This One Trick Is The Smartest Parenting Move You'll Ever Make
An accomplished teacher, author, and mother, Esther Wojcicki has been inspiring teenagers—and their parents—for years. Of her three daughters, one grew up to be the CEO of YouTube, the other a university professor, and the last, the founder and CEO of the genetic testing company, 23andMe. Her new book, How To Raise Successful People: Simple Lessons for Radical Results explains her methodology on child-rearing, even if she didn't realize it at the time; I spoke with her about the lessons she learned along the way.
How did you develop your parenting and teaching methods? Obviously, it's worked out pretty well.
I didn't have any of this thought out when I was a parent. I didn't have this whole plan. But one of the main things I wanted to do as a young mother was I wanted them to be as independent as possible, as fast as possible. I wanted them to be able to navigate any environment they were in. When they were young, we moved into this new house. We had no furniture, no plants, nothing. So on the weekends, we would go to the garden center, and I'd have them bring a gardening book. As we looked at all the plants, I'd have them look up all the flowers and the behavior of the plants, so we could figure out what we wanted for our home. I wanted to give them the resources to think and learn for themselves: what plants would work, what plants to stay away from. Or, as they grew up, they learned their letters from Sesame Street—they weren't allowed to watch cartoons; I can't stand them—then as we were walking down the street, I could point to street signs, explain what they meant, and we could figure out where we were going together. I wanted them to learn how to navigate in case they ever got lost.
One of the things I always say is you should want to be obsolete. Maybe that's too strong of a word. But I want you to be so independent that if I'm not there, for whatever reason, you can think your way out of this situation. With my kids, they never come to me anymore. Maybe they unload their issues on me, but I'm not the consultant; I'm just the mom.
I can imagine it's a hard thing for parents to understand—giving your kid that much trust and independence.
These parents think they are doing the best for their kids, but they're not. You can support them, like a scaffold, but they need to do it—not you. There are some parents who think, Well I'm an adult, I know best, I've already been through all this, so I am going to do it because it's easier and more efficient. Why not? Well, the "why not" is because you disempower your child.
You said you started early with your kids. What does that mean? What does that look like?
I started very early. For example, I never clean up their room or toys. So when my daughters were young, I went and bought a little plastic pool and would put it in the middle of the living room. Every night they knew they needed to put their toys in the pool. That was "cleaning up." The habit stuck. So then we moved on from the pool, and it was putting things away in a cabinet. Then it was making sure their rooms were tidy. But they got in that pattern of always making sure the toys were put away in the evening when they were young. Early patterns are powerful. When parents do things for kids, they assume the kids will eventually grow out of it. But that's not true. I tell parents, "When you start doing things for kids, ask yourself: Do you want to do this for life?" Once you start, you're doing it forever.
Obviously, there are kids who are self-starters. But there are some out there who might be harder to push and motivate, especially as teens—what do you do?
What I can tell you is there is not a teen out there who does not want independence. So if there is a kid who doesn't want to do anything, it's a sign they're being controlled too much. If you are being controlled with no way of getting out, you give up. We have put kids in a system that is too rigid—thanks to No Child Left Behind. We give these kids a test, the teacher teaches to it, but there's no reasoning to why should I be learning this? Because the answer actually is, "Well you have to learn it because I told you to, and if you don't, you'll fail, and your parents will be upset." That's a terrible answer.
So your book is about your TRICK framework: Trust, Respect, Independence, Collaboration, Kindness. How do you start to implement this?
It would be great to start with T, trust, but starting with trust is hard. Actually, I recommend you start this backward: Start with K, kindness. When people are kind to you, and kind to each other, it invigorates the entire world. Move to C, collaboration. It's important to have an actual conversation with your kid and explain to them that this is going to be a joint effort. You both are going to work together. Once you've been able to have that collaboration, you can give them a little bit of I, Independence. Then R, show them respect. And after all that, trust will come. They'll gain so much confidence from this. Have you ever had someone in your life that you've looked up to, loved, respected, and trusted? And then all of a sudden they show you trust in return? It changes the view of yourself—all of a sudden you can believe in yourself.
If you could change anything about the current education model, what would it be?
I would get rid of the implications of testing. Of course we could still test, but it wouldn't be punitive. For example, you take your kid to the doctor, and maybe your child is taller or shorter than the average height for the age, but there's no penalty for that. It's just a measurement of where they are. With tests, it should be the same way: It should be informative. You take a test and you're not where you are supposed to be? OK, we'll help you with that. That's what school is supposed to be!