How ‘math mamas and papas’ raised their numbers wizards
The parents of the country’s representatives to the International Math Olympics in Argentina never pushed their kids to love the subject—but they excelled anyway
Some parents’ total support for their children’s activities has earned them monickers like “soccer dad” or, if the mother is the pushy, dictatorial sort, it’s “tiger mama.”
Surprisingly, the parents of the three teenagers who represent the country in the International Mathematics Olympiad (IMO) this month in Mar del Plata, Argentina are anything but pushy. When each was asked how they helped turn their children into math wizards, each said they didn’t do anything remarkable to make math the center of their lives.
Fely Tan Co, a former journalist, remembers playing chess for the first time with youngest child Kenneth (one of the country’s representatives). He was barely 4 when he asked her, “Mama, let’s play chess. Can you play white?”
Co realized after her third or fourth move that he was shadowing her, following her moves in reverse so he could learn. By the second week, she was losing to him.
That was when she enrolled him in the Milo summer chess activity with his older siblings Adrian and Michelle.
Before long, Kenneth won the top prize in the competition for the under-6 category.
Co said, “I feel blessed that my children are self-motivated to excel. I never told them, ‘You can’t watch TV or play computer games.’ I guess I’m one of the lucky ones. They’re driven when they’re put in an environment where others are competing. I never had to lecture on them to study, or else.”
Chess may have helped Kenneth develop his calculation, strategy and logical thinking that enabled him to top inter-school competitions. People would ask his mom if she had him trained in Kumon.
She shakes her head at the thought. She had seen children burned out from over-training so they ended up hating, not loving, a subject like math. She always offered her children an option.
“You can even paint or write,” she’d tell them. But they always chose the sciences.
The eldest, Adrian, won a British School scholarship in high school, and is majoring in Math and Economics at New York University. Michelle is a Life Sciences major at the Ateneo University.
This early, Kenneth has already won a Johns Hopkins University Woodrow Wilson research grant.
Apart from Kenneth, the other two students joining him abroad are Mikaela Angelina “Mika” Uy and Henry Jefferson Morco.
Mika’s mom, Aimee Uy, an accountant, said her daughter always topped her exams until the teacher advised her to take after-school training (4:30-6 p.m.) daily so her potential could be tapped.
The older Uy said it reached a point where Mika was so advanced, ’di ko na siya kayang turuan (I couldn’t teach her anymore)” so her husband Michael, a software consultant, would help prepare their daughter for contests.
Uy agreed with Co that it would be harder to push a child if she doesn’t like a subject. She described her parenting style as “relaxed, with no pressure.”
She couldn’t help almost bursting into tears when her daughter was named in the top three from a batch of 20 semifinalists for the IMO.
When Mika was in grade school, the biggest reward she’d get was a McDonald’s treat. Today, she is, like Kenneth, self-motivated. If she feels any pressure, it is probably from her father, who is persuading her to take up a college course in computers instead of pure math.
Menson Morco, an auto-supply businessman, said the only time he and Henry stand on equal footing is when they play badminton. Their skills rate about the same.
Like Aimee, he taught his son basic math in his early years, but now, he said, “nalagpasan na niya ako.” (He has surged ahead of me.)
He said there’s nothing special about having a math wiz in the house. The environment Henry grew up in is filled with books. He is allowed to spend time trawling the Web. When the family goes out to malls, they head for a bookstore, not a toy store.
Otherwise, the three, who have trained intensively since January, are regular kids. Kenneth roots for a European football team and plays violin in his spare time.
According to his mother, his quirk is he likes to drink only water and freshly squeezed orange juice. He never liked softdrinks.
Young Co said, “I find fun in the problem solving and thinking aspects of math. It’s fun because it is very certain. The truth is clear; there are no ambiguities. Being able to find a beautiful solution to problems is very exciting.”
What the parents and team leaders, who serve as coaches, drum into them is that they’re not competing with their countrymen, but with the world’s best. Unique among the IMO rules is that no math question has ever been repeated in any of its competitions since it began in 1959 in Romania.
Only six questions are asked of all contestants, and each correct answer is worth seven points. They have four hours to answer each question.
Dr. Jumela Sarmiento, head of the Mathematical Society of the Philippines and Ateneo math professor, said these questions are a combination of math, geometry, combinatonics (an area of math dealing with arrangements and counting), number theory.
Each of the 101 participating countries is allowed six contestants, but Sarmiento said only three were chosen this year based on the student’s capabilities to answer a question and bring home a medal.
The Philippines went through a dry period (the last silver medal was in 1989) until 2010. Carmela Lao brought home a silver medal.
Lao, who joins the Philippine team to Argentina as observer, is a math major at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where she plans to do a minor in Japanese and a double major in brain and cognitive sciences.
Asked why she chose mathematics, she replied, “I genuinely enjoy the subject. I cannot envision myself surviving a semester without studying something in math. A more important reason is that my dream has for a long time been to raise the standard of Philippine mathematics and Philippine education. I will definitely, without doubt, return to the Philippines to do my best to achieve that dream.”
Co, Uy and Morco can learn from Lao’s experience and attitude of gratefulness. She said, “Not everyone has their childhood dreams come true. I started dreaming when I was 9. I am extremely blessed to have seen that dream realized. I never would have done it without the help of my parents, my trainers, who all volunteered their time and effort.”
She would like to caution celebrity interviewers who’d often tell her, “You know, in school I didn’t like math. I still don’t like it now.”
Lao said, “They say it in jest, but Juan de la Cruz, who looks up to these people, will still imbibe that general dislike for math. We need to dispel that notion first and foremost for math education to have a real chance of improving.”
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