Rais­ing a ge­nius

Most par­ents think their kids are ex­cep­tional — but hav­ing a truly gifted child brings its own chal­lenges. Chrissie Rus­sell re­ports

Irish Independent - - PEOPLE & FEATURES -

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.”

“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 self­mo­ti­vated. 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.”

Pic­ture: Caro­line Quinn

Bright spark: Vanessa Fox O’Lough­lin with her daugh­ter So­phie (17)

Rahul Doshi, the 12-year-old win­ner of Child Ge­nius 2017, with his mother Ko­mal, fa­ther Mi­nesh and sis­ter, Ria

Tal­ented: Robert Bruce with mum Ally

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