- That your baby could speak in complete sentences before 18 months?
- That you could have a baby that preferred household appliances to toys?
- That at four your toddler would ask questions, as most four year olds do, but supply his/her own detailed answers, such as, “Where does that sod grass come from?” The “mommy answer” is, “From a farm sweetie.” Apparently this wasn’t good enough and 4 year old Chris constructed his own theory, “For you to understand, picture your cookie sheets, only deeper and longer. They are in a greenhouse. They put soil in the trays and then grow the grass and roll them up.”
What’s a parent to do?
Well, Frances Zomer, an entrepreneur/Chartered Accountant and mother of 2012 Thiel Fellow Chris Olah, like any good parent, read parenting books, talked to other moms and talked with her pediatrician.
But she wasn’t finding quite what she needed to help her know what to do with a child so advanced in some ways, not in others and still very much a child. There were contrasts and challenges but his potential was obvious. The resources didn’t seem to be there back then.
“It was so much easier with my daughter who loves and is talented in theatre and dance. I was able to take her to classes and programs and essentially buy the mentoring she needed. But what program caters to a 6 year old with theories about black holes?” says Frances.
Still she kept asking and hoping that school would be the ticket.
Chris was enrolled in the local public school where they lived in downtown Toronto. Unfortunately, the school didn’t take the same view of Chris’ theories and talents. Their testing preferred to look at deficits rather than potential. The advice she was given repeatedly was to have Chris “just fit in.” It was difficult for Chris to find other children to really talk with and share his ideas and enthusiasms. He didn’t fit in and didn’t want to give up his ideals to fit it. They gave it a good try but finally, in grade 6, knew Chris needed a change.
Frances started researching, talking and visiting schools — lots of them. Finally she found a private school with a focus on the needs of very bright children, no matter what their area of talent. It was so wonderful for Chris to have some children to relate to. While Chris had new interests in math, computer programming and science, other children might be gifted in the areas of languages or the arts. The teachers were excellent at finding and connecting the children with the kind of people and resources they needed.
One thing the teachers did was to get Chris into a program for young students at the University of Toronto. He worked with a biology professor. Once on campus, he met more people to work with and talk to. It was just what he needed.
Which resources matter the most?
When reflecting on the resources that were most important, Frances said,
“People. It boils down to people. People were so generous with their time. But he needed to meet the kind of people who could talk with him and understand and support his ideas.”
The teachers and network at the school were excellent at getting him to meet these kind of folks. Parents really need to help their children meet the people they need.
After grade nine, things really opened up. Chris met more people, was taken under the wing of the folks at HackLab, started his blog and began connecting with people all over the world.
“The internet made many more resources available than there were in the early years. This was great for Chris and I think it would have really helped me as a parent. It would have been easier to find other parents and kids who didn’t fit the mold and have some support. When so many people are giving you bad advice, to just make your child fit in, it would have been really nice to have some encouragement to not worry about fitting in.
I did have one friend who kept telling me Chris would be just fine, and that was really important to me. We parents are winging it anyway, so having someone to stand beside you and offer encouragement is really important.”
Frances felt the most important message she could share was to remind parents that they need to be their child’s biggest cheerleader and celebrate the child’s uniqueness. No matter what the child’s gifts, talents or challenges are, you are their cheerleader.
“You know your child best and that overrides what anyone else says to you or tells you to do.”
Thank you, Frances for sharing your story with us and asking the questions to get this series started. Frances and I had a lot to talk about and have made a date to connect when she visits CA. Any gaffs are my mine.
As always, please share your thoughts in the comments. And please share or email the post if you know a parent who could use the support. Lisa