowned winner of the hit show on Saturday, his dad couldn't wait to wrangle the trophy from his son's hands and hold it aloft in a gesture that seemed to imply who the 'real' winner was.

Equally painful was seeing various young competitors' little faces crumple as they stood at a podium in front of an expectant crowd trying to conjure up the name of an ancient Greek philosopher. One 11-year-old was brought to tears trying to recall two decks of playing cards in sequence.

"We'd never dream of putting John through something like that," says dad-of-one Barry Fitzgerald from Limerick. "I can't see how it would benefit him, all that stress for no reason - what are you proving to anyone at that age?"

Not that John (8) is lacking in intellect. Whilst still taking a bottle, and before he could talk, Barry realised his son was able to read when he would point out words if his dad missed them when telling his bed-time story.

John is now a member of Mensa, but rather than brag about his ability or try and pit his son against others, Barry says the bigger issue is getting resources for gifted children.

"The Department of Education recommends that gifted kids need to be taught in a different way, but they don't give any resources or training," he says. "We just want to make sure he's challenged, for his own sake."

The parents of Robert Bruce tell a similar story. At just four years old, Robert is currently the youngest Irish member of Mensa. On his first day at nursery, he started reading the newspaper that was supposed to be protecting an easel from paint. He does sudoko and could identify the number of sides on a decagon from the age of two.

His dad, also named Robert, and mum Ally, from Fermanagh, worry he'll find school too easy at first and get bored... or play up because it isn't challenging enough. "We also worry he might get picked on for being different," says Ally. "A few weeks ago at nursery, a friend dropped his coat and Robert said 'gravity made your coat fall' and started going into a lecture about forces… the other kid looked at him like he had two heads and walked off."

They're certainly not bothered about getting rosettes and trophies.

"We've watched previous series of Child Genius and thought there were some very pushy parents on there who seemed to be more interested in pursuing success vicariously through their kids (and wanting to have the accolade of 'smartest kid') rather than actually wanting their child to have a childhood," says Robert Snr. "We see ourselves as providers rather than pushers when it comes to giving Robert work to do and if he lost interest, then we wouldn't push him to continue just because he was good at it."

Out of the 850 members in the Irish branch of Mensa (which also covers Northern Ireland), 82 are children aged 18 and younger. Access to Mensa is dependent on proving your IQ is in the top two per cent of the population. Interestingly they don't care for the term 'genius' since it's much harder to quantify.

Not that the desire to label their child a genius is what fuels most calls to Mensa (which are most often made by mums and, in three out of four cases, relating to sons, not daughters).

"The term 'gifted' should be in inverted commas because it can be a bit of a nightmare," says Niall MacCaughey, Chairman of Mensa Ireland.

"Maybe some people want to be able to boast about it down the pub, but I don't believe that's the main reason people do it. I think the main reason is desperation - they want to know how best to support a gifted child."

The desperation comes from the sad fact that gifted children are woefully under-catered for in Ireland. Mensa Ireland is entirely voluntarily staffed, so the activities and support it can offer is severely limited. Only those over 10 and a half can do the standard Mensa test, otherwise parents of younger children have to pay between €500 and €600 to have an independent psychologist assess their child's Mensa potential.

The British Mensa Gifted Child Consultant, Lyn Kendall (who consulted on the Child Genius programme), is due to visit Ireland later this year and catering for junior members is one of the key issues Niall hopes to discuss with her.

"We would love to be able to help more, but we don't have the resources," he says. "At the moment, what we try to do is put parents in touch with other parents to act as a support group and point them in the direction of CTYI."

The Centre for Talented Youth Ireland (CTYI), based at DCU, runs classes and residential courses for children from primary school age through to transition year students. They have 4,500 young people on their database and around 2,500 taking part in classes, with some children being driven from as far afield as Tipperary. One parent flies from New York so her child can attend the summer school.

Caitriona Ledwith, who has been involved with CTYI for over 20 years, says it's all about fulfilling a demand driven by the children.

"In my experience, parents here aren't pushy," she says. "It's nearly always the child leading the charge, professing a wish to come to our programme and wanting to learn more."

She thinks cultural differences play a part with Ireland not having a tradition of spelling bees that you might see in the USA or our own TV version of Child Genius.

Nor does she feel that such shows do much to dispel common stereotypes of the 'genius child'. They're generally not the socially awkward bookworms TV would have you believe.

"It's totally wrong to think they can't integrate," says Caitriona. "Plenty of parents are picking them up from soccer and drama classes and bringing them to CTYI. They're very involved in extra-curricular classes and very sociable."

But undoubtedly, being surrounded by like-minded peers allows gifted children to thrive.

"We would probably have struggled if it hadn't been for CTYI," says author Vanessa Fox O'Loughlin (she writes as Sam Blake) from Wicklow. Her daughter Sophie (17) attended Saturday morning classes from the age of nine. What the school curriculum lacked, CTYI more than made up for with lessons on forensics, astronomy, microbiology and architecture. Her parents had to pay for the privilege but feel it was worth it.

"It was a massive thing," says Vanessa. "We were lucky we lived nearby. I can see how other parents elsewhere in the country would struggle because it could be quite isolating."

Sophie hopes to study aerospace engineering at Imperial College London and has started flying lessons (although she'd rather build rockets than planes). Neither Vanessa or her husband, a retired member of An Garda Siochana, see their daughter's achievements as something they can take credit for.

"I can't add up and my children have to show me how to work technology!" laughs Vanessa, whose 12-year-old son has Asperger's and is also gifted.

"I'd be the last person to take credit. The 'pushy parent' thing doesn't resonate with me either. If you've bright kids then I don't think you have to push them because they're very self-motivated. Both our two are."

Barry agrees: "We feel blessed to have John. He's a perfectly normal boy, soccer mad with a great sense of humour. He has a gift and our challenge is to make sure he's challenged, but above anything else, we just want him to be happy."

Irish Independent

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