Published on 23 Oct 2022

Three things that will help in raising innovative kids

Imagine raising the next Elon Musk, Steve Jobs or Bill Gates in your own home.

The notion is not as crazy as it sounds. The three iconoclastic innovators were children once and had childhoods that contributed to their entrepreneurial journeys.

The three were precocious, played pranks on their friends, and were bored at school. Jobs, the co-founder of tech giant Apple, is reported to have stuck a safety pin into a socket, burning himself. He also reportedly swallowed ant poison, leading to another trip to the hospital for his stomach to be pumped.

The next generation of innovators are eating, playing and misbehaving in our homes right now.

As part of my work, I spend a lot of time with the founders of tech and deep technology companies. At a tech summit hosted by risk intelligence company Shield, I discussed the topic of raising innovative kids with Mr Joel Leong.

Mr Leong is the co-founder of Shopback, a Singapore start-up that has raised over US$300 million (S$426 million) and employs 1,000 people. The company has disrupted the online shopping industry since 2014, offering loyalty and payment services in 10 markets within the Asia-Pacific region.

The father of two spoke about his desire to raise innovative kids. It is well-known that doctors and lawyers raise children who go on to become doctors and lawyers, so it is understandable that successful tech founders want to raise innovative founders as well.

Mr Leong went to neighbourhood schools and went on to St Andrew's Junior College, and later the National University of Singapore (NUS) to study communications and new media.

He describes his childhood as one of exploration. There were no serious consequences from his parents when he wanted to try things out. Be it his decision to embark on an NUS Overseas Colleges experience in Shanghai, or even leaving a stable government job at the Singapore Economic Development Board to join Zalora before striking out with Mr Henry Chan to found Shopback. His parents would talk him through the consequences of his choices and ultimately support him after he had made his decision.

Even though ShopBack is doing well now, and Mr Leong can provide for his family, he does not want his kids to be too comfortable. His concern is that if his kids are raised in too much comfort, it might result in them losing their hunger and edge, making it difficult for them to cut loose and have their own innovative start-up journeys.

During our discussion, I talked about Professor Tony Wagner's best-selling book, Creating Innovators - The Making Of Young People Who Will Change The World. Prof Wagner spent two decades at Harvard researching the intersection between innovation and education.

For the book, he studied what parents did to raise innovative kids, interviewing 150 parents, teachers and mentors of innovators, as well as business and military leaders.

Prof Wagner distilled what he had learnt into a few simple areas that parents can focus on if they are trying to raise innovative children.

Firstly, play. Wagner found that it was important not to over-programme kids' play time, leaving them space for unstructured play and discovery. This includes letting the kids be bored sometimes, to get them to apply their imagination and invention to entertain themselves.

Parents of innovators were unanimous in giving their kids fewer toys, and even then only those that encouraged imagination and invention. Besides Lego blocks, parents also handed out cardboard boxes and sticks, or even tools from the hardware store to help them to build and make their own toys.

Secondly, time. Parents of innovative kids spend time with their kids instead of spending money. Prof Wagner discussed parents who took on heavy financial burdens to enrol their kids in all the "right" activities to get into the "best" schools.

He quotes a parent of an innovative child as saying: "For me, the piece that a lot of parents are missing is the quantity of time that they spend on their kids. It's important that when a child speaks, there is an adult who listens; when they look out, there is someone looking back at them."

Thirdly, passion and purpose. Prof Wagner believes that the most important thing that parents can do to raise an innovative child is to help their kids find and pursue their own passion and purpose in life. Parents of innovative kids offer their kids a diverse buffet of adventures so that they can discover what they are passionate about. In addition, they encourage their kids to make a difference in the world in whatever they are passionate about.

Over the years, my wife and I have tried to raise our two boys to be innovative. Rather than over-programme our kids' schedules with enrichment activities, we chose instead to give them several hours of playtime outdoors each day, even during their school exam periods.

Our boys would entertain themselves by exploring the wooded area near our Housing Board home and making up their own adventures.

In addition, the boys would have a full day set aside each week for them to rest from school, undertake their own personal projects or read the books they had borrowed from the library. On that day, no schoolwork was to be done.

We were fortunate that we really enjoyed spending time with our kids. Instead of taking up golf or engaging in other weekend activities that took us away from our kids, my wife and I would actively prioritise family time during weekends.

While some parents do not seem to think that spending time with their kids is much fun, it was not a sacrifice for us to do so, as we honestly thought that our kids were interesting and wanted to spend more time getting to know them.

To be candid, we are still working on our kids' passion and purpose. We have supported our eldest boy through his five internships while at polytechnic, trying to find out what he is passionate about and how he wants to impact the world. Our younger boy has developed passions in design and music, and is currently aiming to study and work at the crossroads of music, artificial intelligence and programming.

The boys are still sampling from the buffet of experiences and opportunities that we have tried to put in front of them. They are very much still works in progress as we journey with them to find their passion and purpose in life.

I would be lying if I said that it has been smooth sailing in our journey to raise innovative kids. It has been difficult for me to "protect" their daily playtime and weekly rest day during major exams and busy periods at school. I had to frequently quell the self-doubt created by friendly parents bragging about how their kids were getting good grades from enrolling in certain enrichment programmes, choosing instead to stay the course of letting them have unstructured play.

Even if my kids do not become innovators, raising them as innovative kids has given them a great childhood of exploration and self-discovery. The time we have spent with them in their adventures has been precious, and allowed us to build a deep bond and relationship with them, no matter what they do in the future. 


Abel Ang is the chief executive of a medical technology company and an adjunct professor at Nanyang Business School. 

Source: The Straits Times