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Talks with Parents of Successful Kids: The Brewer Family

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This is the start of Tutoring 101’s newest blog series: Talks with Parents of Successful Kids. This series is meant to not only provide some hope during times when most publications seem only concerned with how many college graduates remain unemployed today, but to also encourage greater conversation between parents regarding how to promote success for their kids, what schools they liked or didn’t like, and what kind of advice these parents may have to share with parents of younger children.

Flora and Michael Brewer raised their children in Fort Worth, Texas, and can boast of having two tremendously successful sons, Evan and Matthew Brewer. Both Evan and Matthew attended Fort Worth Country Day for their high school years.

After Country Day, Evan was accepted into Southwestern University (Georgetown, TX), awarded merit-based scholarships, and majored in Business with a Theatre minor. By the time he was ready to graduate, he had acceptance letters from three different graduate schools already in hand. He ultimately decided to attend Johns Hopkins University and to pursue a master’s degree in Health Administration. He now works as a Financial Analyst with the Johns Hopkins University Department of Neurology and is on track to become a Financial Manager within the next two years.

Matthew also has more than a few things to brag about. He was accepted into Oberlin College and Conservatory of Music after high school (also on a merit-based scholarship) and studied Opera, German, and International Affairs. He now works with the Policy Studies Organization in Washington, DC, and has just been accepted into Johns Hopkins’ prestigious School of Advanced International Studies for his graduate education.

So, when we found out about this impressive pair of brothers, we knew we needed to talk with the Brewers about what exactly they did to end up with such successful children.

T101:

Thank you for agreeing to interview with us, Mr. and Mrs. Brewer. Why don’t we start by asking a big, complicated basic: How would you define your parenting philosophy?

Mike:

Well, let me start off by saying that we both are uncomfortable when our parenting is singled out as a key to our kids’ “success.” First, because becoming a “successful person” (i.e. more than financially) is a lifetime adventure and challenge. Second, because we know how lucky we were to have such great material to work with. What we’re willing to take credit for is (apparently) not screwing up a combination of traits and potential that was in our children from birth. If they had been born with different traits, they would be different people, and suddenly we might not be considered “successful parents” at all. Kids have much more to do with their own success than they know, or get credit for, as does the environment into which they’re born.

My opinion is highly biased by my belief that specific parenting techniques are much less important than the material you have to work with. Every child is unique, so we would have behaved differently if we had had children with different personalities and gifts/handicaps. I’m personally very skeptical of the “successful parent” concept, other than the basics that pretty much everyone knows about—you know, like don’t starve or beat them; try to show them interesting things and encourage them when they become interested in useful activities; etc. I really believe that “successful” parenting is pretty much combining common sense with good material (and, let’s face it, it’s a rare child that doesn’t have some really good material inherent to them).

T101:

What kinds of hobbies or interests did your sons exhibit as young (elementary aged) children? Did you have to force them into any clubs or extracurricular activities or did they choose these things for themselves?

Flora:

I would have to say that I strongly encouraged them to study some musical instrument. I jumped to give them lessons in anything they showed an interest in. But if they didn’t want to continue, I let it drop. I remember they both enjoyed art as a way to relax and be creative. The serious extracurriculars started in middle school, but we also encouraged summer activities whenever we could. Evan, for example, spent every summer at “zoo school”—couldn’t get enough of it.

Mike:

Mostly the kids chose activities that met their interests. The boys had very different tastes in activities, with the oldest [Evan] more into sports and outdoor activities, while the youngest [Matthew] enjoyed indoor things like video and strategy games. We tried to make them aware of opportunities, and encouraged them to at least try some things they were even mildly interested in or curious about, but we didn’t force either boy to join clubs or teams.

T101:

What kind of study regimens did you have for your sons? Did you have to struggle to get them to do their homework?

Mike:

We used the burden of high expectations. Both boys were clearly very bright, so we placed more emphasis on whether they achieved in school according to their potential. We made very clear to them our expectations that the necessary work would get done. Both boys could handle most homework assignments during free time at school or in a short session at home until they reached high school, so we had no set guidelines for how long each had to study. We told them early on that, because they were clearly capable of A-grade work, we expected mostly A report cards, and we questioned them about their reasons for any grade lower than an A-.

Flora:

It’s funny, but my children would say that I wasn’t satisfied with anything less than an A. After praising them, I would immediately go to the A- and ask, “What could you have done better?” I think it made them feel bad, though. But that was a good way of reminding them of expectations, potential, and the importance of taking responsibility for things.

Mike:

The boys mostly complied with these expectations and we had only a few conflicts over poor effort on their part. We told them that intelligence and being naturally good at school were gifts that couldn’t be bought or earned, and those gifts brought with them the responsibility to use them properly. It was the undervaluation of their gifts that we would not tolerate, because those gifts are too valuable to both themselves and society at large to ever justify wasting.

Flora:

Of course, our children also grew up having high expectations of themselves. Evan has been a perfectionist from birth. We had trouble with homework in elementary school because he stressed out over it. I would sit with him and encourage him to “just do it”—very frustrating sessions. But then, one night when he was seven, he took a knife out of the kitchen drawer and said, “This is my homework killer!” And, from then on, he “just did it.” (Without the knife, of course!) He had just had to come to his own terms with the challenge and find his own confidence.

T101:

What kind of extracurricular activities and electives did your children participate in as high school students? How do you think these impacted their college choices and careers?

Mike:

Our oldest son participated in sports and theater starting in middle school, and he continued those activities through his junior year in high school, when he stopped sports and took ballet instead. He always loved theater, and he continued to act and study acting into college. Our youngest was more introverted, and was never interested in sports. He got involved in both theater and choir in middle school also, and continued both in high school. He became an All-State musician all four years of high school, and went to choral concerts and solo competitions throughout his high school years. Both boys enjoyed acting and appeared together in several theater performances. They were delighted to act in the same shows when they could and, even though there was the normal teenage boy kind of competitiveness between them, they got along very well during high school.

Flora:

I knew that Matthew could sing. He had an amazing ability to identify tunes and pitches. But, for a while, he was only interested in videogames and I hoped he would get into other things. So, I kept encouraging the music. If he told me he liked the music to a videogame, I would order it and play it for him on the piano. That led to him wanting to play the piano as well. I introduced him to a friend of mine for voice lessons in middle school whose personality fit well with Matthew’s. Before singing, he had no interest in any organized group activities, nor would he leave home even to sleep over at a friend’s house. But singing got him going to camps and traveling. Then traveling internationally. Then studying abroad. His interest in a career in the Foreign Service was never something you might have anticipated for him before singing.

T101:

Your kids attended private schools for both elementary and high school. What schools did they attend and what did you like/dislike about these schools?

Mike:

Both attended the same schools, the oldest being two years ahead of the youngest. They attended a small private K-8 school called Fort Worth Academy, where they got a fine general-purpose education designed to assist them in being accepted in private or magnet high school programs. They attended Fort Worth Country Day high school, a private school with a reputation for academic quality and excellent fine arts programs, which were important to both boys as well as their mother (who was herself a voice major in college and who educated both boys in music theory and basic piano and voice).

Flora:

We learned that a reputation for a good fine arts program did not mean that the program was good. I found that I had to advocate continually for better teachers, better facilities, more access to competition opportunities, and advanced classes that these schools just didn’t have. A public school would already have these programs, but private schools are often too small. Matthew would not have passed the entrance exam for Oberlin if we hadn’t convinced the school to offer him an independent study in music theory. But after that, they made it a regularly offered course.

T101:

Did your kids ever seek professional tutoring? How did they prepare for the ACT, SAT, and GRE?

Mike:

Their high school was designed to produce graduates who attended fine colleges, and their education, as well as the test prep and college application process, was highly organized by school personnel who were professionally adept in the art of college admission processes. Both boys were fine students in the top 10 of their graduating classes, and both did well on standardized tests. These factors, combined with the professional application support program at their high school, virtually guaranteed a successful admissions process. If a successful student did not get accepted by their “dream college,” they were virtually assured of getting into one or two of the top 3 schools on their preference list. We were amazed by the depth of information the college admissions support program had, and the 2-year supervised and scheduled application development program the school provided. All high schools that profess to get their grads into college should have a similar program. If parents and students followed the timeline and guidance they received, and completed the application paperwork in the manner the school suggested, any student with reasonable academic ability would gain admission to a good college, even if the school wasn’t “famous.”

T101:

What advice would you offer to parents of young kids who are looking to get their children more interested in school and college?

Flora:

Kids have to have their own reason to want to go to school. For our kids, it was fine arts. Beyond that, you just love ’em, help ’em whenever they need help. If you can’t help them, get someone who can. Talk to them about their work. Take a real interest in what they are studying. Tell them you believe they can be successful. Somebody should ask my kids all these questions! Find out what they think helped! I love what the head of Fort Worth Academy used to say: Third grade is the best preparation for fourth grade, fourth grade is the best preparation for fifth grade…. He encouraged me not to look forward too much or to worry if they were going to get into a good college when they were still only in kindergarten. 

Mike:

I suggest being straight with them; appeal to their logic and sense of self-esteem. Remind them that a college education provides choices of future employment, while not having one tends to close doors they don’t even know exist yet. Having options in life is vital for success and happiness, in career and everything else. Humans need options to be happy and fulfilled. Not having a college degree removes so many options before a student even becomes aware of the complexities of life.

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