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The Profile Dossier: Esther Wojcicki, the Educator Who Raised Entrepreneurial Children
“A single word or sentence can build a child up or shatter his confidence.”
Often referred to as "Silicon Valley's godmother," Esther Wojcicki is the matriarch of one of the most well-known families in the Valley.
Wojcicki, a long-time educator, is the mother of Susan, Anne, and Janet Wojcicki. In raising her kids, she created her own approach to parenting as a result of her own harsh upbringing, which was quite different from the one she chooses to employ. "My father’s philosophy was ‘Spare the rod, spoil the child,'" she says.
As the mother of three daughters, Wojcicki decided to instill a parenting philosophy she calls TRICK, which stands for trust, respect, independence, collaboration, and kindness.
As far as we can tell, it worked. She raised three successful women: Susan is the former CEO of YouTube, Anne is the co-founder and CEO of 23andMe, and Janet is a professor at UC San Francisco.
From the very beginning, Wojcicki rejected traditional parenting advice and instead, decided to trust her own instincts. She spoke to her daughters as if they were adults, doing away with the baby talk. She trusted them unconditionally, respected their individuality, and encouraged their independence from a young age.
"What I wanted more than anything was to make them first into independent children and then into empowered, independent adults," she says. "I figured that if they could think on their own and make sound decisions, they could face any challenges that came their way."
Wojcicki is also a staunch supporter of her daughters to this day. When Anne and Alex Rodriguez broke up, Esther said, "We couldn’t have an intellectual conversation about anything. His main interest in life was something that none of us had ever focused on, which was baseball. He could park himself in front of a TV and watch baseball for 10 hours a day." 😂
Wojcicki's parents were Russian-Jewish immigrants who came to the United States in the 1930s. She remembers an incident from her youth that colored her view of the world forever.
When Wojcicki was 10 years old, her 16-month-old brother David found an aspirin bottle in the kitchen and ended up swallowing dozens of pills. Her mom called the doctor, who advised putting David to bed and checking on him in a few hours. Her mom followed instructions, but David's condition only worsened. She drove him to the hospital, but they turned her away, and David died shortly thereafter.
"My mom was unsure of herself and didn't trust her instincts," Wojcicki said. "I decided not to trust people with long titles and began to ask 'why' and challenge the system. ... This made me an independent thinker."
She wanted to teach her own daughters to challenge authority, understand their options, and think for themselves. Here's what we can learn from Wojcicki about raising kids into successful adults.
On raising leaders: What is TRICK? In her book, How to Raise Successful People, Wojcicki elaborates on her parenting formula, and how you can actually use it with your own kids. Here are her five fundamental values that can help us all become capable, successful people.
On effective parenting: In this wildly practical article, Wojcicki shares her most practical tips for parenting: 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.
On the risks of technology: In this Q&A, Wojcicki opens up about raising leaders, the college admissions scandal, and the thorny issue of technology’s dark side. "Technology is good because it empowers kids; it gives them the opportunity to find information themselves. The downside is we spread misbehavior," she says.
On teaching kids to develop confidence: How do you teach kids to be secure, and confident? Start by trusting them with small acts of responsibility. "We have restricted the freedom of our kids," she says. "We don't let our kids go anywhere by themselves." Here's how Wojcicki recommends molding your child and helping them develop habits that will turn them into independent adults.
On the responsibility of a parent: As a parent, there's a lot of things to manage — work, home, childcare, and more. But Wojcicki says the most important things to keep in mind is your own behavior. "Parents must realize they model the behavior for their kids," she says. "So when they're very stressed, then their kids become stressed. It's a cycle."
On trusting your kids: When Wojcicki was in charge of watching her grandkids for an afternoon, she decided to do a trust exercise. She dropped off two of her 9-year-old granddaughters at Target and told them to shop for school supplies by themselves and call her when they were done. Meanwhile, she took her grandson to get a haircut and allowed him to speak with the barber himself on what kind of haircut he wanted. Taking small steps to show kids you trust them is an invaluable skill that teaches them independence and sound judgement.
On the student as the CEO of their life: Employers want creative employees who have critical thinking and collaboration skills. There is one big problem: Our current education does not prepare students for this type of role. In schools, kids are taught how to follow instructions and take tests. In this TEDxTalk, Wojcicki asks the following question: What would happen if we let students control their learning 20% of their time with real-world projects that they choose?
TECHNIQUES TO TRY.
Teach kids how to operate in the real world: So much of school is focused on the theoretical and not the practical. Financial literacy classes are not typically offered in high schools across America. So Wojcicki says parents can teach these skills at home. For instance, give your kids a budget and allow them to shop for items on their own. Wojcicki showed her daughters a compound interest chart when they were still in elementary school, and growing up, the three sisters sold so many lemons from their neighbor’s yard that they became known as the “lemon girls.” Wojcicki believes that kids should learn early on that they are perfectly capable of surviving without adults around. Give your children room to learn, experiment, and apply their knowledge to the real world.
Don't be a "snowplow parent:" Wojcicki says we've created a nation of "snowplow parents" — parents who are so unwilling to see their kids fail that they clear the way and give children they easy path forward. As evidenced in the recent college cheating scandal, parents paid insane sums of money in order to have "tutors" cheat for their kids in order to get them into the best universities in the country. Parents need to realize, she says, that the work world is not a series of tests. You can't cheat your way into being a valuable employee or a superstar CEO. Focus on helping your child develop their mental equipment more so than their ability to pass an exam.
Practice the behaviors you want your children to emulate: There is no better role model for your kids than you as a parent. But, no parent is perfect. One time, for example, Wojcicki read her daughter's diary without her consent. She felt awful about it and realized she was wrong for violating her privacy. So she went to Janet, admitted she was wrong, and asked for her forgiveness. It allows kids to realize that even adults make mistakes, and it shows them the right way to rectify a mistake. “Your children will see you make mistakes,” Wojcicki says. “They will learn more from how you respond to your own mistakes than from the mistake itself.”
Allow kids to reflect on their mistakes: Rather than disciplining your kids with harsh punishments or grounding them for weeks, try a different approach. “When children misbehave, have them write an apology and reflect on how they will improve," Wojcicki recommends. "Writing is thinking, and thinking prompts change.” By allowing them to reflect on their mistakes and offer solutions rather than excuses, you are teaching your kids to own their missteps and it uses the logical part of their brain, rather than the emotional one.
Follow your kid's passion: Here's a counterintuitive suggestion for helicopter parents: Kids should be the ones who pick their activities and passions — not their parents. It may be difficult to stand by and watch your child pursue something that they fail at when you know their real talent lies somewhere else, but it's important you let them to do it anyway. Wojcicki says, "Anne was a talented musician, but she wanted to be an ice skater. So she became an ice skater." We don't allow kids to explore, Wojcicki says, because we think we know what's best for them. Act against this instinct and let your child take the lead on discovering their own interests. “We need to define ‘success’ as ‘passion’ and remember kids’ passion comes from within themselves," she says.
Conduct a family meeting: Struggling to implement rules in your household? Instead of taking a top-down approach, try a bottom-up approach. For instance, if you want to limit the time your kids spend in front of a screen, call a family meeting and tell them you want them to come up with fair rules. Allow your kids to be part of the rule-making process, and you might be pleasantly surprised with what they come up with. The more you involve your children in a democratic process where their ideas are listened to, challenged, and respected, the more they'll learn to do the same for others.
Focus on your own growth as a human: When Wojcicki became a parent, she was hyper-aware that her own childhood shaped her. She recommends taking time to focus on your own behavior. Ask yourself: Why are you doing the things you do? Is it largely unconscious? Did you pick it up from your own parents? Is it coming out of some anxiety or insecurity you feel about yourself when it comes to parenting? She explains that becoming a parent allows you to understand the challenges your parents faced that you might not have recognized as a child. “Parenting gives us perhaps the most profound opportunity to grow as human beings," she says. Understand that your child's development is important, but so is your own, and you can improve, learn, and grow over the years, too.
QUOTES TO REMEMBER.
"You can’t do anything without trust.”
“Believe that the majority of people are trustworthy; otherwise, you are teaching your children to be fearful, which will close them off from exploring life’s possibilities.”
“Respect includes setting high standards. But the standards should be high in areas where they have personal meaning for the kids, not for the parents.”
"There are no Nobel Prizes for parenting or education, but there should be. They are the two most important things we do in our society."
"All you need is one person, just one person who trusts and believes in you, and then you feel you can do anything."
“A single word or sentence can build a child up or shatter his confidence.”
“Use humor for infractions that are not too serious.”
“Parenting is how culture gets transmitted to the next generation.
“What I realized, through a lot of conscious effort, is that parenting gives us perhaps the most profound opportunity to grow as human beings.”
“Kids need to be allowed to take the lead. YOU follow THEM. Children know who they are. Your job is to honor and respect that.”
“Beyond temporary jobs, seeing the world is the best education a kid can have.”
“Accept your child for who she is and let her life unfold accordingly.”