As a mom who is on the brink of having two teens in the house, I look at Emily and Thomas and marvel at my parenting journey. There was an over-abundance of parenting advice available to me as a new mom but over the years I learned to trust my instincts resulted in two helpful, independent, and confident humans who take risks, accept challenges, and are kind. Letting go and not over-parenting is one of many parenting strategies discussed by Esther Wojcicki in her new book, How to Raise Successful People.
Known for raising three daughters who have each become famously successful as the CEO of YouTube, the Founder and CEO of 23andMe, and a top medical researcher, Esther Wojcicki is also known to me and thousands of Palo Alto Senior High (Paly) students as Woj.
Five years ago I wrote a post about why Woj was my best teacher ever and while reading How to Raise Successful People, I realized how elements of her parenting style influenced her teaching. As a former student, current parent, and forever fan of Woj, I was thrilled to turn the tables and ask her some questions. There is an over-abundance of parenting books, blogs, experts, and advice that exists in the world but I highly recommend How to Raise Successful People. As you will see from Woj’s responses, her perspective is a much-needed antidote to today’s anxiety filled overparenting that is greatly needed in order to help our kids thrive and grow up into the humans we hope they will be.
Leticia— As one of your many former journalism students, I loved reading all of your stories from the classroom and can see how you used trust, respect, independence, collaboration, and kindness (TRICK) in class. How did you know that these five simple lessons from parenting would work with high school juniors and seniors?
Esther Wojcicki (Woj)— I didn’t know for sure, but I thought I would try. I knew that the system as I saw it just didn’t work. I saw so many disconnected kids, dispirited kids, and kids who didn’t want to learn. I thought there had to be a better way. I knew it worked with my daughters and so I decided to try it in the classroom.
What was there to lose? What I discovered is that when you trusted and respected a student, they did the same for you. They didn’t want to lose your trust and so they worked even harder than they did before. They were no longer working for just a grade; they were working because they cared. They loved being trusted and respected and I found that just that simple thing transferred to their other classes, actually to their life. In fact, what I discovered is when I trusted and respected them, they trusted and respected themselves. Sounds too simple, but it is the key. Most people don’t believe in themselves and they should. If parents do this, it makes for a happier, more resilient child, one that learns to collaborate with the parents.
Leticia— You raised 3 daughters who have gone on to do incredible things and are now a grandmother. How has parenting changed since you raised your girls?
Woj— Parenting has changed in two important ways. One, is parents are more fearful these days. They don’t let their kids out on the street without supervision. Kids cannot walk to school even if it is close by. There’s a lot of fear. There is also fear of kids making a mistake and then they won’t get into the college of their choice.
This fear leads to the helicopter parenting syndrome. Parents are trying to protect their kids, but they over protect them. In overprotecting them, they disempower them. Kids feel like they can’t do anything without help and the parents are convinced that is true. That’s what led to the college scandal. Those parents didn’t believe their kids could make it on their own. This fear has intensified in recent years for all parents. My suggestion—-relax.
Second—Now parents are dealing with the cell phone/computer problem. They give electronic devices to their kids TOO EARLY and they are training them to need a device every time they are bored. This training starts early…..very early. I see babies with phones. I see kids in restaurants with phones. I see kids everywhere, every age with phones. No one is bored anymore. Now they have a phone. Boredom leads to creativity.
Where is creativity today? It’s missing from the home and from the school. Kids have almost no room for creativity in class—they are teaching to the test. Every state has a mandatory test. All teachers are concerned about the kids passing the tests. Where is time for creativity? In fact, most kids have no idea what it is. They think it is arts and crafts.
Leticia— What do you think are the biggest challenges parents face today?
Woj— The biggest challenge for parents today is dealing with their fear and uncertainty of raising kids. It makes them nervous and makes their kids anxious. Parenting is natural and the kids will grow up and do well without all that fear and anxiety. They need to stop being helicopter parents and realize that helicoptering is more dangerous long term for their kids. It makes the kids fearful and dependent.
Leticia— Let’s talk technology. In your chapter about trust, you say the digital age has resulted in a crisis of trust. Why?
Woj— Yes, the digital age resulted in a crisis of trust because we see dangerous things happening worldwide and we extrapolate and say these things are going to happen here to my kids. We are more fearful because news is transmitted so easily and quickly. We need to read Steven Pinkers’ book about how the world is much safer now than ever before. We were just ignorant before.
Leticia— I’m a mom on the brink of having two teens since Thomas turns 13 this summer. As my kids have grown up, I’ve given them more independence and watched them prove themselves trustworthy by taking risks, but this isn’t always easy for parents. What advice can you give for parents who are having trouble letting go?
Woj— Metaphorically, remember that you don’t learn to swim by holding on to the edge of the pool forever or holding onto your mom’s hand. At some point you need to take a leap of faith and jump in. This applies to all areas of life. Also, you need to remember how adept kids are….sports champs learn at an early age. If you don’t learn to ski, swim, ride a bike, drive at an early age, you will never be proficient.
No one becomes an Olympic swimmer if they learn to swim at 18. Kids are smarter than you think. They also learn languages easily. We adults are too controlling.
Leticia— In your chapter called “Your Child is Not Your Clone,” you describe respectful parenting as supportive and demanding in reference to Anne turning down a job offer with a biotech investment fund after college. Does the idea of parents letting kids find their own way versus knowing when to intervene apply to kids of any age?
Woj— The main thing parents can do is offer advice (not control) and then let the kids find their way. After college they have to find a job….even if it is not a perfect one. They cannot just sit at home and do nothing. Parents are support but not long-term financial support. They need to work at something.
Leticia— I don’t know if Paly seniors still get a spot next to their photo for artwork, quotes, etc. but I remember including a line from Whitney Houston’s Greatest Love of All in mine. I wrote “I believe children are the future, teach them well and let them lead the way.” You let us lead as high school students but what are some age appropriate ways parents of younger kids can let them lead?
Woj— Lead them with guidance; don’t dictate. That is give them options, lots of them and then let them choose. Younger kids need more scaffolding. But don’t be so directive that they have no agency.
Leticia— Early in your book you tell parents “It helps to make a list of things you do well” to increase their confidence. What are the things you’ve done well and are exceptionally proud of?
- Teach my own children to have confidence in themselves
- Be an effective teacher and help students be independent thinkers
- Be a good grandparent and support my children as parents
- Care about the world and work to make it better in all aspects
- Write a book teaching Moonshots in Education to help all teachers
- Write How to Raise Successful People to help people in all aspects of life.
I received an advance copy of How to Raise Successful People. No compensation was received for this post.