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Parents of teens competing at the 'Olympics of science fairs' share 5 parenting rules they live by

Morgan McFall-Johnsen   

Parents of teens competing at the 'Olympics of science fairs' share 5 parenting rules they live by

Teen genius was on full display at the Los Angeles Convention Center in mid-May.

Thousands of high-school students dressed in business wear showed off their robots, inventions, discoveries, and scientific experiments.

They had all won regional, state, or national science fairs and finally made it to the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) to compete for $9 million in prizes.

Organizers of the event call ISEF "the Olympics of science fairs."

Just getting to ISEF is enough to make any parent proud. That's not all these exceptional Gen Z students have accomplished, though. Many of them also play musical instruments, make art, or dance competitively.

Business Insider spoke with three ISEF parents about what they did to encourage their children's ambitions. They had five key takeaways.

Take your kid's questions seriously

It can take a lot of patience to keep responding when a kid peppers you with questions, but Smriti Motwani says she and her husband made that a priority with their son Divij.

"My husband always treated him like an adult. He would explain it to him like he's talking to an adult, and so I think that helped," Motwani, a cybersecurity executive, told BI. "His curiosity has taken him a long way."

Divij, now 17, won first in ISEF's biomedical engineering category alongside his friend Ayush Garg for an AI dental exam the duo developed.

Maria Estrada also prioritized questions from her two kids, Pauline and John, who have both won awards at ISEF. If Estrada didn't know the answer, she would take the questioning kid to her husband. If he didn't know either, the family would look it up together.

"I taught them to look for it and research for it, not just rely on me," Estrada, who is a plant-science lecturer at Fresno State, told BI.

Let them try (and drop) lots of activities

All three parents who spoke with BI said they let their kids try different activities and follow what they enjoyed.

The students gained some independence and ended up busy with well-rounded extracurriculars that were fun for them.

Estrada's daughter, for example, balances her science hobbies with competitive ballet. Motwani's son edits a student magazine and sings in his high school choir when he's not tinkering with AI.

Even though Divij is always busy, Motwani said, "It doesn't feel stressful because he's doing it in a very fun way. It is his fun."

Inevitably, a busy kid might decide to drop some of these activities. That's OK.

Alexa Groff was a little "bummed" when her daughter, Taylor, wanted to quit volleyball to prioritize other extracurriculars. But Groff supported her decision.

"I want her to figure things out on her own, but know that I'm there for whatever she needs me for," Groff, a state science fair director in Iowa, told BI.

Send them to public school and travel

Many students at ISEF pursued solutions to problems in their community.

For example, Oahu resident Maddux Alexander Springer, one of the top winners, investigated tumors that were killing sea turtles on his shores. And Estrada's daughter, Pauline, studied the herbicide-resistant weeds plaguing the farms surrounding her Fresno home.

Estrada partially attributes her kids' community engagement to their public school, where they grew up with people from different backgrounds.

"You will learn a lot from being there," she said. "They really know how to deal with different types of people, different ethnicities, different cultures. I always tell them, you just be respectful of everybody."

Travel can help foster compassion and curiosity too, Motwani said.

"The more exposure I give them, the more curious they are, the more they learn, the more they question. It's nothing to do with science," Motwani said. "If you look at a lot of his projects, the heart of it is: How do I help? How do I make a difference in people's lives?"

Emphasize process over outcomes

Of course, kids also need to learn resilience. Groff said that being a single mom, she led by example for her daughter.

"Her seeing failure and the resilience of not quitting — I think that's something really important," Groff said. "It's taught her you might get sick of it and you might hate it. Pause and come back. Just like a brand new day. You have a crappy day, go to bed, you wake up fresh."

The moms said their children were motivated to muscle through when their science fair projects got tough, simply because they liked doing it.

Rather than pushing their kids to win or get the best GPA, the parents said they tried to foster that intrinsic motivation.

"Our lives actually revolve around science fair because this is something that my kids enjoy doing," Estrada said.

Be firm about sleep and health

Eating healthy, exercising, and getting enough sleep are crucial for anyone. All three habits can improve longevity, reduce the risk of myriad diseases, and even give you an edge in cognitive functioning.

"He knows how important it is for us to get a proper night's sleep," Motwani said of her son.

Just to make sure he does, though, she's asked him to leave his phone and laptop with her around midnight during his high school years. Otherwise, he would work on science fair projects until 2 a.m., she said.

Estrada's husband Dexter took a different approach, she said, and simply cut the kids' internet access at midnight using Google's Family Link app.

Motwani says she also has to keep an eye on her son's nutrition, reminding him to eat a fruit and a vegetable each day.

"This is an exciting time. I feel like he wants to conquer the world, which is awesome," Motwani said. "But making sure he stays healthy — that's good."

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