The mother of two Silicon Valley CEOs and a college professor shares her secret to raising successful kids

The Wojcicki sisters: Anne, Janet, and Susan.
The Wojcicki sisters: Anne, Janet, and Susan.
Image: AP/Peter Barreras
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One of the reasons people go to Esther Wojcicki for parenting advice is because her three daughters are off-the-charts successful: Susan is the CEO of YouTube, Janet is a professor at UC San Francisco, and Anne is the CEO of 23andMe.

What’s more, Wojcicki has been a teacher for 36 years, helping build a world-famous media arts program at Palo Alto High School. Graduates include James Franco, the award-winning actor, director, and writer; Jeremy Lin, a Harvard graduate and point guard for the Atlanta Hawks; and Craig Vaughn, a child psychologist with the Stanford Children’s hospital.

With her own kids, as well as others, Wojcicki has demonstrated real chops. So what’s her formula?

“I wanted [my kids] to be as independent and as informed as possible,” she said recently over tea in London, on tour to promote her book How to Raise Successful People. “That’s protection for life.”

Her five-point guidance comes in the form of principles, not rules, which means that unlike much parenting advice, it spans the years, from getting babies to sleep to how to react when they grow up and trash the house. They are: trust, respect, independence, collaboration, and kindness (TRICK). It boils down to loving your kids for who they are, not who you want them to be, and getting out of the way as much as you can. Children are more able than parents may realize, and more in need of space to grow than their parents are willing to give. Wojcicki follows a well worn, yet still needed mantra of our time: let kids fail (the test, the piano exam, the tryout, the whatever).

“Kids are supposed to screw up as kids so they screw up less as adults,” she writes, noting that most teachers know that failure is integral to learning, but most parents seem in the dark on this fairly important fact.

Esther Wojcicki.
Esther Wojcicki.
Image: Jo Sittenfeld

The goal, she reminds us, is to make yourself obsolete by raising kids to become effective, functioning humans; not happy all the time nor shielded from failure. Confidence is not born from protection, it is born from ability. She spoke to her kids like they were adults from the start, trusting them to do things: to swim at 18 months; to divide and conquer in a grocery store; to go to the shop alone at three and four (she recently did this with two granddaughters, dropping them off in Target and collecting them an hour later, and Susan was not amused).

“You want your child to want to be with you, not to need to be with you,” she writes. And hers do: after galavanting around the world, they all live close to home and eat together once a week.

She talks a lot about trust: trusting yourself to do the right thing and trusting your child to do chores when they are little or make decisions that are relevant to their age (grapes or apples becomes physics or drama). Kids can do way more than parents give them credit for. But parents have to model the behavior they want to see, giving children consequences when they mess up, forgiving them for mistakes, and never bearing a grudge. Give a kid a phone every time he or she is upset, and that kid will not learn self control, or how to manage boredom.

“Children will listen to you—they want your approval and love—but if they want to be happy, they’re going to have to learn to listen to themselves,” she says. “Use trust to get trust.”

How it began

Wojcicki learned early not to trust anyone, or anything. When her youngest brother ate a bottle of aspirin at 16 months and four hospitals turned them away, her mother, an Orthodox Jewish immigrant, didn’t trust her instincts, took the hospital’s word, and David died. Her father, also an immigrant, declared boys a priority over her, and was cold and distant. Wojcicki discarded the rules of her childhood, got a scholarship to Berkley, met her husband (an experimental physicist), and then raised three kids and built a classroom built around her instincts, not what others told her along the way.

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Her distrust of institutions and conventional wisdom set her free. When she started teaching 36 years ago, her training told her to build a compliance-based classroom, to “not smile ’til Christmas,” and to punish kids to establish authority. She, however, did the opposite: she trusted kids, laughed with them, and got to know them. She gave them control over their learning in the form of projects and collaboration (way before it became trendy) and watched their passion and determination flourish.

There were missteps, consequences, and, eventually, forgiveness. But the school thought she was unruly and unable to “control” a classroom; whenever the principal visited, kids were talking and sometimes (gasp) having fun. She let her kids in on the secret: if they weren’t quiet when the principal came in, she’d lose her job. They kept it down.

Like all good parenting books, Wojcicki’s tackles grit. Enduring challenges is what builds grit, she explains. She cites heartbreaking stories of kids who are terrified to fail in school for fear they will disappoint their parents; like many educators, Wojcicki has noticed a dramatic rise in kids who say they feel utterly helpless. But she also sees those who strive for something because they want it. “This is what we want to bring out in our kids,” she notes, “grit that flows from unbreakable and keen drive and carries them through any instance.” (Along those lines, it can be taught, she says). Kids need to pick their activities and passions: not parents. Anne was a talented musician but she wanted to be an ice skater. So she became an ice skater.

Practical tips

Peppered throughout the book, and in our conversation, she offers a few guidelines: eat dinner together every night; no devices at the tables (”parents are the worst at this”); stop trying to program kids; all teens should have jobs, the less glamorous the better; use humor wherever possible; and don’t help with homework.

And here is where the five principles come in handy. What if a child is struggling with homework, and you help, and that helps build confidence in their abilities? Is that coddling, or sensible help?  She ponders and decides on sensible help, but then suggests explaining that the child needs to move toward independence: “Now, you have to try this on your own. I am here if you need me, but see if you can’t do it alone.”

  • Be brave

Stop conditioning kids to think there are a millions risk at every turn: teach them to cross the street, make a budget, and shop in a store where they are unlikely to be abducted. “The majority of people are trustworthy,” she writes.

  • Start early

She also stresses to be aware of what you say and do around kids between the ages of zero and three. While many people think “babies don’t remember anything,” that is woefully misguided (and disproved with neuroscience). “The most important years are zero to five, and zero the three are even more important,” she says. “The habits you develop from zero to three are the most important habits you establish for your child.”

  • Speak your mind

Avoid arguing in front of a kid, but don’t worry about heated (but respectful) debate and discussion. Kids don’t need to be shielded from the fact that people disagree, nor do they need to see a blowup over the division of labor in the house. They process everything, she says.

  • Stay together (if you can)

She also take a strong line on divorce: don’t do it unless you absolutely have to. The consequences are often not good. (She admits that her own daughter’s high-profile divorce was just something that happened. Life can be messy.) Marriage takes work, but reaps rewards. She suggests parents spend time dealing with their own baggage, and even offers a checklist to help. “When parents don’t take responsibility for their own unfinished business, they miss an opportunity to not only become a better parent but also to continue their own development,” she writes.

  • Be sane about screens

On technology, let kids set some rules. On a family vacation, Wojcicki said her daughters were getting frustrated that their kids were on their phones too much. She urged them to let the grandkids decide the rules. The kids collaborated and decided to ban phones from 9am to 9pm, which was much stricter than what the adults had in mind. There should be no screens under age two and a contract with kids after they hit five: they pick what they do for an hour, parents pick what they do for an hour (that’s two of the five principles: collaboration and trust).

  • Own your mistakes

“Your children will see you make mistakes,” she says. “They will learn more from how you respond to your own mistakes than from the mistake itself.” When parents apologize, they show kids what it’s like to be gracious when you mess up.

  • Don’t be afraid of unhappiness

“One of the biggest mistakes we make as parents is to assume personal responsibility for our children’s emotions,” she writes. No matter how much you love your child, they have to suffer a bit. It’s called “growing up.”

Note to parents: chill out

When I ask Wojcicki why kids are so stressed out, she does not miss a beat: “It’s the parents.” The book is equally unflinching about this: “We are the ones creating this frantic, overly competitive world for our kids.” Parenting is quite simple, she argues, if you use the TRICK principles.

In my humble opinion, blaming parents is not helpful. Many of us are trying hard and stumbling plenty, grappling with social media’s impact on kids, a dramatic rise in competitiveness, and living with the consequences of rising inequality. Indeed, a pair of economists recently traced parenting habits over time and found rising inequality leads to more hovering, or helicoptering, or “snowplowing“. Parents aren’t crazy, the economists conclude; they are rational actors responding to a crazy environment.

But Wojcicki’s advice, which she makes after casting unapologetic blame, is spot on: even if we can’t control the craziness around us, we can control our reaction to it. “The main thing you control is how you respond to adversity,” she notes. “We all have a choice: to be depressed or to be an optimist and I choose to be an optimist and an activist.” Her own past suggests she has lived this truth.

There may be more to the Wojcicki family’s success beyond Esther’s trust-your-instincts parenting. The girls were raised in Silicon Valley in the 1970s, which is great timing. Sergey Brin and Larry Page borrowed Susan’s garage to build Google; she was an early employee. (Anne married Sergey then divorced him, amicably.) Esther’s husband is an experimental physicist and professor at Stanford who works to challenge some of Einstein’s theories. While he was largely absent due to the demands of his job, he pushed the girls prove everything. “He taught the girls the scientific method,” Esther says. Susan attended the famous Bing preschool at Stanford, and actually took Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow test (spoiler alert: she passed with flying colors).

It’s a sign of the times that we celebrate the mother of Silicon Valley CEOs rather than, say, teachers or nurses or social workers. But the book is not short on advice on how to raise kind kids (which is what really matters). Wojcicki is honest and direct and has deep wells of experience to draw from. When one grandson doesn’t talk, she doesn’t panic, which probably helps her daughter not panic (they get speech therapy, and help at home). When another does not walk until 18 months, she has faith it will all work out:

“Parents need to calm down. Your kids will walk. Your kids will talk. They will learn to use the bathroom. No one asks how old you were when you were toilet trained.”

She trusted her instincts, but also didn’t parent in an environment of 24/7 information and distraction. I have two incredibly kind, smart, funny girls, and yet I live with the abiding sense that others are doing things better. That is why How to Raise Successful People is such a gem, on par with Alison Gopnik’s The Gardener and the Carpenter. These books come from a place of love, accumulated wisdom, and seek to help. Wojcicki blames us parents, but also gets us. She wishes we’d all lighten up a bit. I wish that too. “There are no Nobel Prizes for parenting or education, but there should be,” she says.

Amen to that.