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Young 'uns and top guns
DYLAN SOH 14, TEDX SPEAKER AND CREATOR
AT the age of 10, Dylan Soh did what few kids his age do: he gave his first TEDx talk in Singapore. It was about urban farming. When he was 12, he gave his second talk - to an audience of 1,800 people, about a book his father wrote and which he illustrated, about self-confidence, empathy and adaptability.
He's no straight A student, either. In fact, he "only passed three subjects midterm" says his father Calvin Soh, leading his teacher to say that he was underperforming. But rather than punish Dylan or ramp up his tuition, the former advertising veteran asks only that Dylan try his best, and at least pass his exams. "I asked him to come up with a plan, and we're working on it. The pressure he faces isn't the same as the other kids. There's nothing wrong with pressure but there's something wrong if it's only about exams. Because life isn't about exams."
While he started out as the "typical Singaporean parent" who followed his own parents' methods of upbringing, Mr Soh decided that life skills would be the priority for his children over academic excellence.
Instead of focusing on grades, he wants his children - Dylan, 14 and Ava, 11 - to "find themselves, know who they are, be productive for the greater good, to find purpose and profit from it".
He says his change of parenting style came about when, at the age of six, Dylan began asking existential questions, such as where he came from, and what happened after death.
Rather than tell his son he was too young to be asking such questions, Mr Soh's reply was: "I don't know, but let's talk about it."
Having discussions with his children encourages them to ask questions. And rather than have his kids present him with a problem, he would rather they think of possible solutions on their own. "It helps train them in critical thinking," he says.
It certainly boosted Dylan's confidence in public speaking - enough to deliver the two TEDx talks. The first one came about when Mr Soh was asked to give a talk about the future of urban farming but he asked his son to do it, with a script they both worked on. Dylan's second talk, on their book titled The Big Red Dot, had people coming up to him afterwards and praising him for being an inspiration.
The Secondary 3 student at Anglo-Chinese School (Barker Road) says he is still nervous about public speaking. But the way to overcome stage fright is to believe in what you say, and say what you believe," says Dylan.
Admitting that his grades are "just pass", what makes him more excited are the Kickstarter projects that he and his father work on. Their first, a Grow It Yourself Stick is a plastic device that uses physics to ensure that plants get the right amount of watering they need. They needed $20,000 for its production, but in the end, raised $37,000. The profit is being used to fund a second project, which will allow plants to be grown vertically.
Mr Soh wants his kids to have values, such as adaptability, creativity, resilience, self confidence and the ability to keep asking why. Project work, and sports, are where they will learn those values. "Definitely not from tuition centres or textbooks," he says, adding that he doesn't rule out taking his kids out of the current education system.
"Sports teaches the kids how to deal with failure," says Mr Soh. "I want them to see failure as a journey to success and not doom. There is no stigma around failure."
He admits his parenting techniques may be too radical for other parents. Even his mother, a former school teacher, initially had her doubts.
"But she understands that times have changed. She can see the difference between Dylan and myself at 14. The question is, which one of us is better prepared for the new future? My mother agrees it's Dylan more than me."
KYRA POH 15, INDOOR SKYDIVER
Carolyn Teo, who runs her own advertising firm, has a different view from other parents when it comes to school and her child's sports career. Her daughter, Kyra Poh, 15, is the Junior Freestyle Champion of the World, and Ms Teo is willing to let her put school on hold for a few years to pursue her passion for indoor skydiving to the max.
Kyra first tried the sport when her mother asked if she wanted to appear in a video for iFly Singapore. Since then, she has not looked back.
"I'm off the ground when I'm flying and I love the feeling of being completely free with no boundaries," she says. "I also love that it is a combination of many sports, from the graceful movements of ice skating and gymnastics to super fast dynamic flying like a sprinter."
She has since has built up an enviable track record, with five Guinness World of Records titles under her name. They include Most Backward Somersaults in a Wind Tunnel in a Minute" (she completed 68), and Most Number of Passes Through a Hula Hoop by a Pair in a Wind Tunnel in a Minute" in which she and her partner did 49.
On top of that, Kyra, a third-year School of the Arts student is also a champion in the Solo Freestyle Open and Solo Speed Open categories at the 2017 Wind Games. She has also been winning at various international indoor skydiving competitions.
Ms Teo, who has another daughter, seven, thinks that people put too much emphasis on academic goals, and even more on how fast a person achieves them. She sees her children's lives as a journey, and there is no need to rush because every day is an experience in itself.
"What difference does it make if Kyra graduates with a degree when she's 21 or at 24?," she asks, adding that it would be a big waste if Kyra couldn't pursue her sport because of an examination.
"I'm all about experience, and I think what Kyra has garnered from the sport has given her a journey that far surpasses what you would get from school."
She is all for her daughters taking responsibility for their lives, so Kyra decides whether or not she needs tuition or extra training programmes.
"This aspect of my parenting style is very much influenced by my late father, who taught me that the hardest thing to do is to give your child the freedom to make all decisions - good or bad."
Her tip for raising a super achiever kid? "Let your child live her life, not yours," she says. "When they love something, they always do it best without being told how to."
Which is exactly what Kyra is doing. Two years ago, she was picked for the David Marshall scholarship in her school and admits having difficulty juggling school, training and tuition.
"Because of my busy schedule, I don't have much time to rest or spend time with my friends," says Kyra. "But I love flying and I know I have to make the sacrifice if I want to do this seriously while juggling school."
She hopes that indoor skydiving will one day be an Olympic sport and she would be able to represent Singapore. Even if it doesn't happen, "I will be flying my whole life if possible, whether or not as a career, but definitely as my sport."
COREY KOH 14, CLASSICAL OPERA SINGER
WHILE HIS CLASSMATES think nothing of devouring a McDonald's nasi lemak burger, 14-year-old Corey Koh can only watch. It's just one of the many sacrifices he has to make as a classical opera singer who has performed in Carnegie Hall and Suntory Hall, apart from winning numerous international music competitions. So he needs to protect his voice by avoiding oily and spicy food, not shouting and visiting his laryngologist regularly to check his vocal cords.
His father is Chye Koh, a senior counsel in an American MNC who says that unlike parents who seem to have the art and science of parenting down pat, his style is best described as "trial and error".
What he and his wife-and-fulltime-mum Filona Hang have done is spare no expense in supporting their only child's musical pursuits. The prodigy sings fluently in Latin, Italian, German, French, English and Chinese.
He started formal voice lessons at six, and trains under famed Korean soprano Jeong Ae Ree, whose hour-long lessons cost his parents "hundreds of dollars" each time, says Ms Hang. "When you are serious about music, you need to learn from the masters." In addition to fees, there are other incidentals such as air tickets and accommodation when Corey trains overseas, such as at the Manhattan School of Music. Ms Hang quips that thankfully, Corey's "musical instrument" is free so they save on that.
Corey's first stage performance was at the age of two. His family was living in Dhaka, and little Corey sang a Tagore song in Bengali for the Bangladesh Tourism Board.
"My parents told me I wasn't interested in toys, but was more fascinated with musical instruments," says Corey. When he has time between school, homework, Chinese tuition, singing lessons and performances, he plays many instruments, including three types of guitar, the oboe and the guqin. All in a purpose-built soundproofed room at home.
While the Kohs allow Corey to pursue his passion, they do not let school take a backseat. Corey, who is among the top ten in his class, is limited to participating in overseas performances and competitions during the school holidays.
"As parents, the one thing we want is for him to be happy with his life," says Ms Hang. "Our duty is to guide him but not mould him into the person we think he should be."
On how to raise a super-achiever child, she recommends finding an interest that the child likes. "With interest, the child can go a long way."
Corey says music will always be his passion, but hasn't decided if he will make it his career. His other interests include history, military tactics and politics. "Music and politics have been my interest since young," he says. "Perhaps some day, I can be an ambassador of peace and goodwill and bring my style of classical singing to poorer parts of the world."
AMELIA CHUA 10, SPEED SKATER
ALICIA TAN - a mother of two - believes that how far her kids can go depends on "whether they have the passion, spirit and ability to eventually take the driver's seat", she says.
She and her husband, Jonas Chua, who have their own business, constantly remind themselves not to be led by their own dreams but to merely support their children as they navigate the inevitable pitfalls and distractions along the way. "It is their road ahead and we just want to share their journey," she says.
Her daughters, Annette, 12, and Amelia, 10, are on the national development team for short track speed skating.
Amelia's foray into speed skating was borne out of her own interest and passion. "Amelia has always had difficulty focusing on anything for long periods, but in short track, she is amazingly focused and quietly sets targets for herself," says Ms Tan, on when she realised that it wasn't just a passing interest for Amelia.
Her sports prowess isn't quite duplicated in school, however. The Primary 5 student of Methodist Girls' School concedes that her grades have dropped dramatically since last year. "I love school but I find schoolwork tough as I don't really understand some things," says Amelia, who enjoys Mathematics and Science but finds English difficult.
It is a different story, however, when she is on the skating rink. She started out taking figure skating lessons, but became fascinated with speed skating after watching the Sochi Winter Olympics on TV. "I like the speed, racing off the start line, cornering and overtaking," she says. "Short track is very unpredictable and super exciting."
Her mother was against it at first as it looked dangerous but eventually relented. Last year, Amelia won gold in two races at the Tri-Series SEA Short Track Speed Skating Cup. Earlier this year, she won two silvers at the MapleZ SEA Short Track Speed Skating competition.
Even when she loses, Ms Tan says, Amelia doesn't cry, but thinks over what she should have done differently.
Parenting-wise, Ms Tan says that she and her husband are influenced by their own parents. Mr Chua's late father was very strict, so he is similarly the disciplinarian at home. Ms Tan is firmer with her daughters than her parents were with her, but she takes the support-not-stifle approach as well.
"With Amelia especially, we realise that there are just some things we cannot push," says Ms Tan. "While there are lows in her academic performance, there are also highs and we celebrate her personal bests in school work and in short track."
Having taken part in national and regional competitions, Amelia wants to compete at an international level. "We will support her as much as we can," says Ms Tan.
She scales back on Amelia's training before major school exams, but doesn't stop them, as Amelia benefits from being on her feet rather than studying all day.
However, she is against Amelia skipping school for any overseas competitions held during the school term. "She has to wait till she is in secondary school and has a better grasp of personal responsibility and discipline before we let her."