Esther Wojcicki is widely known as the mastermind behind Palo Alto High School’s successful media arts program, which has produced alumni like the actor James Franco. A fact hidden from the public eye is that Wojcicki is also a successful mother of three incredible women: Anne Wojcicki, founder of 23&Me, a genetics startup; Susan Wojcicki, the CEO of YouTube; and Janet Wojcicki, a professor of social anthropology.
It is not uncommon for people to wonder how Esther Wojcicki managed to raise all three children to be incredibly successful in their respective fields. What did she do differently that other parents didn’t? In a world with a 24-hour information cycle competition has increased immensely, and parents everywhere are looking for answers to parent their children successfully. Esther’s secret ingredient to raise successful people is simple: Trust your child.
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Wojcicki about her new book, “How to Raise Successful People,” and how parents can build trust with their children to help them become happier people.
The text has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ankita Mukhopadhyay: What is the objective of “How to Raise Successful People”?
Esther Wojcicki: I want to change the way parents teach their children about success. The world now has a culture where everybody is afraid that their child is not going to succeed. This fear pushes parents to put tremendous pressure on their children to follow traditional careers such as medicine, law or tech. The world needs people who are willing to take a risk. The ability to build risk-taking in people starts at an early age, and the responsibility to do that lies with parents. The responsibility eventually moves over to schools and then the workplace. The objective of my book is to help create a society that has people who are innovative, creative and passionate.
Mukhopadhyay: What triggered your decision to write this book?
Wojcicki: There were several reasons. The first reason is that there was a lot of interest in my program from across the world and some questions kept popping up that I needed to answer. Other questions frequently posed to me were, How did you bring up your daughters? How did you produce three daughters who are all really successful and innovative?
Another reason that triggered my decision to write the book is the rise of an epidemic called “helicopter parenting” or “safetyism.” Today’s parents have gone overboard with everything that is safe. An example of this is the recent news of some parents paying somebody to cheat on the SAT test to get their children into college. These parents were willing to pay thousands of dollars to get their children into college. In many cases, the kids didn’t even know that their parents were doing these terrible things.
The parents did this to “protect” their child because the kids were trained since an early age to be protected and rarely did anything on their own. At universities like Stanford we now have a situation where some parents move to the city to be close to their children. When are we going to stop this? All these reasons made me realize that this was the right time to write this book.
Mukhopadhyay: How did you motivate your daughters to succeed in a patriarchal society?
Wojcicki: I always made it clear to my daughters that it didn’t matter whether they were male or female — they had the same opportunities. They grew up with this idea. When they hit the real world, they realized that it wasn’t true, as there are different opportunities for males and females. But I told them to not let any harassment get in their way or divert them. They had to keep their eye on the goal irrespective of any problem. Susan, my oldest daughter, once worked in India, where she was the only female person in the team of India Today, and she didn’t face any problems in India.
My goal for my daughters was to motivate them to make the world a better place and they grew up with this idea. I also practiced what I preached. I was always out in the community trying to do things so the community could be better. My children witnessed my effort in bringing affirmative action to the community. Children model after you, whether you like it or not. They do what they see you do. A lot of parents need to remember that, especially in this digital age where parents ban their kids from having phones, and yet they’re themselves sitting there at the dinner table with the phone. The first thing parents should remember is that they shouldn’t do something if they want their child to do the same.
Harmeet Singh Walia: In your book, there are several examples of how Janet (the middle child) was very competitive. But when Janet actually chose a career, she didn’t choose what was the most difficult to get into — she chose her passion. How did you make sure that she balanced competitiveness with her pursuit of passion?
Wojcicki: I encouraged all my daughters to work on something that they cared about a lot. They were not competitive with each other in choosing a career. I think they all just picked their own career based on their interest. None of them had any idea what they would do with their subject when they majored in it. They were just following their own instincts and their interest. What worked for them was that there was no pressure from either me or my husband. Parents need to free children from parental expectations to help them find their footing in life.
Parents need to realize that because of all the pressure they’re putting on that kid they are creating a world where the children are depressed and not safe. Parenting has to change if you want to have happy children and create successful “people.”
Mukhopadhyay: In your book, you mention how parents nowadays are afraid to even let their kids play outside, whereas this wasn’t the case in your time. Why do you think parental trust has deteriorated over the last few generations?
Wojcicki: This deterioration of trust has happened in the last 15-20 years. A major reason for the fall in trust is news and social media, which always showcases the bad things in the world. Since we see a lot of bad things, we tend to become overprotective. But I don’t think this accounts for the whole picture. Another factor is that all of us now have more resources than we ever did before. I didn’t have any toys growing up. The main thing I did was climb a tree for fun. Parents nowadays tend to think, I have more resources to make my child safer and also happier, so I’m going to do that. This has led to a world that is just afraid of everything.
Walia: You talk a lot about your troubled childhood in your book. How did you manage to not let that affect your parenting skills?
Wojcicki: I had a difficult childhood, where my family always prioritized my brothers over me. They didn’t want me to go to college or do anything except be a mother. Basically, I was another pair of hands for them as a child. We all tend to parent in the way we were parented, as that’s something that just happens unconsciously, which is why it is very hard to change. But if you’re aware of this, you can definitely change it. One has to talk to their children and not let their past come in the way.
My book talks about a TRICK model to deal with this. It reminds parents that trust, respect and collaboration are much more effective than punishing or expelling children. Actions like punishment make children angry, and then they do the same thing again. But when you to talk to children and have a discussion with them, it’s very effective. As a matter of fact, most kids appreciate it to such a degree that they stay friends with you for life.
One thing parents from troubled backgrounds need to definitely avoid is hitting their children. Making children suffer for their wrongs can make them become aggressive, angry and miserable. If you hit your children, especially girls, they will stick in a marriage where they feel it is normal to be abused, often because they’re used to that type of treatment. They will think it’s just a continuation of the life they normally lead.
Mukhopadhyay: How do parents build trust with their children who are naughty?
Wojcicki: I would say, build trust a little bit at a time. Kids who are naughty are usually rebelling against something or they are naughty because the communication channel between kids and parents isn’t that great.
Parents need to realize that children really want to please their parents. What you can do is develop little things the child does right and build on those things. The child will want to do more things that are pleasing the parents as they’re looking for approval all the time. Trust them to do those things and then reward them.
Walia: In the developing world, and even in the West, the onus of parenting still falls largely on the mother. How does one encourage fathers to take responsibility for the upbringing and safety of children?
Wojcicki: The role of a father is integral to good upbringing of a child. A lot of times, unconsciously, fathers think they are not as important as the mother, so they don’t take up a big role at home. If you don’t play a role in the life of a child, then the child doesn’t want to spend as much time with you. A lot of responsibility lies on the wives to make men feel more included. This can happen if the roles are on a conscious level. Fathers can start taking a small amount of responsibility and then increase it slowly depending on how it goes. The father’s role can grow as the child grows because then he or she doesn’t need the mother as much once she or he’s crossed the threshold of infancy. But mindsets need to change first for this to happen.
Mukhopadhyay: One of the most common ailments among many young people today is depression. The biggest complaint among many children and teenagers is that their parents don’t understand and support them. How can parents tackle and understand depression and mental health?
Wojcicki: Depression is a major problem here in the US, and it’s a growing problem worldwide too. It’s all a result of pressure which is heaped on the child from the family. That’s part of the goal of this book, to show parents that they have to stop putting all this pressure on these kids. Because, maybe, they’re going to get into the top schools, but they’re going to be miserable for life. You want your child to be happy. It’s better to be happy and middle-class than very wealthy and miserable.
One should not correlate happiness with material wealth. You aren’t happy just because you own a Rolls Royce. You are happy because you have good relationships and you feel in control of your life. Parents need to realize that because of all the pressure they’re putting on that kid they are creating a world where the children are depressed and not safe. Parenting has to change if you want to have happy children and create successful “people.” That’s again another goal of my book.
Mukhopadhyay: There are many books out there on parenting. How is your book different?
Wojcicki: Most parenting books concentrate on one thing, such as sleep problems, discipline problems or toilet training problems. These are books on specific aspects of childrearing. “How to Raise Successful People” is a philosophy for not just child rearing, but schools and relationships. It is not just a parenting book — it’s book on human interaction and how to live the most satisfying, productive and effective life possible.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.