(Photo: Kelvin Chng)
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.
(Photo: Kelvin Chng)
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."
Written by Tay Suan Chiang for The Business Times