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The 'Labor' of Raising a Whiz Kid (Part I)

Eagle Rock mother Jeannine Jaramillo shares how she raised an amazing child who went off to Harvard last week.

Last week Eagle Rock sent student Alejandro Jimenez-Jaramillo off on the adventure of a lifetime—four years on the fabled campus of Harvard University. Widely lauded as one of the brightest stars Eagle Rock High has ever seen, Jimenez-Jaramillo got into every school he applied to, including MIT, Columbia and Stanford.

(In June, we ran a two-part interview with Jimenez-Jaramillo, titled “From Eagle Rock High to Harvard." You can read the first installment of that interview by clicking here. And you can read the second installment of the interview by clicking here.)

At Harvard, Jimenez-Jaramillo will be joining fellow freshman Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld, the daughter of Yale Law School Professor Amy Chua, author of the controversial 2011 book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in which Chua recounts her philosophy of ultra-strict parenting.

What's striking about the comparable academic successes of Jimenez-Jaramillo and Chua-Rubenfeld is that the two children had very different upbringings. “I never planned on either of my children doing a particular thing—I want them to do what they do and do it as well as they can,” says Alejandro’s mother, Jeannine Jaramillo.

“I am so glad he’s going to Harvard because I think it will offer him what he is looking for—a strong biomedical engineering program, along with arts, humanities, and the opportunity to work with his professors, study abroad and live in Boston, which is a wonderful city.”

Eagle Rock Patch asked Jeannine Jaramillo about her perspective on raising great kids—her daughter Couger studies at Eagle Rock High—children whose passion for learning and excellence comes from within. Here’s what she said in our first installment of a wide-ranging interview:

PATCH: How do you instill a drive for academic excellence in your kids?

Jeannine Jaramillo: In terms of academic excellence, it was more of what I did than what I said. We have always had lots of books in the house.  And when they were little, it was blocks, legos, dig up your own dinosaur archaeology kits.

We all work hard in our house, and school is kind of Alejandro’s and his sister’s job. They had chores around the house—feed the pets, take out the trash, etc. Once they figured out I wouldn’t bother them if they were doing homework, chores became secondary. 

And for things like music, they could practice whenever, wherever they wanted.  For a time, whenever they were annoyed with each other, I think they purposely tried to practice during the other’s favorite [TV] show. Also, they were not expected to take care of each other or kid-sit for other kids or even earn money before school. School was their work because it will determine what their future is.

We always made sure that homework or schoolwork came first. Anytime, someone was studying they had control of the room they wanted to study in. The TV went off if that’s where they wanted to study. The kitchen table has often been taken over by school projects. I can hear my husband walking through the house repeating, “It’s a home, not a museum,” as he struggled to overlook the piles of school books, the partially completed projects, the French Horn and the music stand in the middle of the room.

PATCH: Is it important to make your house a focal point for your children?

Jeannine Jaramillo: Well, I cannot remember how many school groups have been to our house to work on projects together. Sometimes, it was multiple groups at the same time. We have always made our house available for study groups, projects, and end of season parties. Often, I’m told at the last minute. We keep the freezer stocked with pizza and ice cream for all. 

Also, we have often been the drivers/chaperones for groups of kids wherever they need to go, sometimes during school, often after school or on weekends. When you are the driver, the kids forget you are there and you get to hear all about things they would not think to tell you about.

PATCH: How did you develop your children’s character?

Jeannine Jaramillo: I never thought of it as building character, but I do remember always—always—talking about the consequences of our actions: how each thing we do affects the world around us. I tried to raise Alejandro as part of the world, not the center of the world.

Many of these talks/discussions took part in the car on the way somewhere. I do remember once, something had happened and I started to talk about it—only to hear a groan from a five-year-old Alejandro in the back seat, with a “Please Mom, not the social consequences speech again.”

I told him if he could explain it to me, I would be quiet. He did. That is when I realized it was better if I listened than if I talked. I started asking both he and his sister about what they knew, and they started teaching me—everything they learned as they learned it. 

It was like the discussion in the car when we were driving places. They explained their schoolwork, what happened at school that day, a favorite comic book—whatever was on their minds. I think listening was the best thing I did for them.

PATCH: How can watching TV and movies together become a learning experience?

Jeannine Jaramillo: One very concrete thing I did when they were little was watching their shows with them, and since I didn’t know any of the characters, they would tell me all about them. Alejandro watched Batman (since about four or five) and then later Friends (about 10-11). 

It’s amazing how many issues very simple shows can bring up for discussion. In one cartoon Batman episode, Bruce Wayne marries a woman he’s known for a week because he falls in love with her. But it ends in disaster because she is actually an evil plant created by Poison Ivy. 

A five-year-old takes its very seriously that you should always know someone well before you marry—because look what happened to Batman. Also, Batman never uses a gun and although he stops “bad” people, he leaves justice up to the courts.

Patch: How did you help build your kids confidence?

Jeannine Jaramillo: I think their confidence and determination come first from being listened to—their suggestions are sometimes followed—and then from having worked through some difficult situations. 

Alejandro faced tough situations, such as his dad’s kidney failure and transplant. He was in seventh grade, and it added to his whole transition to high school. He never complained—he just did his best to help out. We have kind of a weird sense of humor in our house that helps us to get through things like that. 

He has always taken difficult classes—and when you study and then you do well, it makes you feel more confident because you realize you do have some control over your life. Then serving as a “page” in Washington D.C. [in the annual U.S. Presidential Scholars Program], working more than 40 hours a week and going to school full-time, far away from home at age 16—it was really difficult both being in the program and coming back home afterward. He would be the first to tell you, it’s one of the best things he ever did and the most difficult. 

Now that he has seen that he can accomplish something like that, he feels more comfortable with his own abilities and I think that comes through as confidence and determination. 

I have always supported him during difficult times by listening, standing by him, and providing lots and lots of pizza and tostadas and raspberries (i.e. feeding him well), but I have never saved him from a situation. I have been with him while he discusses a difficult situation with a teacher or other adult but I have never gone to talk to a teacher, coach or other person in place of him. 

Eventually, he started doing it all on his own. I think his confidence comes from the situations he has successfully worked out.

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