Parenting Lessons with Esther Wojcicki
Esther Wojcicki knows a thing or two about how to develop healthy, productive children. As a legendary public high school teacher in Palo Alto, Calif., she founded the school’s renowned Media Arts program, which gives students the freedom and skills to create their own magazines and more. The program has attracted kids from some of the tech community’s most influential families and won high praise from many, including Steve Jobs.
Wojcicki, 79, also raised three superstars of her own: Susan, the CEO of YouTube; Janet, a professor of pediatrics at UC, San Francisco Medical Center; and Anne, the cofounder and CEO of 23andMe.
In a new book, How to Raise Successful People: Simple Lessons for Radical Results (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Wojcicki distills her thinking, expressed by the acronym TRICK—trust, respect, independence, collaboration and kindness. It’s a commonsense approach for an overburdened age. As her daughters write in a foreword to the book, “Our parents taught us to believe in ourselves and our ability to make decisions. They trusted us to make decisions.”
Wojcicki spoke with Worth about the dangers of tech, why wealth can be a detriment to kids and what really keeps our kids safe.
Q: When you talk about raising successful children, how are you defining success?
A: I define a successful person as someone who feels that they have the support to achieve their dreams. Most people are controlled by fear of what other people think. And fear of what, usually, their parents or their relatives are going to say about what they’re doing. A lot of people go through life like this, and then they’re miserable.
You want to be able to do what you want to do in life. And that doesn’t mean anything that could hurt other people or that could be detrimental to your health, or something that society would see as really dangerous.
So it’s not so much about what kind of job you have or how much money you make. You’re talking about bigger questions of personal satisfaction and health.
Right. I’ve been around a lot of very wealthy people, and many of them are very unhappy. I think wealth is somehow inversely correlated with happiness. People get a lot of money and they think, Oh, now I’m going to be happy. And all of a sudden they realize, I’m not very happy at all, and what’s going on? Happiness is related to how you feel about yourself in general, what you’re worried about, and it’s totally related to good relationships. If you have more good relationships than bad, you’re good—I don’t care if you have $30,000 a year or $300,000 or $3 billion. But relationships change dramatically when you’re very wealthy. It’s not fun in many ways.
All kinds of people suddenly want to be your friend. At first you can’t quite understand why. And then after a few years of this, you realize why they want to be your friend: They just want some of your money. I’m not sure I should say that in public, but I think it’s true. It’s hard.
I think a lot of our readers can relate to that.
They’re all going to get it. Everybody knows. And I was kind of shocked—I couldn’t believe it—but it happens all the time. All these people are constantly saying, “Oh, let’s go out for coffee!” At first you’re like, really? Why? Now I know why.
It must be hard to have to be guarded and think about what people’s motivations are all the time.
That’s right. But that’s the way you have to be. You don’t have to be like that when you don’t have any money. People really like you if they want to be with you.
The pressures on kids are overwhelming.
So in a way, wealth can be a barrier to raising successful children. What are some other challenges for kids today?
The pressures on kids are overwhelming: the focus on test scores and getting into the perfect college, having the good brands, looking really good, and wearing the right clothes. I was with [my journalism students] last night. A lot of them stay really late. They don’t ever want to go home. They were playing this game, and it was interesting to listen to it. One girl said, “It’s really important to love yourself.” And all these other kids made fun of her like crazy. They’re about 15 or 16 years old. And then I said, “Yes, if you don’t love yourself, who will?” And they all sort of looked at me like, oh my God, what is going on here?
But they have so many pressures on them. They look mature, and they look like they’re adults, but they’re not. They’re babies inside. So that’s one of the problems. We need to worry about that.
Tech has given us so much that’s positive. As someone at the epicenter of the tech scene, do you think it’s helped or hindered children?
Tech has made it all worse. You have that app on your phone, Find My Phone, right? In case you lose it? Well you also have an app, Find My Kids—and all those kids, their privacy is invaded. Because they can’t go anywhere without their parent saying, “Oh, I saw that you went across the street today and got yourself something to eat at blah blah blah.” You have no privacy.
Also, the competition among parents has intensified because you can see what your friend’s child is doing, and yours isn’t doing it. Studies show that social media has a greater impact on girls than boys, and I can actually see it. Because it’s all about how you look. No matter what we’re trying to do, girls are still rating each other by how they look. You do have to look a certain way to be a boy, but it’s not as dramatic. The clothing is more standardized. I think in that sense it’s easier to be a boy. But actually, boys are having a much harder time now than ever before. They don’t know what their role is.
In what way?
Look the wrong way at a girl today and you can get into trouble. I mean, all a boy literally has to do is look at a girl’s boobs—a pretty normal hormonal thing to do. Just look at them. And then everybody is going to say something, or the teacher’s going to say, “What kind of behavior is that?” The highest suicide rate among teenagers is for boys. Three to one, boys to girls, committing suicide.
Decades of cultural attitudes are shifting onto their little shoulders.
That’s right. So one thing that happens in my class that is so unusual, and I think it makes a huge impact, is that boys—everybody—gets to be themselves. They get to be accepted for being themselves. And not only that, kids get to run the show. I am really on the sidelines. Of course I step in if it looks like they’re involved in anything that’s libelous, or anything that would create any kind of problems for us legally. But otherwise, I let them do it. Trust your kids. Trust your students.
Because it’s self-fulfilling?
Yes, it makes them trustworthy. The pedagogy is not that difficult to understand—it’s just being in an environment where you’re supported to do it. I think that’s the thing that’s lacking in a lot of schools.
Because most schools, they’re like military prisons. Just think about it: There’s a bell, and you have to move the minute the bell rings. The teacher’s in charge, you follow instructions, you don’t go to the bathroom without a pass. Every minute is monitored, and teachers are ranked or rated on how well they control their classes. Administrators come in and watch you and it’s like, oh, the kid in the corner wasn’t paying attention and it’s your fault.
Let’s get back to the role of parents. We were talking a bit about parents feeling invested in what their kid’s image is and how it reflects on them. But isn’t it also true that parents are afraid—to get back to the idea of fear—and want to protect their kids? Doesn’t some of this over-parenting and obsessive watching come out of fear?
For sure. It all comes out of fear. But the idea of safety has expanded. It’s important not to let a toddler run into a swimming pool or run out in front of traffic. But safety has now expanded to playing with the right kids and doing the right things after school and having the right tutors and lessons and dressing the right way. It’s crazy. The biggest problem is that parents today feel that they are responsible for their child’s happiness every minute of the day. So the kid can’t play alone for a few hours because the parent feels like, oh, I should be arranging a lesson. There must be something productive that my child could be doing now.
And we aren’t even talking about school shootings…
Well, it’s happening everywhere. The first week of school in Palo Alto, there was a whole day that was devoted to what to do if there’s an active shooter on campus. The next activity was how to protect yourself if there’s any kind of sexual predator type of behavior. And then there was one on how to evacuate the campus—this was a whole day devoted to protecting yourself in this world today. The kids didn’t want to go to school for it, so you can’t believe what administrators did. They said, “Today is pajama day, wear your pajamas to school.” That’s how they got them to come. And then do these crazy drills.
It’s kind of a metaphor for infantilizing them. You’re like a little kid when you’re in your jams.
That’s right, and the main thing they said was, “No scandalous pajamas.” The world is really not fun for kids these days.
But you have an approach that can help, called TRICK. Can you distill it down for us?
TRICK stands for trust, respect, independence, collaboration and kindness. My daughters said, “Mom, how did you come up with that? We never heard about that when we were growing up.” And it’s true. It took me a while to figure out what I was doing that seemed to work, at home and in my classes.
The Media Arts class enrollment was off the charts—about 700 kids are taking the classes at any given time—and everybody wanted to know what I was doing. What I was doing was based on gut instinct, really. I was like, this is how I wish I would have been treated when I was going to school. Because it wasn’t like this at all. My students were the ones who told me first that the main difference is that I trusted them, and it took me a couple years to understand it. Because I said, “Well, doesn’t everybody?” It made no sense to me. And then the respect, the trust…. If you see some of their publications, you’ll see that they’re right on the cutting edge. And I respected their ideas, and then I realized that what that meant, trust and respect, was about giving them independence, letting them collaborate and treating them with kindness.
Early on, I had trusted my children’s instincts.
So the whole thing, it works together. It’s really about allowing them to do what it is that they find important. Looking back at my mothering, I realized that what I had done was exactly that, because early on, I had trusted my children’s instincts and trusted them, as little kids, to be able to understand adult conversation. I never used baby talk. That gave them the sense that they were capable, a sense of confidence.
It’s kind of a parallel to your concern that in schools, teachers are too often lecturing instead of teaching through experience and communication.
It’s all the same idea. When people listen to a lecture, they max out at about 15 minutes at the most. After that, it’s all a waste. School classes are usually 50 to 60 minutes and teachers lecture the whole time. When I was required to lecture, I used to divide the class period up. The most I would talk would be 10 minutes, and then I would get the kids to do something else, and then I would talk another 10 minutes, and get them to do something else.
And you were having a lot of success, right? Kids were interested.
The kids all wanted to be in the program. I guess the biggest thing that happened was that I won first place, one of those Gold Crown awards from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association. It was a big deal. And now, every year, if we don’t win a Gold Crown, we cry. We’ve won more Gold Crowns than any school in the nation.
How did you become a teacher?
The pressure on me to be a teacher was actually pretty great. I graduated from college, UC Berkeley, in ’62, and there were really just three jobs open to women. One was being a secretary, the other was being a teacher—I can’t remember what the third one was. I wanted to be a journalist, and that was not a job that was open to women. But I was persistent and managed to start, at 14, working for a local newspaper, and then because I seemed to have a gift for it, they trained me. My stories appeared in all different sections of their weekly newspaper, from sports and opinion to the school board meetings or whatever. I was covering it all.
That’s great training.
I got a master’s in journalism from Berkeley and then wanted to work. But women were not allowed into the San Francisco press club—it was male only. The only job I was able to get was for a small newspaper, the Berkeley Daily Gazette. Back then, there was a section of the paper called the women’s section. They used to have news and sports and opinion and business, and then the women’s section, devoted to how to take care of your husband and housekeeping tips and beauty tips and how to dress and all that crap. That’s all they wanted me to do. It was awful. So after my kids were born I was like, this is enough. And that’s how I started teaching.
You’ve taught everything from English to geometry to biology. But you’re known around the world for your journalism program.
Yes, that’s all I’ve taught for years now, and we have a beautiful 25,000-square-foot Media Arts center for the program. It’s the only one of its type in the country for a high school. My colleagues and I got to design it.
You started to gain national attention. Now you’re known as the godmother of Silicon Valley. Steve Jobs, among many others, said he was inspired by you. How did all that happen?
Things built slowly. More and more people were moving to the district to be in my program. And it wasn’t just my program—it was the reputation of the school. Everybody was like, why pay for private school when you can get it for free here in Palo Alto?
My reputation grew, and that’s how Steve Jobs heard about me. The Hewlett family was also in my program—there are a lot of really famous families that have had their kids in my program. The other thing that happened was that Google started in my daughter Susan’s garage. So I knew a lot of the Google people in 2005, when my program started, which was just a few years after Google was founded. I was hired as a contractor on the education products and came up with a lot of ideas that Google for Education now incorporates into its work. That also helped promote what I was doing.
Journalism is undergoing tremendous transformation, and it’s hardly an easy field to be in. But that doesn’t seem to have impacted how many kids are interested in getting the training.
The two skills that are most important to learn today are how to write and do computational thinking, which isn’t really coding, but understanding how computers think.
Students everywhere need a course in media literacy—and not just college students.
You have a lot of kids in college studying communications. It’s critical today to learn how the press works—the difference between a news story and an opinion story. Go out in the street and ask the average person, and they won’t be able to tell you. A lot of people say, “Ah, the news is so biased these days,” but they’re reading the opinion section and it’s supposed to be biased. Students everywhere need a course in media literacy—and not just college students.
Your three daughters are all tremendously successful in traditionally male-dominated fields. Is there any special approach or challenge to raising daughters?
You want them to feel this: “I can do anything I want to”—a sense of empowerment. One of the things that I did, and still do, is I never focused on makeup and Barbies, on being beautiful and cute. You always want to look nice, but you don’t want to look too great. You don’t want to be diverted from what you’re trying to do, and you don’t want to send a red flag out about what you’re trying to do.
So my daughters are—if you look at them—all kind of natural. I mean, they can look like superstars. But for the most part, they were focused on what you can do and the kind of person you can be, as opposed to how good you look all the time. What we do with little girls—and you have to be careful—is we focus on, “Oh my gosh, she’s so cute!” And then with little boys, “Oh my God, how smart he is!” I never did that.
I was always saying things like, “Oh, that was a really good effort, you did a good job on that.” I focused a lot on sports, they rode bikes early, went swimming early, learned how to play all these ball games early. We had the biggest amount of Legos. You had to be able to entertain yourself. I did all this…I’m not sure why. I had worked as a model, so the question was, why didn’t I focus on looks and things like that?
As a young woman?
As a young woman. I was a model because I needed to make money, and it paid a lot. I’m very tall and skinny and that works well for photography. I didn’t like being a model. I did it because I had to.
A lot of the stuff that I’m doing now, which is pretty late in life, is being done late because I didn’t have those opportunities early on. I got married when I had just turned 21, and I thought I was old because all my friends had gotten married at 18. My parents worried, “Oh my God, is she ever going to get married?” There was that card game that everybody played—no one plays it anymore—called Old Maid.
Thank goodness that feels like a different time.
Once you got married, you didn’t even have a name. I was no longer Esther; I was Mrs. Stanley Wojcicki. When Susan was born, the local newspaper had a birth announcement. My husband’s name was in there. It was “Stanley Wojcicki—girl, 8 pounds, 10 ounces,” or whatever. And I was like, where am I?
In your book you say, “Parenting gives us perhaps the most profound opportunity to grow as human beings.” What does it do for a parent to raise their kids in this TRICK way?
It gives them perspective, and it gives them an opportunity to relive their childhood. You can crawl on the floor and say crazy things, dress up. And you can impact another person’s life in the way that you wish your life had been impacted. It gives you tremendous power and an incredible sense of accomplishment.